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Near East

Trefoil Pitcher 3rd-4th cent. CE

Published onSep 09, 2020
Near East

Trefoil Pitcher, 3rd – 4th cent CE 

Blown Glass 

Gift of Ann and Henry Brunnier. In the Permanent Collection of the Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa.  


The origins of glassmaking are unknown. Many believe glassmaking was first invented in Mesopotamia more than 4,000 years ago. Pliny, a Roman historian working in the 1st century CE, believed that it was the Phoenician sailors who were the first to invent glass when they set a fire on the beach to cook dinner. To their surprise, the fire melted the silica-rich sand and the liquid later cooled and hardened into glass.

The invention of blowing glass developed after 50 BCE in the Roman Empire and revolutionized glassmaking, enabling artisans to manipulate molten glass more efficiently. Blown glass drinking vessels quickly supplanted ceramic vessels because of their pleasing array of colors, light weight and transparency. Glass became so affordable that wealthier Romans spurned its use. The Roman Emperor, Galienus, who despised glass vessels, drank only from gold cups. He said nothing could be more common than glass.

Merchants during this period transported and sold many foodstuffs in glass bottles and jars. The Trefoil pitcher, however, seems to have been created as a functional object for use in everyday life. Vessels such as this would have been a staple in the dining rooms and pantries of those in the Ancient Mediterranean. The pitcher would have been used to hold and liquids a family might need to store. Glass was a superior material because it was impervious to the oils and other liquids that were originally stored in porous unglazed ceramics. It is said that ancient glass replaced ceramics in one generation.

Variations in glass shapes in this period are endless. It was common to decorate and shape glasswork while it was still hot and pliable. This is how they achieved the tri-folded spout. Elegant pitchers were often decorated with elaborate handles and applied decoration that were “cold carved” after the vessels creation through glass blowing. They were carved out after the glass had started to cool down and were then applied to the pitcher. A simple flared funnel style rim could be pinched into a practical pouring spout. Ancient glass, originally colored a dull green or brown, transformed with brilliant iridescences due to centuries of oxidization and exposure to the elements. It was these ancient glasswares, that were discovered in archeological digs during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

You are looking at one of the earliest versions of blown glass in the world.

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