Glass was extremely valued throughout the Roman Empire, notably a colorless, clear model that resembled rock crystal. However the supply of this coveted materials — often called Alexandrian glass — has lengthy remained a thriller. Now, by learning hint portions of the aspect hafnium inside the glass, researchers have proven that this prized commodity actually did originate in historic Egypt.

It was in the course of the time of the Roman Empire that drinks and meals had been served in glass vessels for the primary time on a big scale, mentioned Patrick Degryse, an archaeometrist at KU Leuven in Belgium, who was not concerned within the new research. “It was on each desk,” he mentioned. Glass was additionally utilized in home windows and mosaics.

All that tumbler needed to come from someplace. Between the primary and ninth centuries A.D., Roman glassmakers in coastal areas of Egypt and the Levant crammed furnaces with sand. The large slabs of glass they created tipped the scales at as much as practically 20 tons. That cup was then damaged up and distributed to glass workshops, the place it was remelted and formed into closing merchandise.

However what many individuals actually needed was colorless glass, so glassmakers experimented with including completely different parts to their batches. Producers within the Levant are recognized to have added manganese, which reacts with iron impurities in sand. The manganese-treated glass nonetheless retained a little bit of coloration, nevertheless, mentioned Gry Hoffmann Barfod, a geoscientist at Aarhus College in Denmark who led the research, which was published this month in Scientific Stories. “It wasn’t good,” she mentioned.

Glassmakers additionally tried including antimony, with a lot better outcomes. “That made it utterly crystal clear,” Dr. Barfod mentioned.

And costly: A worth checklist issued by the Roman emperor Diocletian within the early fourth century A.D. refers to this colorless glass as “Alexandrian” and values it at nearly double the price of manganese-treated glass. However the provenance of Alexandrian glass, regardless of its title, had by no means been conclusively pinned to Egypt.

“We have now the factories for the manganese-decolorized glass, however we don’t have them for the Alexandrian glass,” Dr. Barfod mentioned. “It’s been a thriller that historians have dreamed of fixing.”

Motivated by that enigma, Dr. Barfod and her colleagues analyzed 37 fragments of glass excavated in northern Jordan. The sherds, every an inch or two lengthy, included Alexandrian glass and manganese-treated glass from the primary by the fourth centuries A.D. The pattern additionally included different specimens of glass recognized to have been produced extra not too long ago in both Egypt or the Levant.

The researchers targeted on hafnium, a hint aspect discovered within the mineral zircon, a element of sand. They measured the focus of hafnium and the ratio of two hafnium isotopes within the sherds.

Glass cast in numerous geographic areas had completely different hafnium signatures, Dr. Barfod and her collaborators confirmed. Egyptian glass persistently contained extra hafnium and had decrease isotope ratios than glass produced within the Levant, the staff discovered.

These variations make sense, Dr. Barfod and her colleagues suggest, as a result of the zircon crystals inside sand are inadvertently sorted by nature.

After being expelled from the mouth of the Nile, sand sweeps east and north up the coast of the Levant, propelled by water currents. The zircon crystals inside it are heavy, so they have an inclination to settle out early within the journey on Egyptian seashores. That explains why glass cast in Egyptian furnaces tends to include extra hafnium than Levantine glass, the researchers recommend.

When researchers analyzed the sherds of Alexandrian and manganese-treated glass, they once more discovered distinct variations in hafnium. The manganese-treated glass had hafnium properties in step with being produced within the Levant, as anticipated. And Alexandrian glass, the clearest of the clear when it got here to clear glass, chemically resembled Egyptian glass.

It’s rewarding to lastly pin down the provenance of Alexandrian glass, Dr. Barfod mentioned, including, “This has been an open query for many years.”

However it’s nonetheless a thriller why glasses from Egypt and the Levant exhibit completely different ratios of hafnium isotopes. One risk is that the zircons containing sure isotopic ratios are larger, denser, or bulkier, which impacts their motion, Dr. Barfod mentioned. “We don’t know.”

Analyzing the chemistry of Egyptian and Levantine seaside sand could be a logical approach of confirming these findings, Dr. Barfod mentioned. “The following step would clearly be to exit and get sand from each locations.”