The Serçe Limanı Glass

by George F. Bass

first written for The INA Newsletter in 1988

We decided to begin excavations at Serçe Limanı in 1977 on the basis of three features noted during a ten-minute dive I made on the site in 1973: a single amphora uncovered and raised to the surface dated the wreck to the 11th century A.D., a period for which we had no firsthand information about hull construction. Because the amphora stood upright and unbroken under the sand, we had reason to believe that the hull of this shipwreck was relatively well preserved under a protective blanket of sediment.

The third feature, chunks of raw glass and the fragments of glass vessels scattered over the seabed, added interest to the site. We thought we might find some more glass, a welcome change from the cargoes of Byzantine amphoras we had excavated during the previous sixteen years.

"Some more glass." We didn't dream that by the conclusion of the excavation, in 1979, we would have brought to light what art historian Marilyn Jenkins calls in Islamic Glass (The Metropolitan Museum of Art,1986) "the most important find in this medium ever made...revolutionizing our view of a major period of Islamic art history."

We did not dream that we would have more than eighty intact glass vessels-cups and bottles and bowls and beakers in a variety of colors and patterns. We did we dream that we would have the fragments of approximately ten thousand other vessels. In addition, there were two tons of raw glass, ready to be melted and fashioned into lamps and ewers and plates and beakers in some unknown glassworks.

But especially we did not dream that more than a decade later we would still have a team of glass-menders, conservators, and illustrators preparing the glass to be studied for our publication of the wreck. And what kind of publication will it be? The rich and famous collection of Islamic glass in the Benaki Museum, Athens, to which most of an entire volume is devoted, comprises only 425 pieces, including fragments. We have in our collection more than 200 different shapes! Joy Kitson-Mim Mack, who is writing her M.A. thesis at Texas A&M on just one of these shapes, the beaker, has cataloged and studied more than 1,200 separate examples from our collection. Margaret Morden wrote her thesis on 250 lamps from the site.

The challenge we faced when we began our study in 1979 was mind-boggling: how to make sense of about a million fragments of glass, all scrambled and mostly stuck together in large, concrete-like lumps. We made many false starts during the winter of 197980 in the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology, where director Oguz Alpozen had given us use of the English Tower of the Crusader Castle which houses the museum. There we built tables and shelves and began the job of sorting the fragments by color, pattern, thickness and shape. Once fragments of purple pattern-molded glass with green-threaded rims had been separated from the rest of the shards, for example, we could begin to find joins between fragments of that particular type. And, eventually, we built up entire profiles.

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The first year we worked with Texas A&M students, family members, Bodrum volunteers and even a tourist we kidnapped for three cold winter months (Bill Collins seems not to have minded too much; his father, Charles Collins, is now on the INA Board of Directors). Since then we have had up to six Bodrum women spending twelve months a year looking for joins. Fragments which join are held together temporarily with tape, and then placed in styrofoam molds which are cut to fit their curves and support them. Once it seems that no more fragments are to be found for any particular glass vessel, conservator Jane Pannell, or someone under her supervision, actually glues the joins together. In some cases missing fragments are replaced by clear epoxy that is tinted to the same shade as the glass. Each vessel is then drawn with great accuracy by staff illustrator Sema Pulak.

In addition to fairly well-known shapes, new shapes never before seen by modern eyes appear as the glass mending continues. Not only is the glass varied and abundant almost beyond belief, it is also firmly dated to about A.D.1025 by Islamic weights stamped with the years of the reigns of caliphs of the Fatimid dynasty, and by Byzantine coins of Emperor Basil II. This means that museum curators around the world finally have a base with which to compare and date glass vessels in their collections. "The precise dating and broad scope of this find," Dr. Jenkins states, "are finally making it possible to discuss glass of the Early Medieval period with confidence."

Providing firmly-dated examples of shapes known previously only by undated vessels in museum collections is only one of the benefits of our glass studies. We also are learning about glass manufacture and trade.

We can now be certain that the glass was not broken as a result of the ship's violent end. Few of the mended vessels have all of their fragments, and some are of such distinctive fabric that it would be impossible for us to have simply overlooked the missing pieces. Further, joining fragments were often found far apart in the ship's cargo hold (we inked onto each shard a number which tells us that shard's find spot on the wreck within 50 centimeters). It seems that the glass was simply shoveled into baskets from a large pile of broken glass and then loaded on board. The glass had been collected for recycling, as today, both from homes (some vessels showed signs of wear on their bases) and from one or more glassworks (some imperfect vessels were discarded before being completed). The 80-odd intact vessels were not found with the broken glass in the cargo hold, but were found in what seem to be living quarters at the ends of the ship. This suggests that they were ready for sale by one or more merchants on board.

The broken glass and the pieces of raw glass ranging in size from tiny splinters to chunks nearly a foot across were also ready for sale. In Medieval times, as today and in the Classical period, glassmakers added a certain percentage of old, broken glass to the silica, soda or potash, and lime needed for making a new batch of glass.

Dr. Robert Brill of the Corning Museum of Glass has shown by chemical analyses that almost all of our glass came from one source, suggesting that it was all picked up at one port. because the glass does not chemically match the glass from any archaeological excavation, however, that port remains unknown. Lead isotope analysis of the lead content in a few emerald green shards shows the lead to be from northwest Iran, the source of the lead of some of the fishing-net weights also found on the ship, as well as the source of lead in the glaze of Islamic terra-cotta bowls in the cargo. This does not suggest, however, that the glass or weights or pottery were made in Iran, but only that lead was imported from there by craftsmen at our unknown center of manufacture.

Contemporary and nearly contemporary documents describe glass shipments, sometimes giving prices and in at least one case describing a shipment of broken glass. The study of these documents, continuing chemical analyses, and a study of similar glass found in excavations throughout the Near East will provide our best clues as to the origin and intended destination of our shipwrecked cargo. We feel that a sufficient sample of the Serçe Limanı glass has now been mended to allow us to begin our in-depth study of it in the fall of 1989.

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