St John Simpson, Exhibition Curator
The exhibition Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World contains nineteen of the roughly 180 glass vessels found in the ancient Kushan storerooms at Begram. Many have very close parallels from the Roman world which also support a date of about 100 AD for the sealing of the rooms. These include mosaic glass and ribbed bowls, facet-cut beakers, a drinking horn, a jug decorated with gold foil, another that appears almost black, and a stunning series decorated with scenes painted in brightly coloured vitreous enamels. All functioned as tablewares but, whereas some are very common, others were probably relatively expensive.
However, some of the vessels found at Begram remain something of a mystery and these include as many as twenty-two which are in the shape of fish and other creatures. Three of these are shown in the exhibition. They were made by inflating the glass while it was hot and adding trails of glass to the body, and sometimes in a different colour, to create very distinctive fins. The composition of the glass resembles that of Roman glass made in Egypt yet there are no known parallels, either complete or fragmentary, for these vessels from the Roman world.
Some of the answers were provided at a conference held at the British Museum March 2011 when Dr David Whitehouse and Bull Gudenrath, both from the Corning Museum of Glass, spoke about the significance of the Begram glass and how the fish-shaped vessels were made. Bill drew gasps from the audience as first he showed a specially filmed video of him making a copy and then theatrically produced not just one, but two, copies at the front of the lecture theatre. He also showed that the techniques of making the glass fish were not particularly complicated although the way in which the fins were trailed were so distinctive that they could be regarded as the sign of a particular glass-worker.
The workshop where these were made remains unlocated and may never be found but David pointed out that this could be located somewhere in India as the first-century text known as The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea – a unique account of Red Sea and western Indian Ocean trade at this period – refers to the export not just of Roman glassware from Egypt but also raw glass. Much of this was probably turned into beads, bangles and inlays but the implication of the fish-shaped vessels from Begram is that some was fashioned into glass vessels by someone who had picked up the basics of glass-blowing and set up shop in a world where this was a complete novelty. It is not difficult to see how even the cheapest and most mass-produced types of Roman glassware were given exorbitant prices in places like India or Afghanistan in the first century but imagine the response when someone says they can make a vessel that looks like a fish, is unknown even in Rome and, to cap it all, rests perfectly on a table as its fins act as supports.
Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World is on at the British Museum until 17 July 2011.