The Date of the Glass from Karanis

The Date of the Glass from Karanis

Figure 1Today, more than 60 years after its publication, Donald B. Harden's monograph on the glass from Karanis1 is still one of the most frequently cited sources of information on the glass of Roman Egypt. The quantity of objects found at the site and their excellent state of preservation provided Harden with the raw material for a detailed typology, which is still in use. Harden concluded that the earliest types of glass were present not later than the second century A.D. and that "there was little occupation at Karanis after 400, and there is no evidence of any after about 460."2 Generally speaking, scholars have accepted the conclusion that Karanis declined in the fourth century and was abandoned before 500.3 This note reviews other opinions on the date of the latest finds from Karanis and draws attention to a recent article on the subject, in which Nigel Pollard demonstrates that the received chronology is incorrect.4 The implication for students of glass is that some of the objects from Karanis may be later than is generally supposed.

As far as I am aware, the first doubts about the date of the latest glass from Karanis were expressed by John W. Hayes in his catalog of the pre-Roman and Roman glass in the Royal Ontario Museum.5 Before he went to Toronto, Hayes had compiled a pioneering study of late Roman red slipware, and there he drew attention to discrepancies between the dates assigned to certain forms at Karanis and the later dates assigned to the same forms on the basis of excavations at other sites in the Roman world.6 Later, Hayes retreated from this position, noting that "it now seems reasonable to place the Karanis finds [that is, the latest red slipware from the site] ... in the first half of the 5th century."7 However, as we shall see, some of the pottery in question is indeed later than the mid-fifth century.

Further doubt about the date of the latest finds from Karanis was expressed by Donald M. Bailey in 1984.8 Reviewing three recent monographs on the site and some of the finds, Bailey (an expert on Roman lamps) noted that the currency of some of the earthenware lamps "probably extend[s] well into the sixth [century], if not until the end of that century," and that some of the red slipware (notably Hayes Forms 103 and 104) is usually dated to the sixth century. Bailey also attacked the validity of using coins as evidence for the abandonment of Karanis in the fifth century; hoards apart, stratified coins were not particularly numerous, many of them are illegible, and it is not improbable that the excavators missed the diminutive coins that circulated in and after the fifth century.

In 1998, Nigel Pollard returned to the problem of the latest material from Karanis and reinforced Bailey's conclusions. He drew attention to evidence from excavations at Carthage that Hayes Forms 103 and 104 did not come into use until about 500 and only became common after 525. M. G. Fulford, who published the pottery from the Avenue Bourguiba site at Carthage, suggested that Form 103 remained in use until about 575 and that Form 104 may have persisted until the early seventh century.9 Another type of red slipware found at Karanis, Hayes Form 99, appeared at Carthage about 475 and was most frequent in deposits of about 525- 535; it may have continued until about 575.10

Pollard also discussed the earthenware amphoras found at Karanis, using the typology established at Carthage by John A. Riley.11 The amphoras from Karanis include five types described by Riley: Late Roman Amphora (LRA) 1, 2, 4, 5, and 7. The evidence from Carthage and other sites, such as Saraçhane in Istanbul,12 suggests that LRA 1, 4, 5, and 7 were already in use by the fifth century (that is, within the generally accepted period of occupation at Karanis), but that they continued to be made after the fifth century, and that production of LRA 2 is not attested before 500.

Thus, the evidence of the red slipware and the amphoras suggests that it is difficult to accept the conventional dating of Karanis without special pleading, in particular about the dates of Hayes Forms 99, 103, and 104 (were they in use at Karanis before 460, despite the fact that they do not occur at any other site before this date; or were they taken to Karanis after the site had been abandoned?). It seems much more likely, even without the evidence of coins, that Karanis continued to be occupied after the fifth century.

Indeed, the evidence of the glass, which neither Bailey nor Pollard discussed, supports this view. Harden's Class VII.A.1, for example, is a goblet with a U-shaped bowl, a narrow stem, and a low conical foot.13 Similar goblets occur throughout the Mediterranean region and in other parts of the Roman world (Fig. 1 ).14 While fragments from Corinth have been attributed to the fourth century, and examples occur at Carthage in the second (but not the first) quarter of the fifth century, the great majority of datable goblets with narrow stems are later. At Carthage itself, they account for 43 percent of the glass from seventh-century contexts, and they were one of the main products of the sixth- or seventh-century workshop at Torcello, ltaly.15

ln a nutshell, the date at which the occupation of Karanis ceased is probably later than the fifth century, and we should no longer assume that this is the date of the latest glass from the site.

David Whitehouse
This article was published in the Journal of Glass Studies, Vol. 41 (1999), 168–170.


1 Donald B. Harden, Roman Glass from Karanis Found by the University of Michigan Archaeological Expedition in Egypt, 1924-29, University of Michigan Studies, Humanistic Series, v. 41 , Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1936.

2 Harden [note 1], pp. 24-34, following the conclusions of A. E. R. Boak and E. E. Peterson, Karanis: Topographical and Architectural Report of Excavations during the Seasons 1924-28, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1931 , p. 5. These conclusions were based on the scarcity of datable finds (essentially coins, papyri, and ostraca) later than 400 and the fact that there was no coin or other datable object later than the reign of Marcian (450--457).

3 See, for example, three publications from the University of Michigan Press in Ann Arbor: Louise A. Shier, Terracotta Lamps from Karanis, Egypt, 1978; Elinor Husselman, Karanis: Topography and Architecture, 1979; and Barbara Johnson, Pottery from Karanis, 1981.

4 Nigel Pollard, "The Chronology and Economic Condition of Late Roman Karanis: An Archaeological Reassessment," Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, v. 35, 1998, pp. 147-162.

5 John W. Hayes, Roman and Pre-Roman Glass in the Royal Ontario Museum: A Catalogue, Toronto: the Royal Ontario Museum, 1975, pp. 2- 3. See also David Frederick Grose, review of Roman and Pre-Roman Glass in the Royal Ontario Museum, by John W. Hayes, American Journal of Archaeology, v. 84, 1980, pp. 550-552, and, more recently, Susan Auth, "Pottery and Glass," in Beyond the Pharaohs: Egypt and the Copts in the 2nd to 7th Centuries A.D., ed. Florence D. Friedman, Providence: Rhode Island School of Design, 1989, pp. 73-74.

6 J. W. Hayes, Late Roman Pottery, London: The British School at Rome, 1972, p. 2, n. I.

7 J. W. Hayes, A Supplement to Late Roman Pottery, London: The British School at Rome, 1980, p. 5 16.

8 D. M. Bailey, review of Terracotta Lamps from Karanis, Egypt, by Louise A. Shier; Karanis: Topography and Architecture, by Elinor Husselman; and Pottery from Karanis, by Barbara Johnson, in Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, v. 70, 1984, pp. 185- 187.

9 M.G. Fulford, "The Red-Slipped Wares," in M. G. Fulford and D. P. S. Peacock, Excavations at Carthage: The British Mission, v. 1,2, The Avenue du President Habib Bourguiba, Salammbo: Pottery and Other Ceramic Objects from the Site, Sheffield: The British Academy, 1984, pp. 48- 115, esp. pp. 73-74.

10 Ibid., p.71.

11 J. A. Riley, "The Pottery from Cisterns 1977 . I, 1977.2 and 1977.3," in J. H. Humphrey, ed., Excavations at Carthage Conducted by the University of Michigan 1977, v. 6, Ann Arbor: the University of Michigan, 198 1, pp. 85-124.

12 J. W. Hayes, Excavations at Sararçhane in Istanbul, v. 2, The Pottery, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992, pp. 61 - 79.

13 Harden [note 1], pp. 167- 173, nos. 479-487.

14 Clasina Isings, Roman Glass from Dated Finds, Archaeologica Traiectina, v. 2, Groningen and Djakarta: J. B. Wolters, 1957, pp. 139- 140, form 111.

15 Y. A. Tatton-Brown, "The Glass," in H. R. Hurst and S. P. Roskams, eds., Excavations at Carthage: The British Mission, v. I, I , The Avenue du President Habib Bourguiba, Salammbo: The Site and Finds Other than Pottery, Sheffield: The British Academy, 1984, pp. 194-212, esp. pp. 200-202, nos. 41 - 56, and p. 211; Lech Leciejewicz, Eleonora Tabaczyńska, and StanislawTabaczyński, Torcello. Scavi 1961-62, Istituto Nazionale d' Archeologia e Storia dell ' Arte Monografie, no. 3, Rome: Istituto di Storia della Cultura Materiale dell 'Accademia Polacca delle Scienze and Istituto di Storia della Società e dello Stato Veneziano della Fondazione Giorgio Cini, 1977, pp. 89- 153. For a summary of the evidence from these and other sites, see David Whitehouse, Roman Glass in The Corning Museum of Glass, v. I, Corning: the Corning Museum of Glass, 1997, pp. 103- 104, no. 154.

Published on February 27, 2013

David Whitehouse, Senior Scholar
David Whitehouse (1941-2013) joined The Corning Museum of Glass in 1984 as chief curator. He was named deputy director of collections in 1987, was promoted to deputy director of the Museum in 1988, and became director in 1992. He was appointed to...