Reconstructing the history of ancient glass after the explosion in Beirut

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In 2020, a chemical explosion in Beirut caused 218 deaths and massive destruction. It also shattered one of the richest collections of ancient glassware in the world, giving experts the ability to analyze artifacts in ways that would otherwise have been impossible.

Humans


September 29, 2022


Early to mid-Roman glass bowl; bell-shaped flask from the Islamic Golden Age; small late Roman cup; high-necked jug with a turquoise hue from early Roman times

The Archaeological Museum, American University of Beirut

IMAGE a 2000 year old glass carafe – turquoise tint, elegant spout. It likely decanted wine at lavish Roman banquets, surviving earthquakes and warfare before ending up among equally beautiful and delicate pieces in the Archaeological Museum of the American University of Beirut (AUB) in Lebanon. Then, in an instant, it breaks.

At least 218 people died and thousands more were injured when a giant pile of ammonium nitrate exploded in the port of Beirut on August 4, 2020. The explosion was one of the largest explosions not recorded man-made nuclear weapons, and the ensuing shock wave wreaks havoc for miles around.

The incident was also a cultural calamity. The wider region around Lebanon is touted as the crucible of glass production, a material that has helped shape civilization. As one of the oldest museums in the region, the AUB housed a particularly rich collection of ancient glass objects. The blast shattered 72 pots, bowls, cups and other vessels dating from Ancient Rome (1st century BC to 5th century AD), Byzantine Empire (4th to 15th century AD) and Age Islamic gold medallion (8th to 13th century AD).

TOPSHOT - A photo shows the scene of an explosion in Beirut on August 4, 2020. - A large explosion rocked the Lebanese capital Beirut on August 4, an AFP correspondent said.  The explosion, which shook entire buildings and shattered windows, was felt in several parts of the city.  (Photo by Anwar AMRO/AFP) (Photo by ANWAR AMRO/AFP via Getty Images)

A pile of ammonium nitrate exploded in Beirut, Lebanon on August 4, 2020. The explosion killed 218 people and injured thousands

ANWAR AMRO/AFP via Getty Images

Rather than try to fix everything, AUB Archaeological Museum curator Nadine Panayot saw an opportunity in the rubble. A lot …

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