Thursday, May 12, 2016


Dominic Ingemark, Glass, Alcohol and Power in Roman Iron Age Scotland. Edinburgh: National Museums Scotland, 2014. Pp. 300. ISBN 9781905267811. £35.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Max Nelson, University of Windsor (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

This book is an expanded revision of the author's 2003 Lund University PhD thesis. At its core it is a catalogue of fragments belonging to a little more than 200 Roman glass vessels, dating mainly from the first to the fourth centuries A.D. and found in 77 native/non-Roman sites north of Hadrian's Wall in north Northumberland and Scotland (see pp. 17 and 177, with fig. 1.1 on p. 16). Almost half of the vessels come from one site, Traprain Law, East Lothian, an important hill fort which may have been a centre of distribution for Roman wares (p. 178, and see Appendix C by Fraser Hunter). Most of the other sites are settlements and most of the fragments are lone pieces, with the rest of the broken vessels evidently carefully swept up. Some of the pieces were kept to be reused, for example, as beads, bangles, or gaming pieces, or even, rarely, as tools or blades (pp. 22-23, 132, 159, 177-178, and 186). Only three vessels survive intact due to the fact that they were taken out of circulation in antiquity before they could break, and they have been kept in good condition in modern times (see p. 177): a cup from Airlie dating to around the second or third century A.D., presumably from a burial (p. 64); a pale green conical jug from Turriff dating to the first or second century A.D., probably again from a burial (pp. 110-112); and an unguent bottle from Loch Kinnord dating to the mid first century A.D., which might have been a lone ritual deposition (pp. 121-122). For much of the mass of fragmentary material, Ingemark impressively reconstructs, when possible, to which of 23 types of vessels the pieces originally belonged, whether varieties of cups, beakers, bowls, jars, jugs, bottles, or flasks. For each type of vessel he describes some or all of the following attributes: shape, size, colouring, quality of glass, design and decoration, variations or subtypes, dating, method of manufacture, place of origin/manufacture, distribution, and rarity. All this is made possible by carefully referring to a large body of comparative material from a wide range of locations, especially England and Wales as well as Scandinavia and Germany, but also various other places that were once part of the Roman empire or were beyond its borders, even as far away as China (p. 35). The most popular vessels found in Scotland were cylindrical or prismatic bottles of blue-green glass dating to the first and second centuries A.D., which could have been transported as sets in boxes or crates (pp. 128-148).

Another important issue upon which Ingemark focuses is the function of the vessels (see fig. 4.5 on p. 180). He interprets the majority of the vessels as having been used for drinking. Others seem to have been used as tableware to present or serve food and drink, while some seem to have been used to store, transport, or preserve comestibles. Still others were used for hygienic or medicinal products. He also mentions glass vessels used for lighting (pp. 73 and 83) and as ash-urns (pp. 106 and 132), as well as pieces of window glass (pp. 149-154). Ingemark usually identifies the function of vessels through shape and size, as well as common sense, but he also uses a variety of other evidence. This includes experimenting with modern replicas (p. 88) and analysing the findspots of similar vessels (pp. 121 and 125) or associated finds, such as items belonging to sets (pp. 110 and 125), which point to drinking, or lids, which point to storage (pp. 73 and 102). Sometimes the remnants of the contents of vessels of the same type demonstrate their function, as with traces of oil (pp. 73, 83, 106, and 131) or minerals (p. 121). Iconographic (pp. 73, 93, 109, 115, 117, 131, and 132) and literary evidence (pp. 102 and 106) are also exploited. For instance, on one glass cup from Zealand, Denmark introduced as a comparandum, the inscription DVBP (CIL XIII 3, 10036, no. 45) has been interpreted to stand for the common toasting formula D(a) v(inum) b(onum), p (ie!), showing that the cup was intended to be used for wine (p. 62).

Ingemark demonstrates that the original Roman use for much of the glassware found in Scotland was for storing, serving, or drinking wine (pp. 41, 46, 53, 57, 62, 88, 90, 115, 117, and 131-132, with the general treatment at pp. 203-209 and also Appendix B). He then goes on to suggest that the owners of these vessels in ancient Scotland probably imported the Roman customs along with the Roman wares, with the glassware thus retaining its original function and meaning (such as cups being used to drink wine mixed with water). First, he argues convincingly that the vessels represent a narrow range of relatively high quality wares which were deliberately chosen through peaceful trade or exchange or as gifts, and not randomly collected through wartime plundering or looting or pilfering (pp. 173-186). Then he argues that these vessels would have been considered valuable and would have been purposefully obtained by the native elite in order to achieve and sustain power as status markers (showing off wealth, generosity, and knowledge), particularly for Roman-style wine-drinking at lavish feasts provided by that elite (pp. 186-202). Ingemark parallels the situation in Scotland with that in Free Germany, where Roman drinking sets were prized and wine is known to have been imported, at least to a limited extent (pp. 216-223), and he posits the importation of wine into Scotland, arguing that though very few amphoras have been found there, barrels or wineskins, which have not left a trace, could have been used (pp. 209-211). This is no doubt possible, but Ingemark is able to point to no explicit evidence for the natives in Scotland drinking wine--let alone Roman wine in Roman-made glass cups at large Roman-style parties--during the Roman era. The closest he gets is the Gododdin, an early medieval Welsh poem which mentions the peoples around what is now Edinburgh using glass vessels and drinking wine, but also mead, honey beer, and plain beer (see pp. 194-195, 215, and 237). It is quite possible, however, that the poem reflects Welsh drinking habits, not Scottish ones, since the Welsh are known to have highly prized honey drinks and the so-called "Welsh ale" found in medieval sources was probably honey beer.1 Ingemark further ignores the evidence for people purposefully rejecting Roman wine, such as the Icenni in Britain (Dio Cass., 62.5.5 and 62.6.4) or the Nervii in northern Belgica (Caes., Bell. Gall. 2.15.4). Also, while a people could accept foreign wares, it did not mean that they used them exactly as they were intended to be used. Ingemark, for instance, mentions the bronze cauldron from the sixth century B.C. in a grave in Hochdorf, Germany, once filled with mead (pp. 212-213), but he fails to point out that the cauldron was of Greek manufacture, showing clearly how an imported container could still act as a status marker while being used for a beverage of native importance. Similarly, it is plausible that the native elite of Scotland used Roman glass cups (even as part of imported drinking sets and even despite the alleged prestige which would come with knowing and imitating fancy foreign customs) to consume their own native mead or beer straight (for this tradition, see pp. 212-215). Ingemark does concede this point, by noting that items can have primary, secondary, and tertiary uses (p. 131) and by suggesting that perhaps the Roman glassware was used simply for fruit beer which resembled wine (p. 222). In fact, if a wine-like colour mattered so much to the Scottish drinkers (something for which there is no evidence) plain beer made from moderately roasted barley malt could have been just as suitable as fruit beer,2 and interestingly, in an Old Irish poem (from around A.D. 1000 in its present form) mention is made of the wine- red coloured beers around Geirgin, likely a settlement in Scotland.3

I came across very few typographical mistakes, none of which were serious; the reader should be aware, however, that Welcomme's work does not appear in correct alphabetical order in the bibliography (p. 304).

Overall, this is an excellent work, carefully considered and composed, and of importance to anyone interested in Roman glassware, ancient European drinking practices, and the economic and cultural interactions between Romans and non-Romans during the principate.

Table of Contents

List of figures
List of plates
Part 1: Introduction and Methodology
Chapter 1: Introduction
Chapter 2: Methodology and representativity
Part 2: The Roman glass vessels and window glass from non-Roman/native contexts
Chapter 3: Catalogue
Part 3: Analysis—the glass as a symbol of status and as an instrument of power
Chapter 4: Glass and exchange
Chapter 5: Alcohol, 'generosity' and the exercise of power
Chapter 6: Glass, wine and knowledge—intellectual imports as a weapon of exclusion
Part 4: Conclusions and summary
Chapter 7: Glass, and the triad of status and power—wealth, 'generosity' and knowledge
Appendix A: A brief description of the sites
Appendix B: Vessels associated with wine in a Roman context found on non-Roman/native sites
Appendix C: Stratigraphical and spatial analysis of the Traprain Law glass by Fraser Hunter
Bibliography and index


1.   See M. Nelson, "The Geography of Beer in Europe from 1000 BC to AD 1000." In M. Patterson and N. Hoalst-Pullen, eds. The Geography of Beer: Regions, Environment, and Society (Berlin 2014), pp. 9-21, at p. 18; Ingemark makes no mention of the honey beer.
2.   See Nelson, op. cit., pp. 13-14 for ancient and medieval red ales.
3.   D. A. Binchy, ed. Scéla Cano meic Gartnáin (Dublin 1963), p. 18 (lines 484-485), with pp. xxvii and 38 on the location.

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