The use of vitrum obsianum in the Roman Empire: some new insights and future prospects
Faculty of Sciences. Chemistry
Periodico di mineralogia. - Roma, s.a.
, p. 465-482
University of Antwerp
The research on the use of obsidian in the Mediterranean is extensive but concerns almost exclusively volcanic glass from prehistoric and Bronze Age contexts. The consumption of obsidian during the Roman imperial period, however, has only occasionally received attention. Never a comprehensive account on what the Romans made in vitrum obsianum has been set up, nor have the sources exploited by them been examined. This paper provides a concise overview of the current knowledge on obsidian during the Roman imperial period and offers an introductory outline on potential research. The ancient writers inform us about the use of volcanic glass to create exclusive vessels, gemstones, mirrors and sculpture, but also about the creation of black appearing man-made glass initiated as a cheap and easier workable substitute of obsidian. The archaeological data on the other hand propose a more complex story with the occurrence of obsidian chunks in early Roman secondary glass workshops, and the bulky use of obsidian in late Antiquity to produce tesserae for the creation of wall and vault mosaics. Because it is extremely difficult to visually distinguish natural obsidian from man-made glass imitations we present in this paper data collected by means of non-destructive chemico-physical analyses SEM-EDX, portable X-ray fluorescence (p-XRF) and Raman spectroscopy to easily distinguish man-made glass from natural obsidian. In particular the use of portable instruments makes possible in situ analysis of objects in archaeological depots or museum collections to help defining distribution networks to better understand the shifting consumption patterns in Antiquity.