Even the ancient Greeks recycled glass


Although this 1700 year old luxury villa was excavated and examined both in 1856 and in the 1990s, it still has secrets to reveal.

New secrets have now been revealed by an international research team, with Professor Kaare Lund Rasmussen leading so-called archaeometric analyses: using chemical analysis to determine what elements an object was made of, how it was processed , etc.

Other members of the team are Thomas Delbey from Cranfield University in England and classical archaeologists Birte Poulsen and Poul Pedersen from Aarhus University and SDU. The team’s work is published in the journal Heritage Science, including the archaeometric analysis of 19 mosaic tesserae around 1,600 years old.

One of the seven wonders of the world

The tesserae come from an excavation of a Late Antiquity villa, located in Halikarnassos (today Bodrum in Anatolia, Turkey). Halikarnassos was famous for the giant and lavish tomb of King Mausolus, considered one of the seven wonders of the world.

The villa was arranged around two courtyards and the many rooms were decorated with mosaic floors. In addition to geometric patterns, there were also patterns of various mythological figures and scenes taken from Greek mythology; for example the princess Europa kidnapped by the god Zeus in the form of a bull and Aphrodite at sea in her shell.

Motifs taken from the stories of the much younger Roman author Virgil are also depicted.

Ground inscriptions revealed that the owner was called Charidemos and that the villa was built in the middle of the 5th century.

An expensive luxury

Mosaic floors were an expensive luxury: expensive raw materials like white, green, black marble and other colors had to be transported from distant quarries. Other stone, ceramic and glass materials also had to be imported.

I received 19 mosaic tesserae for analysis in my laboratory in Denmark. Of these, seven were made of glass of various colors; purple, yellow, red and dark red. My conclusion is that six of them are probably made of recycled glass, explains Kaare Lund Rasmussen.

This conclusion is based on a chemical analysis called inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry. With it, the research team determined the concentrations of no less than 27 elements, some of them down to a concentration of billionths of a gram.

Decline of the Roman Empire

We were able to distinguish between base glass from Egypt and base glass from the Middle East and also we were able to determine what elements were added by the ancient craftsmen to color the glasses and make them opaque, which was favorite at the time, he says. .

It is of course difficult to extrapolate from only seven glass mosaic tesserae, but the new results correspond very well to the image of Anatolia in Late Antiquity. As the power of the Roman Empire waned, trade routes were closed or diverted, which likely led to a shortage of goods in many places – including raw materials for the production of glass in Anatolia.

This, combined with the stories depicted on the floors, allows classical archaeologists to paint a more detailed picture of what was fashionable in Late Antiquity and the possibilities for artistic development.

Reference: Rasmussen KL, Delbey T, Jørgensen B, Jensen KH, Poulsen B, Pedersen P. Mosaic materials and technology from the House of Charidemos at Halikarnassos (Bodrum, Turkey). Inherits Sci. 2022;10(1):62. do I:10.1186/s40494-022-00697-3

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