Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Dish of a thousand flowers brought back to life

by Kathryn Hadley

Millefiori literally means ‘a thousand flowers’. This morning, a Roman millefiori dish, recently discovered in East London, was revealed to the public for the first time at the Museum of London Docklands. The dish is considerably rare and a true feat of craftsmanship and the find is unprecedented, not only in London, but in the Western Roman Empire. Further research is currently being carried out in order to establish whether or not similar bowls have been discovered in the Eastern Roman Empire.

The millefiori dish, which is made up of hundreds of indented glass petals in an intricate repeated pattern, was both a feat to manufacture and a feat to restore. Millefiore is a glass-working technique created from glass rods with multi coloured patterns that are only visible at the cut ends. The rods are cut and the sections are thereafter assembled to create a larger piece. In this particular case, the pattern consists of blue petals bordered with white. The blue petals were originally embedded in a bright red opaque glass matrix, which is still visible around the rim of each section of the rod. The dish was found held together by the soil around it. When it was lifted out of the soil it broke into little pieces, however, which it took Museum of London Archaeology conservator Liz Goodman three weeks to reassemble.

In her words:

‘Piecing together and conserving such a complete artefact offered a rare and
thrilling challenge. We occasionally get tiny fragments of millefiori, but the
opportunity to work on a whole artefact of this nature is extraordinary. The
dish is extremely fragile but the glasswork is intact and illuminates
beautifully nearly two millennia after being crafted.’

The dish was unearthed during excavations, led by L-P: Archaeology, of the Eastern cemetery of Roman London in Prescot Street, Aldgate. It was found alongside other glass and ceramic vessels in the grave of a Roman Londoner. Excavation work on this particular part of the cemetery began last April and lasted until September. The dish was discovered in September towards the end of the excavation work. In accordance with Roman law, the cemetery would have been located outside the city walls of Roman London. The cemetery is believed to have been in use from approximately 80AD to 400AD and, to this date, it has revealed 50 inhumations (burials) and 30 cremations. Although very little is known about the cemetery because it is situated under a hugely built-up area of London, mostly under roads, it is estimated that it may spread over almost 16 hectares and that only 15-20% of the area has currently been excavated.

Considerable post-excavation work and analysis now remains to be done, both on the dish and grave, as well as on the cemetery as a whole. Who was the owner of the dish whose cremated remains were found alongside the grave goods? When does the dish date back to? Why does the cemetery include both inhumations and cremations and what determined whether a Roman Londoner was cremated or buried?

The complex manufacture of the dish suggests that it would have been a valuable and highly-prized item. This suggests, in turn, that its owner was relatively wealthy. The millefiori technique is believed to have been particularly fashionable in the 1st and early 2nd centuries. However, the vessels discovered with the dish are of a later date, from the 3rd century. The design of the millefiori dish is allegedly slightly different to those previously discovered which date to the 1st and 2nd centuries. It may thus be possible that the dish is from the 3rd century, from the same period as the vessels. Nevertheless, it is also possible that the dish was of an earlier date and was passed down from generation to generation, which seems even more likely if it was a highly valuable item.

Why some Romans were cremated and others buried also remains a matter of speculation. It is possible that Roman Londoners had different religious beliefs. Another possibility is that customs changed over time and, given that the cemetery span over 400 years of Roman occupation, this seems a plausible explanation. It is an explanation that requires, however, considerable further research in order to date each of the bodies.

For further information about the excavation work carried out at Prescot Street, including videos and photos of the digs, visit the project website:

For further information on Roman Britain, including articles on Roman attitudes to their British subjects and how archaeological discoveries have overturned accepted views about the Roman invasion of Britain, visit our Ancient Rome focus page.
Pictures: the Millefiore Roman bowl; fragments of the bowl; and the bowl and other vessels as they were discovered (Museum of London)

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