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Archaeology in Israel: The Glass from Sepphoris

by Joan Keller, Glass Historian University of South Florida

M. L. Trowbridge, in his 1928, "Philological Studies in Ancient Glass", wrote that it had been stated by a scholar in the field of glass studies that to the Greeks of the classical age, "glass was something rather foreign; to the Romans of the 1st. C. After Christ, something new." (Trowbridge, p. 150) neither of these statements mention, in fact, any reference to the Jews. According to the Mishna and Talmud and other post-biblical writings, (from about the 1st c. BCE to the 6th. C. CE), glassmaking was a common Jewish craft and was the subject of laws, legends and regulations which throw light on every branch of the industry. For example, a midrash illuminates that statement, "even as from the sand which he puts into the flame a man gets a transparent mass from which he makes a vessel of glass, even as the Jews came forth from the fire. (Midrash Deuteronomy Rabbah, Chap. 2.) Rabbi Jose taught, "if a vessel of glass, made with breath blown by a mortal, can be reshaped if it is broken, how much more true is this of a human being made with breath blown by the Holy One, blessed be He..." (Midrash, Psalms, 2.11) "that Jews, too, produced glass is evident from references to glass maker's tools and furnaces in the Mishna and Tosephta, as well as from the remains of a glass factory at Beth She'arim and a number of objects decorated with menorah and other Jewish symbols. The archaeological data are of no aid in assessing the scope of Jewish glass makers, though this should not lead to exaggerations in either direction." (Barag, p. vi)

Sepphoris was a center of talmudic study. Many academies were located there. Also its location on or near major trade routes in the lower Galilee, made it a prime market for traders of all commodities. It was, for most of its flourishing years, a thriving city with a large enough population to require a great variety of different products. What better place to explore the glass market! Economic times were not always good, however, and it seems that according to Stuart Miller, in his 1980 dissertation, "The Studies in the History and Tradition of Sepphoris", the rabbinical scholars who helped compile the Talmud and Mishna frequently earned their living by working in what seems to be most humble occupations - carpenters, shoemakers, potters and smiths among them. One is tempted to believe, therefore, that glass makers, glassware manufacturers, or glass merchants, must have been among this group. R. Johanan, who was born in Sepphoris, was for most of his life, the head of the academy at Tiberius. He had the by-name of bar Nappakha, "son of a smith". "Son" in this case, meant that he was a member of a guild of smiths, according to I. Mendelsohn's 1940 publication, "Guilds in Ancient Palestine". He continues,the use of son is illustrated in an interesting statement in the Midrash, "one who loved him called him "son of a goldsmith"; one who hated him would call him , "son of a potter"; one who neither loved nor hated him, would call him "son of a glassmaker" (Midrash Numbers 11:17). The fact that glassmakers bought glass in bulk to rework on their own premises, and that along with glassware was conveyed by sacks and baskets,on the backs of donkeys (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbath, 154b), suggests that the glass business in some form or another, was carried on frequently as a home industry in ancient Palestine. The products would then be marketed by peddlers circulating around the countryside, collecting merchandise to be sold at the great fairs at Akko , Tyre, and Sidon. Interestingly enough, the coins found at Sepphoris have been identified as those from Ashkelon, Tyre, Sidon, Dor, and other Byzantine And arab issues. (Miller, p. 5-6). It is possible that a number of these communities banded together in trading and marketing arrangements as was the case with regard to Kfar Hananiah, the center of a closely-settled area on the border of upper & lower Galilee. According to the Palestinian Talmud, (Ma'asroth ii.3/2 49d), there was a group of 4 or 5 villages which stood in some special form of trading arrangement with K'far Hannaniah. The men of that place spent their whole time circulating among these villages, only returning to their home to sleep. The same situation might apply to another community, K'far Shikhnin, which like K'far Hannaniah, was famous for its pottery. Kfar Shikhnin is located on a promontory just to the north of Sepphoris. This literary evidence, suggests a consideration that if the dispersal of glass and glassware followed that of pottery, it might follow that Sepphoris may have been part of a far-flung but coordinated trading organization.

Before considering the amount and diversity of glass forms found at the site, mention should be made of some of the general and specific observations of other researchers in the field that are certainly relevant to our study. There is general agreement that after the process of free-blowing was perfected, it spread rapidly along the near eastern trade routes and became available to those cities and towns requiring the product. Also the forms seem to be pretty universal throughout the north, east, south and west in the ancient world. Paul Parrot, former director of the Corning Museum of Glass, wrote the introductory remarks to the Jalame volume. He stated that, "we have confirmed what the Talmud suggests, that the raw materials were melted into ingots or cullet in one place and then shipped to be remelted and shaped into objects in another". (Weinberg, p. Xii.) Weinberg mentions, for example, a marked change that occurred in the economy in Jalame in 351, "most vividly reflected in the sudden increase in the number of coins found...explained only by assuming a great increase of commercial activity...associated with a glass factory...". This drastic change must be associated with the cataclysmic events associated with the Gallus Revolt which erupted in Sepphoris in June of that year . This event affected the Galilee especially, and according to Avi-Yonah, after the rebellion was put down , "no Jews are mentioned in three cities and fifteen villages, most of them in the Galilee. " (Avi-Yonah, M., p. 180). To pursue this further, and thus consider again the possibility of a 'Sepphoris' connection, let us consider Weinberg's observation that the Jalame factory was in no sense a pioneer establishment; "the glassblowers certainly worked elsewhere before and they and their successors probably continued to work at other places after leaving Jalame." (Weinberg, p. 24). It certainly seems conceivable that with the possible destruction of the market at Sepphoris in 351, and the establishment of the glass factory at Jalame during the same year, glassware workers may have moved on to pursue their livelihood. This assumption is strengthened by a comment made by Meyers in her Jerash report when she mentions that "it seemed cheaper in the long run to import a glass-worker than to import the product. " (Meyers, p. 281). To move on to other observations concerning ancient glass production, Von Saldern, in his "Ancient and Byzantine Glass from Sardis", stated that shortly before and after AD 400 when western Roman rule diminished greatly or had ceased to exist altogether in the east and west, glass manufacture suffered a noticeable reduction in output and quality of work. He continues that particularly in Palestine, ordinary hollow glassware, windows and tesserae were probably the sole products of workshops that catered to a clientele satisfied w/ simple glass utensils for everyday use. Everyday forms gave way to a more limited variety of shapes, decorative devices were kept to a minimum, and the total number of objects seem to have been much less than in the 3rd. & 4th. C. (Von Saldern, pps. 1-2) however, Barag does not agree entirely. Even though "...A slow and continuous decline sets in and the glass types of the byzantine period are mostly degenerated forms of earlier types" and that "the repertory also decreased considerably...", He suggests that factories within the eastern Roman empire continued to make glass that was very similar to that of the 4th. C. The basic forms & the predominant fabric of the 4th.C. (syrian blue-green), continued to be used in the 5th. & 6th. C. He continues that "there is, however, no evidence of decline in the quantities produced, nor is there evidence for a decline in quality of the fabric employed." (Barag, p. iv)

The excavated areas at Sepphoris, thus far have yielded public buildings and baths, residential areas, an amphitheater, market building, industrial installations mikvaoth, cisterns, and a complex drainage system.

The corpus of cataloged glass at Sepphoris through 1991 belongs to the time period from mid-Hellenistic, (mid 2nd. C. BCE-) through what we call Arab II, ( 13th.C. C.E.). The highest concentration falls within the 4th. C. Most common are bowls with various types of rims, followed by bottles of various types from storage vessels to small unguent or cosmetic bottles. Most forms seem to be utilitarian and there are innumerable fragments of window glass, lamps, jugs, cups, and objects, such as tubes, cosmetic tools, and jewelry. Also there are many fragments so fused together that they seem to have been in a very hot damaging conflagration. Still others were manufactured so poorly, or are so disfigured, that it is considered that they may have been put aside to be recycled into cullet which could then be resold to the glassware maker.

Since there are no complete vessels or objects, one must agree with Weinberg when she states that "...classification is often difficult when fragments constitute the chief evidence." (Weinberg, p.38). It is obvious that the glassmakers were accustomed to producing many kinds of rims and bases & that they assembled these in various ways. Therefore it is not always certain whether a particular base fragment for example, belongs to a shallow bowl, cup or dish. This has certainly been found to be the case, in that we have multiple types of feet, bottoms, bases, or handle fragments that cannot be identified definitely as part of a particular vessel. The same holds true for similar rim diameters that could be identified with cups, bottles, or small bowls. We have to be constantly on the look-out for subtle differences and multiple criteria that help us to narrow down the identification of forms. We have classified these questionable fragments as 'unidentified' up to this point.

The period of time covered by our investigation of glass finds at Sepphoris is the 1983 through 1991 excavation seasons. The number of pieces cataloged are 779. Of these the total number of identifiable forms from all fields are 535. I have not processed window glass, cullet, slag, or handles unless they are applied to a readable rim. The break-down of forms is 238 bowls, 142 bottles, 81 cups, 16 jars, 12 lamps, 13 pieces of jewelry, 10 jugs, 12 goblets, and 18 fragments of various small objects, for example, rods, tubes, discs, and game pieces. There are 244 unidentifiable fragments. Approximately twice the number of identifiable forms come from field V where the mercantile and industrial areas have been excavated, as compared to all of those pieces from fields I through IV. These numbers may change as the 1992-'94 fragments are evaluated. At least 2000 fragments were found in three drains in field V in 1993 alone. Also there is a possibility that the areas of field I may be reopened before the final excavations are completed.

The most common form identified from all fields was the bowl of various depths, with some variety of rounded thickened rim, which is not unusual, as this seems to be the case at most of the sites used as parallels. We do have two most unusual pieces that fall within the bowl category that bear mentioning: one is an example of a bowl with the thickened rim, however, it has a shallow groove that runs along the middle of the lip of the rim that closely parallels what we call the ceramic "Galilean bowl" , first identified by one of our former excavation projects in the upper Galilee in the 1970's. Thus far, I have been unable to find a glass parallel to this form. Another bowl with a double-fold rim, that has been found at Bet Shearim with a rim d. of 52cm., has also been found at our site with a 57cm. rim d., The largest one seen by Dr. David Whitehouse at the Corning Museum, at least as of Fall, 1993 (his personal observation).

To date, I have utilized 14 site reports and 5 museum collection catalogs to search out the parallels for our glass finds. By far, the majority of our identifiable forms parallel those cataloged at Jalame, the site of a glass factory in late Roman Palestine located east of Haifa. The excavations at that site resulted in a volume edited by Gladys Weinberg, published in 1988. According to Paul Perrot, former director of the Corning Museum, in his introductory remarks, the factory was in full production between 351 - 383 CE, mainly based on the large number of coins dating from about that time period, with very few dating before and after. ("Weinberg", p. Xii) following closely behind Jalame, are Hanita and Nahariya, published by Dan Barag; Crowfoot's, Samaria, Harden's Karanis in Egypt, and Vessberg's Cyprus. We have a few unique rims with parallels at Meiron and Khirbet Shema, and some from Bet She'arim and Shavei Zion. Parallels to our goblets and lamps are consistently found at Sardis, rather than primarily at Jalame, which was a surprise as, in fact, Weinberg reported finding very few of these forms. The cast grooved bowls were also found at Tel Anafa, and are illustrated in the Toledo Museum of Art catalog. They dated from mid 2nd. C, BCE to 1st. C. CE. However, the majority of our forms for which parallels were found carried a 4th. C. dating. This does not mean that the same form was not produced on a continuing basis for some time to come. Some of the small bottles were produced from 1st. through the 4th. C. The other forms were dated somewhere between the earliest, which we have mentioned, through the 13th. C. Of course modern pieces were found on the surface and in modern fill.

In summary:

  • 1. There are no complete vessels or objects.

  • 2. There is very little early or late luxury glass except a few Islamic pieces (a decorated gaming piece and a fragment with multicolored feather and combed design).

  • 3. We consider that most of our finds are for utilitarian use.

  • 4. The predominant color or shades of color are blue-green, various shades of green, yellow-green, blue, and colorless. There are a few pieces of amber, deeper blue, and black.

  • 5. The majority of decorative motifs consist of wound threads of the same or contrasting color as the vessel. There are a few vessels with horizontal stripes of contrasting colors.

  • 6. The weathering was mostly white or creamy white with a lot of iridescence. Some pieces had very dark to black weathering.

  • 7. The glass finds have been considered in context with the dating of coins, pottery, mosaics and standing architecture where possible.

  • 8. We do not have conclusive evidence that glass or glassware was produced at Sepphoris, except, perhaps a mama-papa type recycling operation. (one other has been found in another area on the site.) however, with the quantity of glass fragments found elsewhere, along with waste, what seems to be raw glass, and a number of what may be limestone crucibles, some lined with glass, it certainly warrants continued investigation.

In conclusion, we plan to continue to evaluate and to catalog the vast quantity of glass fragments that will probably continue to be found throughout the rest of our excavations at Sepphoris. In so far as is possible, we will identify and draw the forms, offering as much detail as possible concerning each individual fragment. Eventually we hope to produce a volume that will offer enough definitive information on the Sepphoris glass finds so that we will have a well researched corpus of glass that will aid other excavation projects in the processing and publication of their material. The Galilean region seems to be rich in glass finds which deserve to be published. It is our hope that our efforts will further the development of a corpus of glass unique to that region and perhaps beyond.


  • Avi - Yonah, M. The Jews of Palestine: A Political History From the Bar Kokhba War to the Arab Conquest New York, 1976.
  • Barag, Dan, "Glass Vessels of the Roman and Byzantine Periods in Palestine," diss. (Hebrew), Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 1970.
  • Engle, Anita, "Readings in Glass History, # 1 , Phoenix Publications, Jerusalem, 1973.
  • Mendelsohn, I., "Guilds in Ancient Palestine", BASOR, # 80, 1940
  • Meyers,Carol, "Glass From the North Theater, Byzantine Church and Soundings at Jerash, Jordan, Supplement #25. Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, 1982 - 83.
  • Midrash, Deuteronomy Rabbah, Chapter 2.
  • Midrash, Numbers, 11:17.
  • Midrash, Psalms, 2:1.
  • Miller, Stuart, "The Studies In the History and Traditions of Sepphoris" diss., N.Y. University, 1980.
  • Trowbridge, M. L., Philological Studies in Ancient Glass, Urbana, 1928.
  • Von Saldern, Axel, "Ancient and Byzantine Glass From Sardis," Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Mass., London, England, 1980.
  • Weinberg, Gladys, (Editor), "Excavations at Jalame Site of a Glass Factory in Roman Palestine," University of Michigan Press, Columbia, Mo., 1988.

Sources: Colby College. Hypertext version by Thomas R. W. Longstaff © 1994, reprinted with permission.