A rare gallo-roman blue-green blown glass lidded urn or cinerarium. 1st-2nd century A.D.

The large globular body with concave base, the wide everted rim hollow-folded outwards to form a flat tubular rim, two large vertical trailed glass handles attached to rim and lower belly of the urn, each with pinched ornamental fold at base, in the centre and at the top, the lid with perforation through the knob, traces of purple and coloured iridescence around the rim. 11 5/8 in. (29.5 cm.) high incl. lid. Est. £40,000 - £60,000. Lot sold £73,250

Provenance: Plesch collection (AGv 27hl); acquired from Sidney Moss, Grosvenor House Antiques Fair, London, June 1966.

EXHIBITED AND PUBLISHED: 50th Anniversary Exhibition of The Circle of Glass Collectors, Broadfield House Glass Museum and The Pilkington Glass Museum, 1987-1988, no. 12.

This urn is exceedingly rare, a Gallic variant of the glass cinerarium well known throughout the Western Roman Empire and Britain in the 1st-2nd Century A.D. The preferred funerary ritual at that time was cremation rather than inhumation, the remains of the deceased being placed in an urn. Glass urns have been found in graves from France, Germany, Britain, Central Europe, Italy and Spain; they were used both for household purposes - some found in Italy contain traces of fruit and oil - and to hold the ashes or bones of the deceased. The earliest date from the 1st Century B.C., the latest from the mid-3rd Century A.D., at which time cremation was superseded by burial in sarcophagi.
The example we have here has a body of inverted shape with sloping shoulders; what makes it particularly unusual are the highly ornamental vertical handles attached to the rim and lower belly. This urn would have come from a workshop in Southern Gaul, its elaborate and elegant form indicating that it belonged to someone of high status. It is intact, and appears to be the only surviving complete example of its type in private hands. The shape is recorded in J. Morin-Jean, La verrerie en Gaule sous l'empire Romain, Paris, 1913, p. 49, fig. 22, where the line drawing is of a lidded urn in the Musée Calvet, Avignon, France (inv. no. M13). It is almost identical in shape, the vertical handles varying slightly in having no central pinched fold and a somewhat straighter, rather than folded, projection at the rim. Morin-Jean remarks that this variant, an 'olla' with a handle shape that is clearly derived from metal-working techniques, is rare and worthy of note. The Avignon urn is the only one listed of this type and is, in Morin-Jean's opinion, inspired by the alabaster urns of the early Roman Imperial Period. One other similar is known, found in the Place des Carmes, Nîmes, published in D. Foy and M-D. Nenna, Tout feu, Tout sable. Mille ans de verre antique dans le midi de la France, Marseille, 2001, p. 209, no. 376.

The four main types of glass cinerary urn have been classified, cf. C. Isings, Roman Glass from Dated Finds, Gronigen, 1957; and G. A. Eisen, Glass, New York, 1927. All have globular or stamnoid-shaped bodies, some have lids and handles, some are without. The handles are arc or M-shaped, vertical, and attached to the shoulder of the vessel in each case. For a well-known handled type, cf. Ancient Glass, The Bomford Collection of Pre-Roman and Roman Glass, City of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, Bristol, 1976, no. 70; and for the unlidded globular type, cf. F. Fremersdorf and E. Polonyi-Fremersdorf, Die Farblosen Gläser der Frühzeit in Köln, Cologne, 1984, pp. 31-32, nos. 79-83.

Christie's. Antiquities. 28 April 2009. London, South Kensington www.christies.com Photo: Christie's Images Ltd. 2009