Baffling, ancient Roman fragment in UK traced to rather unlikely origin

23 Jul 2019

A preserved Roman bath house. Image: © bnoragitt/

Puzzling scientists for the past two years, an ancient Roman fragment found in the UK has been traced to an unlikely origin.

A Roman fragment uncovered two years ago in an ancient villa in the UK town of Chedworth, Gloucestershire, is being described as an extraordinary find unlike anything else discovered in that part of Europe.

With help from other researchers, archaeologists from the University of York have now identified the mysterious fragment as being from an ornate glass fish believed to be 1,800 years old.

The fish, which may have been used to hold exotic perfumes, hails from a site thousands of kilometres away in the Black Sea, in what is now Ukraine. Since its discovery in 2017, the fragment’s intricate design puzzled researchers regarding its origin, but only now – with the help of some of the world’s top experts – has the mystery been solved.

The fragment was matched with a surviving fish-shaped bottle, restored from many different pieces, and it is currently housed in the Corning Museum of Glass in New York. By comparing the UK fragment with the New York bottle, the late Prof Jennifer Price concluded it came from the tail of the glass fish. The only other example of such a Roman bottle comes from a second-century burial in Crimea.

The intricate green, yellow, white and red Roman glass fish with a hand holding the UK fragment beside it.

The fragment above an artist’s impression of how the fish bottle would have looked. Image: National Trust/Rod Kirkpatrick/F Stop Press

The Chedworth bottle was made using an unusual technique, with the decoration laid on top of the blue-green surface to create scales in loops of white and yellow. It is likely that the fish’s open mouth acted as the spout for the vessel.

Peter Moore, who first discovered the fragment, said that this discovery is unlike anything ever found in Britain and sheds new light on the influence the town of Chedworth had in Roman times.

“When it appeared, the first wipe of the surface showed the colour and it quickly became apparent it was something special,” he said.

“Excavating anything at Chedworth and knowing that you are the first person to gaze upon it for at least 1,800 years is a feeling that never tires; the memory of recovering this piece of glass certainly will not.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic