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Early Glass Industry in Ninth-century City of Samarra, Iraq

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When one thinks of glasswork, the first city that comes to mind is Venice. However, unknown to many, one of the earliest signs of ornamental and decorative glassworks was found in the city of Samarra, Iraq.

The place-city of Samarra, capital of the former Abbasid Caliphate was home to an advanced industry of glass production and trade according to archaeological artifacts examined by a team from France National Center for Scientific Research. This ancient capital of Samarra dating from 836-892 provides outstanding evidence of the Abbasid Caliphate which was the major Islamic empire of the period, extending from Tunisia to Central Asia. The fact that the highest quality glass was used to decorate the city’s main caliphal palace suggests that the glass was of great cultural and economic value at this time.

Glass artifacts from Samarra, including a range of vessel types, optical properties, and decorative techniques
[Credit: Images A, C and D from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; images B and E from the Museum fürislamische Kunst/Staatliche Museenzu Berlin]

Analysis conducted by the archeologists suggests that the city of Samarra, located in present-day Iraq, was a hub of glass-making and trade 1200 years ago. Multiple archaeological excavations over many years recovered an extraordinary range of glassware from the site. The new study reveals that many of the colorful and delicate artifacts were made in Samarra itself.
Examining 265 previously discovered artifacts held by museums in England and Germany, the researchers, led by Nadine Schibille, found that although some of the glass had been imported from around the empire, especially the Levant and Egypt, most of the pieces were so similar in chemical composition that they were most likely produced in Samarra itself.

The items, which included bowls, lamps, bottles, glasses, and decorative ware, were examined using mass spectrometry, to identify trace elements that offered clues to the geographical origin of the source materials. From this, the researchers could determine the region from where each item came, as well as the quality of the finished pieces. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found the highest quality material had been produced for use in the city’s main caliphal palace.