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The story of glass

How studying the chemical composition of ancient glass objects reveals a hidden past
Vision Arts and Culture The story of glass

It was the original superhighway – the Silk Roads connected a vast network of overland and maritime routes that spanned thousands of miles between Europe and China.

The Silk Roads were an ancient conduit for humans, trade, languages and ideas, a fascinating example of international interaction that has mutually enriched the cultures of Eurasia and Africa for at least 2,000 years.

Among many other valuable items, glassware was traded far and wide throughout that period. 

By studying the chemical composition of these ancient glass objects we can understand more about where and how they were created – and how far they travelled along ancient trade routes like the Silk Roads. 

Silicon is part of that puzzle because it forms an essential component of all ancient glasses, from the very earliest dating back 4,500 years.

Silicon forms an essential component of all ancient glasses, from the very earliest dating back 4,500 years
Professor Julian Henderson

Using a combination of isotopic and chemical analysis, especially of plant ash glasses, and of the raw materials used to make them (plant ash and silica-quartz pebbles, sand and mineral colorants), many novel insights into glass technologies have been achieved, including their geological provenance and establishing centres of specialisation. In collaboration with an international team, our work provides the first detailed interdisciplinary definition of ‘Glass Roads’ across Eurasia which incorporates historical evidence. 

The research includes glass found in China, Vietnam, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Zanzibar, Kenya, Uzbekistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, the Lebanon, Turkey and western European countries. The research involves the first use of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance to investigate the structure of ancient glasses. 

By collaborating with chemists, materials scientists, geologists, historians, museum professionals and government institutions – especially in the UK and China – we are burnishing our knowledge of ancient life along the Silk Roads.

Julian Henderson

Julian Henderson is a Professor of Archaeological Science, Department of Classics and Archaelogy, and Li Dak Sum Chair Professor in Silk Road Studies, University of Nottingham Ningbo Campus

Vision magazine front cover - Issue 4, Autumn 2019

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