Glass cremation urn

Made in one of the western provinces of the Roman Empire, about AD 50-200

This glass vessel still contains cremated bones and a fragment of woven asbestos: the use of asbestos for shrouds is mentioned by the Roman writer Pliny the Elder (AD 23/4-79). Like many other examples the urn must have been found in a cemetery. However, before its funerary use it probably had a domestic purpose and is likely to have served as a storage jar in the home. Many vessels of this type have M-shaped handles, though other versions have no handles at all. Such urns were in common use throughout Italy, North Africa and the western provinces of the Roman Empire, such as Gaul (modern France) and the Rhineland, from about AD 50-200. Tripoli in Libya is the most eastern find-spot for this type of vessel so far recorded.

The urn is made of natural bluish-green glass. Glass consists of a mixture of soda, silica and lime. In Roman times soda for making glass came from naturally-occurring natron; silica came from sand that probably contained the third necessary ingredient, lime. Iron is present in most sand and, if nothing is added to the mixture, the resulting glass is nearly always a bluish-green colour, like this vessel. It seems likely that glass was made from raw materials in only a few places in the Roman period. The glass was distributed from these centres to glasshouses throughout the Roman Empire to be formed into vessels and other items. Roman glasshouses also used cullet (pieces of broken glass) that could be re-melted, either to form new items or to be added to other molten glass. The Romans used 'natural' glass for much of their everyday blown glass.

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More information


H. Tait (ed.), Five thousand years of glass-1, 2nd paperback edition (London, The British Museum Press, 1999)

P.F.H. D'Hancarville, Antiquités Etrusques, Grecques, vol. II (Naples, 1778)

P.F.H. D'Hancarville, Antiquités Etrusques, Grecqu-2, vol. 1 (, 1766)

I. Jenkins and K. Sloan, Vases and Volcanoes: Sir Willi (London, The British Museum Press, 1996)


Height: 30.500 cm (with cover)

Museum number

GR 1772.3-17.1


Formerly in the collection of Sir William Hamilton


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