Natron glass production and supply in the late antique and early medieval Near East: The effect of the Byzantine-Islamic transition

Publication date: November 2016Source:Journal of Archaeological Science, Volume 75
Author(s): Matt Phelps, Ian C. Freestone, Yael Gorin-Rosen, Bernard Gratuze
Palestine and Egypt supplied the Mediterranean and Europe with virtually all of its glass for most of the first millennium CE. While the Muslim conquest in the 7th century saw major political and economic adjustment, immediate changes to material culture appear to have been minimal. This paper examines the impact of the Byzantine-Islamic transition on the natron glass industry of Palestine from the 7th to 12th century. A series of 133 well-contextualised glass vessels from selected excavations in modern day Israel have been analysed for major, minor and trace elements using LA-ICP-MS. These glasses are assigned to previously established primary production groups, allowing the elucidation of the chronology of key changes in glass production in the region. Results indicate a relatively abrupt compositional change in the late 7th – early 8th centuries, covering the reforming reigns of al-Malik and al-Walid, which marks the end of “Byzantine” glass production and the establishment of the furnaces at Bet Eli’ezer. At about this time there was an influx of glass of an Egyptian composition. Production of Bet Eli’ezer type glass appears to have been limited to a short time span, less than 50 years, after which natron glass production in Palestine ceased. Plant ash glass is first encountered in the late 8th-early 9th century, probably as a result of reduced local natron glass production creating the conditions in which plant ash glass technology was adopted. Egypt continued to produce natron glass for up to a century after its demise in Palestine. It is reasoned that the change and then collapse in natron glass production in Palestine may well have been as a consequence of a reduction in the quantities of available natron. This affected Palestine first, and Egypt up to 100 years later, which suggests that the factors causing the reduction in natron supply originated at the source and were long term and gradual, not short term events.