interruption – For the Voynich Ninjas #1

reprint a post from ‘Findings’ – for the Voynich ninjas.

This was my first survey of comparable containers – in the end, I decided that those from Buddhist Asia (both central and southern) were the closest in form, matching every element in the imagery.  That (brief) post is on the present blog.

So just for or historical interest, and for my fellow ninjas.


reprint from ‘Findings’ (blogger research blog, now closed).  Sorry the cut-and-paste wrecks the formatting. 😦

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Containers II: Glass? (fol.88)

Worth knowing

Some of the containers shown on fol 88 have swollen mid-sections which have been supposed made of glass though I think it unlikely that, if any of the materials used for the bellies of these objects (shown in detail) were glass, that it was blown glass.
The fabric in objects such as these appears to me to resemble stone with natural veining, filigree metalwork, carved ivory, carved nuts and similar eastern fabrics. The presence of the white ‘collars’ does suggest the use of glass, as an applied rod of colour, or as fusing method typical of an early glass technology.
The colour is relevant: among the peoples of Egypt, Arabia and North Africa the notion of the “white” has always held a connotation nearly equivalent to baraka: i.e. power, virtu, blessing.
The colour range for the objects shown is compatible with glass extant dated to between the 2ndC bce – 2ndC ce., (i.e. the span which has been constantly indicated by those iconographic motifs discussed in earlier posts).
Red-amber glass occurs in Mesopotamia by this time (illustrated below). Phoenician glass recovered from Cyprus is attested earlier. The examples illustrated below show tones typical of such work: green, tan-yellow and blues. For dynastic Egyptian core-moulded glass, the colour range was equally wide:
A milky-white color was produced with tin or lead oxide, yellow with antimony and lead, or ferrous compounds, red or orange with oxides of copper, violet with manganese salts, greenish blue (in imitation of the prized turquoise) with copper or iron compounds, dark blue (in imitation of lapis lazuli) with cobalt com-pounds and black with a larger proportion of copper and manganese, or with ferric compounds. The finished artifacts – little bottles, vases, goblets and bowls – were chiefly destined to hold cosmetics and fragrant unguents.

Evžen Strouhal, and Werner Forman, Life of the ancient Egyptians,Cambridge University Press, 1992 pp.142ff

Alabastron. White glass. Probably Phoenician 8th-6thC bce.
Pendant drops. green glass. Phoenician.
 The majority of the dynastic Egyptian works are unguent containers, extant examples showing several of the requisite design elements  – including the use of several flanges – but otherwide the ornament is very different. I do not consider it likely that fol.88 represents Egyptian work earlier than the first conquest by Rome.
To see the original images of containers in the beinecke ms see:
For the dates, places and styles of Phoenician glass found in the Mediterranan, see:


Glass. Phoenician. Crete.
From the first century ce to the mid-third century ce, artefacts begin to occur which are suited to the objects depicted on fol.88. The occurence of relevant artefacts follows the routes for trade in aromatics.  .
[Those routes are mapped and explained at:
The object illustrated at left is a particularly interesting example, since it is one of the few for which we have an almost exact form extant. Glass of a deep honey colour  -called ‘red’ – which was moulded, or core-blown in Mesopotamia. It is a colour which might have been known in that way to the wider Mediterranean for a short time before the destruction of Carthage, for the principal trade of the Phoenicians was between Mesopotamia and Egypt, taking goods across those regions, and between them through a series of affiliated ports and towns – among which one must mention the region upriver from Antioch ad Pyramum, near where has been found Hittite and Phoenician inscriptions.
Antioch ad Pryamum [-ad Sarum], was a town of Cilicia Campestris, between the Pyramus and Sarus rivers, 19 miles east from Mallus. i quote Hazlitt’s gazeteer.For the dates and composition of early copper red glass, a helpful reference is:
Bhardwaj, H.C., Aspects of Ancient Indian Technology, Motilal Banarsidass Publication (1979) pp.51ff.
(It is now out of print, but can be accessed online)

The example of that honey-red glass shown was sold as a “glass fruit”- probably envisaged as a date – and other examples of such glass-‘fruits’ have been found, as imports, in Rome.

Identifying the materials used for the containers depicted on fol.88 is hampered by a lack of finials (and stoppers) on most extant examples, but there is evidently little resemblance to Mediterranean artefacts.
Among the few useful examples from the Mediterranean corpus prior to 1438 is this Etruscan burner (illustrated) whose general outline somewhat similar, but again its upper terminal (in this case a handle) does not resemble those on fol.88.
If we supposed that the containers did include glass, and – for argument’s sake – blown glass, and further that they are intended as objects of Mediterranean origin (which I believe unlikely), then they could not have been made, or drawn, earlier than the 1stC ce, when the technique of blown glass was first developed in Syria. Thereafter,
“…the technique did not reach Alexandria until the latter half of the following century. As a rule clear glass was used, either of the natural greenish hue or with additives to make it colorless. It was cut with a copper wheel and ground with emery powder. The new discovery increased production many-fold and glass then ceased to be either a rarity or an upper-class prerogative.”

The artefacts on fol.88 do not match that description, but a third-century glass bottle of that natural hue, recovered at Karanais near Lake Mareotis, (on the same canal as Oxyrhynchos) does show comparable swirl- patterns and a comparable use of the collar.

For this reason, and others explained below, I believe that the third century ce would be an appropriate date for the first formulation of matter in this part of the manuscript, generally called ‘the pharmacological section’.

During the third century, a majority of the glass-makers in Egypt and in the closer Roman territories were Judaic groups whose aquisition of the technology is believed to have begun from Syria. Like so many occupations in the ancient world, the glass-maker’s profession was both hereditary and exclusive.

The following website provides a good, if somewhat partisan account of glass-making a this time, and explains how it happened that this technology, and that of silverwork, was in the hands of Judaic craftsmen.
A number of relevant citations and maps are included, e.g..

 “The oldest [Judaic] settlement in Germany was in Trier (a ghetto) and the first glasshouses of the Rhineland were founded there. After Trier, the oldest ghettos are in Cologne and Andernach, and it is significant that the oldest established glasshouses in Germany are likewise those in Cologne and Andernach.”
Those assertions are further considered by E.M. Stern, Roman mold-blown glass: the first through sixth centuries (Toledo Museum of Art Toledo Museum of Art – 1995) on p. 85.
Some pieces appear to be of Roman workmanship, however; one is the famous “Lycurgus cup”.
It is only when we follow the incense, spice and perfume roads eastward that objects with closer similarity to those on folio 88 are found, even if in most cases we must rely on modern examples of long-traditional forms for these objects. A survey of that region suggests that the Syrian traditions in glass, and in metalwork were transmitted and maintained from the early centuries of our era until the time when the manuscript was made.It is noteworthy, in this context, that Yemeni silverwork remained until no more than a couple of years ago, exclusively the craft of Yemeni-Jewish families, whose works remained equally traditional in style. In addition to amulet-cases and jewellery, the usual product were small containers meant to hold solid perfumes (attars/ottos) and ritual spice containers formed of stone and filgree silver. These come closest to those in fol.88, although one might suggest that in more affluent times more precious materials may have been incorporated into them. A number of contemporary examples are reproduced here.

Given that the Radhanites are said to have come from the old capital of Saba, and evidence of specifically Egyptian work is found as far as Gaul in the fifth century ce., it is perhaps not surprising that Morocco should be another of those regions where the Yemeni style occurs as traditional (tribal) silverwork, although again I have seen no Moroccan examples older than the nineteenth century. (The same is true for the Egyptian perfume bottles now widely available and considered characteristically Egyptian).
The Yemen has been a hub of the trade in incense, materia medica and aromatics from the earliest times.
Such a provenance for the containers shown on fol.88 would be compatible with other motifs in the manuscript, its inclusion of matter in common with India and Pakistan during the era of Greek influence and of Rome’s dominance over the near east, as well as the depiction of flora and fauna endemic to Socotra.
I believe a majority of the containers shown on fol.88 again relate to the east-west trade in “spices” and materia medica, and further to those same trading networks and routes which, by the tenth century, were particularly associated with the Radhanites.Derivation from forms developed in lands adjacent to the Indian Ocean would also explain why forms of container sold today in Egypt, or in Morocco should bear such close resemblance to those traditional among the Yemeni silversmiths. That is, that the forms for more ornate spice/medicine/perfume containers travelled by land or sea along the older routes of trade. In the next post, these will be described.

After the fall of Palmyra in the third century ce, the chief entrepots for that trade tended to change according to the political situation. By the tenth century, Egypt was the chief point of exchange for trade into mainland Europe, but by 1340, Acre was the place from which most aromatics were obtained for  western Christendom. There is some question about whether the ‘Babil’ of the Nabatean Agriculture lay in Egypt, or in Mesopotamia.

In regard to the last, it is possible, and even likely that the last section of the manuscript – known as the ‘receipts’ or ‘recipes’ section, may include material also found in  the Nabatean Agriculture and/or Al Kindi’s Kitab Kimiya’ al-‘Itr, both of which were compiled in Arabic and disseminated through Baghdad, during the ninth century.

In my opinion, the containers shown on fol.88 are likely to date to the late second or early 3rdC ce but given the traditional nature of societies and professions in that region, a date as late as 9thC ce. is not entirely impossible.

Illustrated left: Egyptian scent bottle. 20thC.

I consider the later date unlikely chiefly because I doubt that any of the objects in the detail (from fol. 88  – first illustration, above)  incorporate blown glass, and by that time core-moulded and blown glass had been superceded, and specifically Islamic influence could be expected in artefacts produced from Baghdad.

I have found no noticeable similarity in the objects shown in this folio to pieces of extant Venetian medieval glass, except insofar as the Venetian works imitated those of contemporary Islam.

Any resemblance between objects on fol.88 and the type of ceramic apothecary jars illustrated (15thC)  is incidental – the bodies of the latter are based upon classical Roman urns, while the lids reflect the same established habit depicted in earlier medieval manuscripts, where lids of this type are sometimes shown on the small containers held by the women attending Christ’s tomb.

A far greater affinity is evident between the containers in fol.88 and traditional artefacts of Indian, Buddhist and Himalayan origin.

It is therefore possible, that similar objects may once have been typical of trade-cities which flourished during the early centuries of the common era, and where both Indian and Judaic presence has been posited at that time, but which cities have since been lost. One might mention as examples: the cities of the Nabateans, Sabaeans, Illyrians, the cities of Edessa and Harran, and the devastated capitals of the Kushans and Khazars.

Going solely on the example of extant objects, and the context to which other iconographic details point, I would suggest these containers derive from eastern craftsmen, particularly those established in India, the entrepots of Egypt, in the Yemen and in pre-Islamic Arabia by the end of the 2nd – early 3rdC ce. There are notable points of similarity to traditional Gujarati and Judaic traditional silver work, and to silverwork in tribal northern Africa.

On the interaction between Buddhism and merchants about the Indian Ocean during the same centuries, see Himanshu Ray, Winds of Change.
Precedent and context.
 A number of works in silver from the 15th and 16th centuries seem, at first, to be very close in style to the objects on fol.88 and throughout the manuscript’s ‘pharma’ section. That initial impression passes when one notices, first, that all examples date from after the date for our manuscript and, second, that they lack important design elements and motifs. The apparent similarity, therefore, is most reasonably attributed to a contemporary fascination felt by patrons and smiths for works of eastern, and far-eastern workmanship: in glass, metalwork and gemsetting.
Illustrated right is a 17thC reliquary. Mantua.
Purely by way of contrast, I will add images of some other pieces,demonstrating typical style through the geographic and temporal range which was considered in the course of the research. It will be seen that while some have elements in common with the objects in fol.88, none are as close in style. The Oxford ‘Salt’ is particularly interesting in this context.
refs: see also:

The first two examples are “Salt”s –  used chiefly as a marker of social division at table.

‘Salt’ New College, Oxford 1493
‘Salt’ Christ’s Hospital, 1607
Spice box, Yemen. 19thC. traditional design. The filigree flower frm is a constant element in yemeni work. Here seen at the base of a tower, it is also used for a domed lid. (See earlier illustration)
reliquary. Glass centre section 12thC near-eastern. The mounting is Saxon, 14thC.
reliquary. Korean replica of Buddhist stupa. 14thC.
Glass urn. Roman 3rdC ce
Scent bottle. Trailed work typically Samarian. Roman era (3rd-4thC ce). Find-place uncertain.
Ivory. Benin. Oroway royal regalia.
‘Wishing tree’ filigree stonework. Jain.
‘Spice Tree’ Austro-Hungarian. Late 19thC.
Scent bottle. Provenance unknown; probably Moroccan.
Incense burners. Sogdian. 1stC ce.
Spice container (besamin). Traditional Jewish design. 20thC
Container for holy oil [Myron?] Armenian Christian. Traditional design.
Unguent jars. Egypto-Phoenician, ‘Punic’
Woven bamboo over China. Traditional method. Contemporary examples.
Incense burner. Provenance unknown. Possibly egyptian. Possibly 10thC.
Scent bottles. Morocco. modern.
All from Iran. 12thC. Notice the vessel on the lower left, its collar and lack of any ring of ‘eye’ dots.
Container. Coconut shell. German 16thC.
Spice bottles. Modern Egyptian. Some traditional work, white carving/painting on dark wood.
Container. Coconut shell. carved. 19thC, for western use.
Container. Coconut. carved. Traditional design, Marquesas.


Spice box. Gujarat. very conservative design. 20thC
Spice box (bessamin). 19thC, traditional Jewish design.

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