Researchers look to unravel story of Islamic glass found in Scottish castle

Islamic glass fragments discovered in the late 1990’s at Caerlaverock Castle, near Dumfries, Scotland, has inspired a community project to unravel the story of their origins and recreate the original object – a medieval Islamic glass drinking beaker.

The first and only glass of its kind to be found at an archaeological site in Scotland, it is believed that the original vessel would have been made in modern-day Syria, Iraq or Egypt during the 12th and 13th centuries, all of which were important centres of Islamic glassmaking.

The fragments are inscribed with part of the Arabic word for “eternal”, likely used as one of the 99 names of Allah, which suggests that it could be an extract from the Qur’an.

 

Although the fragments are tiny in size, measuring 3.1cm x 2.8cm, they provide new insights into Scotland’s contact with the wider world during the medieval period.

During Scotland’s medieval period, glass was mainly used for stained glass windows in monasteries, cathedrals, and some smaller churches and chapels. However, glass wouldn’t be used in castles and tower houses until centuries later.

Glass vessels and objects were very rare and often degrade in the acidic soil across Scotland. Now, almost a quarter of a century after the fragments were discovered, they are back in the spotlight at the heart of a community project called Eternal Connections, which has sparked discussion and learning around the heritage of Scotland’s Muslim communities.

Eternal Connections used cutting-edge scientific analysis and research data to forge new ways of understanding the contemporary and historic connections between Scotland.

 

Stirlingshire-based visual artist, Alice Martin, researched contemporaneous medieval Islamic glass and worked with a team of experts from Historic Environment Scotland (HES), who used state-of-the-art techniques to analyse the fragments.

This enabled Martin to create a 3D-model digital reconstruction of the glass fragments to show what the beaker might have looked like originally. It has a vase-shape form and a blue and gold line below the rim with Arabic writing on it and is also decorated with a golden fish.

Martin said: “The fragments are decorated with an Arabic inscription that would have been wrapped around the circumference of the beaker when it was complete. Scientific analysis has shown there would once have been red and gold decoration, as well as the blue and white that’s still visible.

From the scientific evidence, research and known history, we thoroughly considered how an Islamic glass drinking beaker ended up in Scotland, and we suspect it may have come to Caerlaverock Castle through trade or could even have been brought back by returning crusaders.”

The project worked with community groups, including the Muslim Scouts in Edinburgh and the Glasgow-based AMINA – Muslim Women’s Resource Centre, to provide a series of informative workshops centred on the story of the Islamic glass.

The workshops focused on the beaker shape, decorative designs and calligraphy using Arabic script and Gaelic onto 3D prints. Other elements focused on archaeology and demonstrated the technology used to analyse the glass fragments.

Creative Wellbeing Practitioner Vicky Mohieddeen who ran workshops with AMINA – Muslim Women’s Resource Centre said:

“Eternal Connections provoked very strong reactions within our group – more than I think anyone could have anticipated. These small pieces of glass held within them themes of separation, uncertainty, homeland and family – themes with a particular resonance for our group. Many of the women in our group are prevented from working and participating in society due to the UK asylum system, so allowing them the opportunity to share their own extensive knowledge about history and culture with the HES team had a big impact.”

Historic Environment Scotland

Header Image Credit : Shutterstock & Historic Environment Scotland

 

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