Piecing together the story of ancient glass after the Beirut explosion

In 2020, a chemical explosion in Beirut caused 218 deaths and widespread destruction. It also shattered one of the world’s richest collections of ancient glassware, offering experts the chance to analyse the artefacts in ways that would otherwise have been impossible


29 September 2022

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

The Archaeological Museum, American University of Beirut

PICTURE a 2000-year-old glass jug – turquoise tint, elegant spout. It probably decanted wine at lavish Roman banquets, surviving earthquakes and war before finding itself standing among similarly beautiful, delicate pieces in the American University of Beirut (AUB) Archaeological Museum in Lebanon. Then, in an instant, it shatters.

At least 218 people died and thousands more were injured when a giant pile of ammonium nitrate exploded at the port of Beirut on 4 August 2020. The blast was one of the largest non-nuclear, human-made explosions recorded, and the subsequent shock wave wreaked devastation for kilometres 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 civilisation. As one of the oldest museums in the area, the AUB housed a particularly rich collection of ancient glass artefacts. The blast smashed 72 jars, bowls, cups and other vessels dating back to the ancient Romans (1st century BC to 5th century AD), the Byzantine Empire (4th to 15th century AD) and the Islamic Golden Age (8th to 13th century AD).

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

ANWAR AMRO/AFP via Getty Images

Rather than try to fix everything, however, AUB Archaeological Museum curator Nadine Panayot saw an opportunity in the debris. Much …

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