A Fragile Heritage
Aspects of Historic Glass
Cambridge - Wednesday 6th September 2017

Alicia Van Ham-Meert
<[email protected]>

article posted 4 Apr 2017

Chemical engineer by training the presenting author has always had an interest in the field of archaeological science. After completing an MSc in archaeological Science at Oxford University (Merton College), she is pursuing a PhD in the development of (nearly) non-destructive elemental and isotopic analysis tools for the study of ancient artefacts, particularly glass material.

A plant ash glass workshop in first century Dibba
Alicia Van Ham-Meert 1,2, Bruno Overlaet3, Philippe Claeys2,
Patrick Degryse1 Sabah Jasim4, Eisa Yousif4

During the Roman period the dominant glass composition was natron glass (Wedepohl, 2011). Though mostly produced in the Levant region of the Roman Empire this is also widely exported, to the rest of the world including the South-East of the Arab peninsula (Whitehouse, 2000).

Dibba Al Hisn is a city with a seafaring port situated on the gulf of Oman in the emirate of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. During excavations started in 2007, 4 subsequent levels were found (Jasim and Yousif, 2014). Level III (dated to the 1st century CE) consisted of a 52 small rooms with mudbrick walls. It seems the purpose of the rooms was mainly storage. Different rooms contained different material such as shells or with bitumen filled amphorae (Jasim and Yousif, 2014). Room 21 was littered with glass waste, broken vessels and ingots. The broken vessels are similar to those found in the graves around Dibba and which have no typological equivalent outside the region (Jasim, 2006). In the graves and more widely in Dibba glass objects with a Roman origin have also been excavated (Jasim, 2006, Whitehouse, 2000), within the ceramic assemblage there is material from a variety of origins amongst which the Roman empire as well as Mesopotamia.

As a harbour town Dibba had strong trade links overseas and through caravan trade with the east, the west and the north. The presence of this glass workshop with green and amber glass was intriguing and hence this material has been further investigated. Elemental analysis revealed that the glass was soda ash glass. Most Roman period glass assemblages contain one or two soda ash glasses which are often not really dealt with. This workshop offers the possibility to further investigate roman-period plant ash glass. It shows that there clearly were workshops where plant ash glass was worked and this before the attested plant ash glasses from the Sasanian empire.

Furthermore it corroborates a local production of the typical vessels found in the graves. This paper explores how the elemental composition can shed light on production technology and location. The elemental and Sr-isotopic composition of the glass are also compared with contemporary glasses from the area. Furthermore it explores what this discovery means for our understanding of the south eastern Arab Peninsula in the first century AD.


Jasim, S.A., 2006. Trade centres and commercial routes in the Arabian Gulf: Post-Hellenistic discoveries at Dibba, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy, 17, 214-237.

Jasim, S., Yousif, E., 2014. Dibba: An ancient port on the Gulf of Oman in the early Roman era. Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy, 25, 50-79.

Wedepohl, K.H., Simon, K., Kronz, A., 2011. Data on 61 chemical elements for the characterization of three major glass compositions in late antiquity and the middle ages. Archaeometry, 53, 81-102.

Whitehouse, D., 2000. Ancient glass from ed-Dur (Umm al-Qaiwain, U.A.E.) 2. glass excavated by the Danish expedition. Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy, 11, 87-128.


1 Earth and Environmental Science, Centre for archaeological Science, KULeuven, Celestijnenlaan 200E, 3001 Heverlee (Belgium)

2 Analytical, Environmental and Geo-Chemistry, VUB, Pleinlaan 2, 1050 Brussels (Belgium)

3 Ancient Near East and Iran, Royal Museums of Art and History, Jubelpark 10, B-1000 Brussels (Belgium)

4 Sharjah Archaeology Authority, Sheikh Rashid Bin Saqr Al Qasimi Street, Helwan, Sharjah (United Arab Emirates).