British Museum blog

Colourful glass adornments from Egypt: an 18th-dynasty enigma

Anna Hodgkinson, Research Fellow, British Museum

The author inspecting the glass objects

The Egyptian 18th Dynasty (around 1545-1290 BC) is renowned for the quality of glass production, particularly vessels such as the famous bottle in the form of a fish from Amarna. I have spent the last three months in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan studying a less well-known group of glass objects from the same period.

These have been widely interpreted as ‘ear-plugs’ or ‘ear-studs’. I was intrigued: how did this interpretation come into existence? The overall form of the – very colourful – glass objects resembles that of mushroom- or papyrus-shaped ear-studs, frequently found in New Kingdom contexts, with a large number coming from Amarna and depicted on tomb scenes and mummy cartonnages. However, what struck me as unusual was that all the examples in the British Museum have a small hole running through the centre of the object. Although scholars refer to these items as ‘ear-studs’ or ‘ear-plugs’, publications from over a century ago, including some by Sir Flinders Petrie and bead specialist Horace C. Beck, call them beads or amulets, because of this piercing.

The glass objects laid out during the documentation process

The objects were produced by wrapping molten glass rods around a metal rod; however, this procedure would not have necessitated a complete piercing. Scholars have suggested that the frontal hole, which would be visible if these items were worn through a pierced ear-lobe, may have accommodated a fresh flower. While this is conceivable, I would rather interpret these items as beads, since most of them have a spiral-decorated shaft. This shaft would be invisible when worn through the ear-lobe. The beads could have been threaded horizontally or vertically, worn in collars or on the ends of wigs.

Unfortunately, there is no pictorial nor three-dimensional evidence for how these objects were worn, nor do the archaeological contexts tell us much about their use. Most have been found individually, rather than in pairs, and those that appear on the art market and in private collections are usually without provenance (i.e. information about the context in which they were originally excavated or found). This shows that we must be cautious with how objects are designated, because they may be based on conjecture rather than evidence.

My time in the British Museum has allowed the updating of nearly 240 records of items of glass jewellery of the New Kingdom with full descriptions and measurements, and full photographic documentation, accessible to all through the Museum’s Collection online.

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The Lycurgus Cup: transformation in glass

detail of Lycurgus cupBelinda Crerar, curator, British Museum

The Romans are famous for doing things ‘big’ – enormous private villas, the largest armies the world had ever seen, huge temples to house countless gods and of course, larger than life personalities. The power, wealth and splendour of Rome are clear to see when you approach the Late Roman and Byzantine displays in the Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery of Sutton Hoo and Europe, AD 300–1100. Facing you are cabinets full of gold and silver – hoards of tableware from Cyprus and Rome, bracelets and earrings encrusted with precious gems, gold crosses declaring a love of Christ in the most ostentatious way. It’s safe to say that the Roman aristocracy liked to show off their wealth, but, for the quantity of gold and silver used to craft the treasures in the gallery, the one that contains the least shines the most.

The Lycurgus cup being installed by project curator Rosie Weetch in Room 41

The Lycurgus cup being installed by project curator Rosie Weetch in Room 41

At the centre of the display is the Lycurgus Cup. A Late Roman diatretum, or cage cup, it was carved around the 4th century AD. Its exact provenance is unknown, but it was possibly created in Alexandria on account of the fine glasswork emerging from Egypt at this time. Decorated on all sides with figures painstakingly carved in high relief, the cup shows the myth of the Thracian king Lycurgus, who enraged the god Dionysus by expelling him from his kingdom and attacking his followers. Needless to say, things didn’t end well for Lycurgus, though precisely how depends on who told the story. The version depicted on the cup was told by Nonnus of Panopolis in his 48-book-long epic, the Dionysiaca. Nonnus recounts how Lycurgus attacked a female follower of Dionysus called Ambrosia. To save her, Mother Earth transformed her into a vine which ensnared Lycurgus as it grew. On the cup, Ambrosia lies on the ground in the moment of transformation while the hapless king fights for his life against the emerging tendrils. Dionysus watches, remorseless, while the fawn-legged god Pan and one of Dionysus’ followers taunt their victim and pummel him with rocks.

The carving is of exceptional skill and the preservation of the vessel is unparalleled, but the most impressive element of the cup’s design comes from an feature that cannot be seen with the naked eye. In reflected light the cup appears opaque olive green, but when transmitted light is shone through the glass, it changes to a rich and vibrant red. The effect is caused by nanoparticles of gold and silver within the glass, so tiny and in such small quantities that only in the last few decades has microscopic analysis with sufficiently high resolution been developed to detect them. As light passes through the glass the gold and silver particles scatter the waves, allowing those at the red end of the spectrum to pass though more easily, causing the dramatic colour change. The cup’s modern name is likely to be a misnomer: the original use for the vessel was possibly as a hanging lamp, only being transformed into a cup when the gilt-silver foot and rim band were added in the 19th century. As a lamp, flickering over the dinner table, the optical properties of the glass would be shown to their full effect for all to admire, although admittedly, no one has yet been brave enough to fill the fragile, 2000 year old vessel with wine and observe the effects of light through it when full.

The Lycurgus Cup, shown with transmitted light

The Lycurgus Cup, shown with transmitted light

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The change of colour from green to red mimics the ripening of grapes, suitable for the Dionysian theme, but whether or not the dichroic effect was deliberate or the fortunate result of contamination in the molten glass is still unclear. Nonetheless, the optical trick of this rare form of glass delighted the Roman aristocracy so much that it attracted the attention of emperors: the author of the 4th-century Historia Augusta reports that the Emperor Hadrian sent ‘a cup that changes colour’ to his brother-in-law as a gift for his banquets. It would, after all, make a fantastic conversation piece, and if its later life is anything to go by – likely preserved above ground throughout the centuries, on account of its almost perfect state of preservation, acquired by the Rothschild family in the 1800s then bought by the British Museum in 1958 – the Lycurgus Cup has lost none of its appeal.

The Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery of Sutton Hoo and Europe, AD 300–1100 recently opened after a major re-display in Room 41. Admission is free.

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