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Finding REALLY OLD Glass--Mostly Intact

Whenever archeologists or laypeople come across ancient glass, it's exciting. The fact that glass can and does survive the centuries at all is wonderful. In some ways, because it can break, finding old glass in any stage of integrity can surpass the thrill finding other artifacts.

Last year, there was an amazing glass find I'd like to share with you. And although this discovery may seem far-flung, even locally here in Colorado, it's possible to find really old glass and glass-like specimens right beneath your feet if you're looking, thanks to the ancient volcanic nature of the Arkansas River Valley and surroung area. I'll share one such find below, too.

First, the archeological find.

In late 2021, archeologists unearthed a 2,000 year-old Roman bowl in the town of Nijmegen, in the Netherlands. The city was in the process of clearing a site for a housing developement when the bowl was discovered. The truly amazing thing is that it is in pristine condition! If I had been the lucky person to find that bowl, I'm pretty sure I'd have had a heart attack then and there. Just think--one too-deep lunge with a shovel would have been disastrous. Archeologists were clearing the future houseing site first, thank goodness. (Maybe we should do the same for all sites destined to be covered by housing tracts. Ya think?) (Image below courtesy of the Muncipality of Nijmegen, cited from Smithsonian magazine)

According to the Smithsonian, this city is one of the oldest in the Netherlands and historically was used as a trade route, and at the time this bowl was made, the town was also used by the Romans as a military base. So this bowl could have come from Italy, where ancient glass artisans were renown and flourished. But it could have come from elsewhere.

The Smithsonian article states, "Such dishes were made by allowing molten glass to cool and harden over a mold,” lead archaeologist Pepijn van de Geer tells [the Dutch newspaper] de Gelderlander [. . . .] “The pattern was drawn in when the glass mixture was still liquid. Metal oxide causes the blue color. For the residents of the settlement . . . this bowl [had] a great value.”

You can read the full article here.

And now, for the local find.

A friend of mine located a unique object at an undisclosed location nearby (image below).

It's approximately two inches long by three-quarters of an inch wide and about half an inch thick at one end. As this area is volcanic, finding various forms of glass-like specimens formed from these deep-earth processes is fairly common. And as silica is one of the primary three ingredients for glass, this makes it a glass-like mineral in my book.

Two retired geologist friends of mine say the piece can either be Smokey Quartz or Chert, boh SiO2, or Silicon Dioxide.

But what distinguishes this piece--for me, anyway--is its color; blue is rare enough in this area to take note of. My trusty 1995 National Audobon Society Field Guide to North American Rocks and Minerals states that Smokey Quarts is abundant in the Pikes Peak region (503), but I have never seen a blue specimen. But it can't be ruled out as a possibility. Most of the Smokey Quartz tends to be brown to black, but according to one of my geologist friends, "color can vary." Most of our Chert here is red, tannish, brown, gray, or black, and although the color plate in my Audobon shows a blueish sample (754), it also states that color is not a useful identifying field trait (502). Both of these minerals have a hardness of 7. So whichever mineral it is, it's darned hard, and therefore, useful. Perhaps this was part of an arrowhead, as one edge appears to have been worked. Maybe it, like the blue Roman bowl above, was traded. As the nuns say at the convent, "It's a mystery."

Glass offeres a fascinating view back into history. It was as valued in ancient times as any commodity. Today, it is commonplace, used in nearly every industry. And yet, when we uncover a hidden, fragile treasure, whether formed in the fires of ancient kilns or the heart of the Earth, the experience is still magical--maybe because there's still so much we don't know.

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