Jalame, 1963-1971

Image: Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, New York

Viewers of the Netflix competition series Blown Away will be familiar both with the mesmerising transformations that take place under extreme heat as glass is blown, shaped, and decorated, and with the Corning Museum of Glass in upstate New York, which provides a residency to the winner of the series. But as well as the contemporary art of glass, the Corning Museum has long been involved in the study of ancient glass.

Between 1963 and 1971, in partnership with the University of Missouri, Columbia, the museum conducted excavations at Jalame in Israel, under the direction of Gladys Weinberg. At the site, the excavated area of which is shown above, the team found chunks of raw glass and parts of a furnace, which would have had to reach 1,000°C to be able to make glass from sand (most likely sourced from the nearby Belus, or Na’man, River, mentioned by Pliny) and mineral soda.

Image: Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, New York

So Jalame was home to a glass workshop, active around AD 350-400. The debris and quantities of fragments of glass vessels unearthed during the excavations show that it was not just the site of glassmaking, but also of glassblowing – the act of making finished vessels and objects. While raw glass was made in coastal areas in the eastern Mediterranean, it was often traded across the Roman Empire to be worked into finished vessels by glassblowers elsewhere, ready for their own local customers. At Jalame and other workshops in the region discovered since, the two activities went hand in hand to produce utilitarian tableware such as bowls, plates, and drinking glasses, and perfume bottles for nearby residents in the 4th century AD. Examples of typical glassware from the area include the 4th-century eastern Mediterranean jug right.

Most of these workshops seem to have been short-lived, according to Katherine Larson, the Corning Museum’s curator of ancient glass. The workers would then move on to other nearby sites, possibly driven by the availability of sources of fuel.

Based on archaeological evidence from Jalame, the Corning Museum recently built a wood-fired furnace out of daub, in which glassblowers have been recreating objects from the site.

Dig Deeper: discovering an ancient glass workshop runs at the Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, New York, from 13 May to 7 January 2024 (https://cmog.org/dig-deeper). Visitors can see the new furnace in action in weekly demonstrations during summer 2023.