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The Barber Cup

  • Object type

  • Museum number

    2003,1202.1

  • Title (object)

    • The Barber Cup
  • Description

    One-handled fluorspar cup decorated in low relief with vine-leaves, grapes and tendrils. Under the handle, a bearded head, probably Dionysos or one of his companions.

  • Culture/period

  • Date

    • 50-100
  • Findspot

  • Materials

  • Dimensions

    • Height: 15 centimetres (total)
    • Height: 13.5 centimetres (without handle)
    • Width: 9.5 centimetres (at rim)
    • Diameter: 6.4 centimetres (of foot)
  • Curator's comments

    The Latin word 'murra' is regularly identified with the mineral fluorspar. From Pliny we hear that 'vasa murrina' were first introduced to Rome by Pompey the Great in 62-1 BC, after his victories in the East. Such vessels were much sought after and Pliny tells us that the highest price paid for a fluorspar cup was 1,000,000 sesterces, by the Emperor Nero. We also hear of a former Roman consul who paid 70,000 sesterces. He was said to be so fond of his cup that he gnawed its rim, a report that we can probably connect with Martial's assertion that the flavour of wine was improved if drunk from a murrine cup. This may be explained by reference to the likely method of manufacture. Fluorspar, which rarely occurs in pieces large enough to make vessels, must have been blocked out with chisel and mallet, a process that tends to loosen its crystalline structure, but which could be somewhat counteracted by smearing on resin and heating it gently so that it penetrated the material and cemented the crystals together (a technique used in the modern production of Derbyshire 'Blue John'). Wine, of course, would have gradually dissolved the resin and given off a pleasant smell and distinctive flavour.

    The cup was found during the First World War by an Austro-Croat officer in a Roman period tomb in ancient Cilicia, near the border between Turkey and Syria. In the tomb he discovered a lead casket containing two fluorspar vessels, this cup and a two-handled goblet, as well as some gold medallions. These are the only two fluorspar vessels known to have survived intact from antiquity.The goblet was presented to the British Museum in 1971 and is now known as the Crawford Cup (GR 1971.4-19.1). The other objects were dispersed, the one-handled cup going to a collector in Brussels from whose estate it was acquired in 2004, thanks in part to the British Museum Friends, and it is now named in honour of their former Chairman, Nicholas Barber.

    Bibliography:
    D. Williams, "Crystalline matter", British Museum Magazine (Spring 2004), p. 47.

    More 

  • Location

    On display: G70/dc13

  • Acquisition name

  • Acquisition date

    2003

  • Department

    Greek & Roman Antiquities

  • Registration number

    2003,1202.1


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Object reference number: GAA82717

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