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Exploring Value through Roman Glass from Karanis, Egypt


In this multi-disciplinary study of Roman glass from Karanis, Egypt, I combine archaeological, chemical compositional data, ethnoarchaeology, and historical insights to assess how objects were valued in the ancient world. The series of physical actions carried out and decisions made during the production of an artifact, in short, the chaîne opératoire, reflect shared concepts of value. By considering an object not as an end product, but as the result of a chaîne opératoire, I have been able to intimate the social agency underwriting the production process. My ethnoarchaeological study of modern glass workers in Cairo and in Hampshire, UK helps to reconstruct the chaîne opératoire of glass manufacturing and identifies relationships between value and ancient technology. Following the chaîne opératoire of glass manufacturing informed by chemical, morphological, and contextual analyses, I reconstruct object biographies of recently excavated artifacts from Karanis dating primarily to the late Roman period (4th-6th centuries CE).

Through onsite portable X-ray fluorescence (pXRF) spectrometry analysis of recently excavated Karanis glass, I investigate the selection of raw materials. This research, combined with pXRF and electron probe micro-analysis (EPMA) of museum specimens from Karanis, helps distinguish glass compositional groups. These compositional groups are identified through quantitative analysis of these data and consideration of the detection and accuracy limitations of pXRF. At least two compositional groups identified most likely represent recycled glass due to the presence of both manganese and antimony above trace levels. This research contributes to the debate regarding the location, organization, and scale of glass manufacturing during the Roman period. The combination of analytical, historical, and archaeological evidence allows me to assemble the life history of certain glass vessel types--unguentaria, rectangular bottles, and oil flasks—demonstrating relationships among phases of the chaîne opératoire of glass manufacturing and the social function of objects.

In the late Roman period, an age when blown glass was commoditized and available to a broader demographic, only particular objects were considered luxury items. Karanidians tried to set themselves apart by using high-quality colorless oil flasks in the public sphere without ignoring the utility of glass as a container for oils and other commodities. For glass vessels that were most likely valued for the materials inside them rather than for the glass objects themselves, manufacturers preferred to use recycled glass. The diverse, yet complementary research techniques employed in this study expose the interplay between objects and social phenomena.

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