From the Black Sea to the Cotswolds: Rare glass fish fragment sheds new light on Roman Britain

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Part of an 1,800 year-old glass fish, the only one of its type ever discovered in Britain, has been discovered at the National Trust’s Chedworth Roman Villa in Gloucestershire.

The find – so rare it has taken glass experts around the world two years to identify it – sheds new light on the wealth and influence of those who imported it from the Black Sea more than a millennium ago.

The shard of blue-green glass with an unusual fish scale pattern has been identified as coming from a fish-shaped bottle imported from what is now Ukraine and may have been used to hold exotic perfume.

 

Although found in the summer of 2017 it has taken until now to identify the type of bottle the fragment came from because of its exceptional rarity. The Trust sent it to leading Roman glass expert, the late Professor Jennifer Price, who in turn sought advice from other glass experts across the world before the mystery was solved.

The glass was blown by hand with a distinctive profile showing that it came from a long bottle with an oval shape and a sharp taper at the end. It was likely a small flask with the fish’s open mouth forming the aperture of the vessel.

Professor Price eventually found it matched a fish-shaped bottle that had been restored from many pieces, at the Corning Museum of Glass in New York. By comparing the two examples, she concluded the Chedworth piece came from near the ‘tail’ of the fish bottle.

The only other example of such a fish-shaped Roman bottle comes from a 2nd-century burial in Crimea.

The technique used to make the Chedworth bottle was unusual, with decoration laid on top of the blue-green surface to create ‘scales’ in loops of white and yellow. It was more common to incorporate different colours into the body of the vessel itself.

Nancy Grace, the National Trust archaeologist who led the detective work to investigate the find, said it had puzzled many people.

“People have been enchanted by it, but it has also been a long and difficult journey. To have found that it is the only one of its type so far discovered in Roman Britain adds to our knowledge of the importance of Chedworth Roman Villa.

Nancy continued: “Other objects found at the villa show it was home to somebody of wealth and status. That such an exotic thing was brought from so far away underlines that the occupants were in touch with the furthest regions of the Roman Empire and wanted to show off that influence.

Fragment above artist’s impression of how the fish bottle would have looked. © National Trust / Rod Kirkpatrick / F Stop Press

“It is amazing that a small fragment has told us so much.”

The fragment from the bottle was found by Peter Moore, an archaeologist and Masters student at the University of York who was helping with a dig to understand more about the north wing of the villa.

Peter said: “When it appeared, the first wipe of the surface showed the colour and it quickly became apparent it was something special. Excavating anything at Chedworth and knowing that you are the first person to gaze upon it for at least 1,800 years is a feeling that never tires, the memory of recovering this piece of glass certainly will not.

“Recovering such a unique find is incredibly humbling, it will no doubt prove a talking point for years to come. I am delighted that it will be displayed at the villa, enabling visitors and future generations to marvel at its beauty.”

Nancy Grace concluded: “This find shows there is still more for Chedworth to tell us about Roman life in this corner of Gloucestershire.”

The fragment is going on display at the villa as part of the Festival of Archaeology (until 28 July) and will remain on display throughout summer.

For opening times and further information about Chedworth Roman Villa visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/chedworth

Header Image – A fragment from an 1,800 year-old glass fish found by archaeologists at the National Trust’s Chedworth Roman Villa in Gloucestershire is the first discovered in Britain. © National Trust / Rod Kirkpatrick / F Stop Press

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