Portland vase. Photo by Carole Raddato.

Portland vase. Photo by Carole Raddato.

Message in a bottle

An artist, a physicist and a classicist at ANU may have together overturned a 2,000-year old theory about Roman glass making.

Experts in the area are debating whether a decorative glass making technique known as cameo glass was blown or cold-pressed.

At stake is the origin of the British Museum’s most famous example of Roman glass – the Portland Vase.

Its secrets could lie in air bubbles trapped within the glass of other ancient Roman artefacts.

The bubbles could prove experts have been wrong for hundreds of years about how the glass was made.

Associate Professor Richard Whiteley, a Master Glass Artist at the ANU School of Art and Design, is researching this issue by examining fragments of Roman cameo glass with a specialised scanner.

He is suggesting archaeologists, historians and museum curators have for centuries wrongly classified this glass, from the period of around 30BC–50AD, as blown glass.

And that includes the famous Portland Vase – hence the controversy about his view.

Unsurprisingly, he caused a stir when he presented his point of view to an historical glassworks conference at the British Museum in London late last year.

He was already known and respected internationally for his glass artworks.
He says his research, including his handworked glass, strongly indicates the Roman cameo glass was not blown, but was made by a cold-pressing process now known as pâte de verre.