Gold glass in late antiquity: the British Museum collection

Project team

  • Daniel T. Howells, project leader
  • Chris Entwistle

Department of Britain, Europe and Prehistory 


  • Professor Liz James (University of Sussex)

Supported by

Arts and Humanities Research Council
  • An Arts and Humanities Research Council Collaborative Doctoral Award
  • The British Museum

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The project focuses on the British Museum’s collection of late antique (fourth century AD) gold glass, the second largest collection of its kind in the world (after The Vatican). Numbering almost sixty genuine pieces plus a small number of eighteenth and nineteenth century fakes, forgeries and experimental and marketed reproductions. The British Museum collection includes examples of Christian, Jewish, pagan and secular portrait medallions, vessel bases, plaques and diminutive medallions/vessel studs, predominantly from the catacombs of Rome and cemetery’s around Cologne.

Gold glass has never been fully examined or analysed. This doctorial research project aims to address this. Examination, including scientific analysis, of the material will provide important insights into the late Roman glass industry in the western empire, the development of early Christian iconography in the minor arts, and on Italian collectors of the nineteenth century and the collecting history of the British Museum. In the general field of late antiquity, gold glass is discussed through repetition of the same set of ideas in circulation since the early twentieth century. This project will reconsider these traditional but untested ideas both in the context of recent work on glass in late antiquity and on recent developments in the field of late antique art.


The results of this project will be published following the completion and final submission of the DPhil thesis. Dissemination of information concerning individual gold glass specimens will utilise the British Museum collection database, which will be made available to the general public within the next five years. Further direct dissemination will occur through a number of other avenues including the British Museum Byzantine Seminar series, which presents new research in an objects-based programme, every year.

The central objectives of the project are:

  • Produce a fully illustrated catalogue including a discussion, chemical composition and illustration of form for each specimen in the British Museum collection
  • Examine in detail the various methods of gold glass production
  • Establish the iconography of the objects
  • Establish the chronology of gold glass regarding both iconography and technique
  • Examine the spatial and contextual distribution, nature, function and wider significance of gold glass in late antique society
  • Place the British Museum’s collection into the broader perspective of holdings in other museums
Gold glass vessel base depicting Christ and selected Saints.

Fourth century AD gold glass vessel base depicting Christ and selected Saints, 1863.7-27.9.