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19 October 2022

Medieval Islamic glass reveals untold histories

Islamic glass fragments discovered at Caerlaverock Castle in the 1990s inspired a collaborative community project to unravel the story of their origins

Our Applied Conservation Manager at HES, examines a piece of Islamic glass at the Engine Shed in Stirling.

A trio of Islamic glass fragments discovered by archaeologists at Caerlaverock Castle, near Dumfries, in the late 1990s, has inspired a collaborative community project to unravel the story of their origins and recreate the original object - a medieval Islamic glass drinking beaker.

The first and only glass of its kind to be found at an archaeological site in Scotland, it is believed that the original vessel would have been made in modern-day Syria, Iraq or Egypt during the 12th and 13th centuries, all of which were important centres of Islamic glassmaking.

The fragments are inscribed with part of the Arabic word for ‘eternal’, likely used as one of the 99 names of Allah, which suggests that it could be an extract from the Qur’an.  Although tiny in size – at 3.1cm x 2.8cm – the two fragments together are smaller than a ping pong ball and give clues to Scotland’s contact with the wider world during the medieval period. 

Stefan Sagrott, Archaeologist and Senior Cultural Resources Advisor from Historic Environment Scotland (HES) said: 

Discovering Islamic glass from the 13th century in a Scottish castle, is an absolutely astounding find. Glass wasn’t commonly used at this time. It was used for stained glass windows in monasteries, cathedrals and some smaller churches and chapels.

“But it’s very rare to find it being used for window glass in castles and tower houses at this time – this happened a couple of hundred years later.

“There wouldn’t be many vessels or objects made from glass either, and if people did have them, they don’t tend to survive today.  Glass degrades quickly when it’s in acidic soil, which is found a lot in Scotland.  So, we’re always going to lose evidence of it.”

Now, almost a quarter of a century after the fragments were discovered, they are back in the spotlight at the heart of a community project called Eternal Connections, which has sparked discussion and learning around the heritage of Scotland’s Muslim communities.

Working with 3D models, creative practitioners and community groups, Eternal Connections used cutting-edge scientific analysis and research data to forge new ways of understanding the contemporary and historic connections between Scotland and Islam.

A 3D model of what the original drinking beaker of the found glass might have looked like. It has a vase-shape form and a blue and gold line below the rim with Arabic writing on it. It is also decorated with a golden fish.

Stirlingshire-based visual artist Alice Martin researched contemporaneous medieval Islamic glass and worked with a team of experts from HES who used state-of-the-art techniques to analyse the fragments and produce 3D data. This enabled Martin to create a 3D-model digital reconstruction of the glass fragments to show what the beaker might have looked like originally.

Martin said:

“The fragments are decorated with an Arabic inscription that would have been wrapped around the circumference of the beaker when it was complete.

“Scientific analysis has shown there would once have been red and gold decoration, as well as the blue and white that’s still visible. This type of Islamic glass was thought to be valuable, it’s very precise and delicate.

“From the scientific evidence, research and known history, we thoroughly considered how an Islamic glass drinking beaker ended up in Scotland, and we suspect it may have come to Caerlaverock Castle through trade or could even have been brought back by returning crusaders.”

The project worked with community groups, including the Muslim Scouts in Edinburgh and the Glasgow-based AMINA – Muslim Women’s Resource Centre, to provide a series of informative workshops centred on the story of the Islamic glass.

The workshops focused on the beaker shape, decorative designs and calligraphy using Arabic script and Gaelic onto 3D prints. Other elements focused on archaeology and demonstrated the technology used to analyse the glass fragments.

Aisha Qadar, Cub Section Leader for the 8th Braid Salaam Scouts in Edinburgh comments:

“The Eternal Connections project was a hugely worthwhile experience.  Our Cubs, Scouts and Venture Scouts thoroughly enjoyed learning about the connection between Scottish heritage and their Islamic identity.  The fact there is a connection that goes back 800 years here in Scotland gives us a real sense of belonging.”

Creative Wellbeing Practitioner Vicky Mohieddeen who ran workshops with AMINA – Muslim Women’s Resource Centre commented:

“Eternal Connections provoked very strong reactions within our group – more than I think anyone could have anticipated. These small pieces of glass held within them themes of separation, uncertainty, homeland and family – themes with a particular resonance for our group.

“Many of the women in our group are prevented from working and participating in society due to the UK asylum system, so allowing them the opportunity to share their own extensive knowledge about history and culture with the HES team had a big impact."

Dr Lyn Wilson, Head of Programme for Research & Climate Change at HES commented on the overall success of the Eternal Connections project:

Unravelling the story of the three glass fragments and recreating a replica of what the medieval Islamic glass drinking beaker would have looked like has been a fascinating project.

“The purpose of the Eternal Connections project has been to engage with wide ranging audiences to celebrate our shared cultural heritage - using advanced scientific and digital techniques made this possible.

“Working with creative practitioners and Scottish Muslim groups really brought the project to life.  We were all incredibly inspired and connected to the history and possible stories of how the object came to be in Scotland.”

HES received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Capability for Collections Fund to purchase the scientific and digital equipment used to analyse the glass fragments and the follow-on Public Engagement Fund to deliver the Eternal Connections project.

An interactive online experience has been created using the ThingLink platform to share the project outcomes which can be explored. Visitors can explore a Sketchfab 3D model of the artistic recreation and download a model to 3D print to paint their own version.

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