Glass is an excellent example of a Silk Roads trade-good whose pattern of exchange can be used to further understanding of the societies, economies and interactions of the diverse civilizations of the past. In the case of glass, the key developments in its production, design and export took place predominantly in the Mediterranean, the Iranian Plateau and the Arabian Peninsula. However, Silk Roads trade also left many traces of glassware across China and the South East that predates the eventual production of glass locally.
Glass was first produced more than 3500 years ago probably somewhere in Mesopotamia or Egypt. The Roman historian Pliny believed the Phoenicians were the first to make glass in around 5000 BCE. However, the earliest evidence of glass production in the archaeological record dates from around 3500 BCE. Glass was then traded from the regions around the Red Sea to the East throughout the first century CE where it has been found in archaeological sites in the Far East providing considerable evidence for far-reaching trade-relationships and the interactions of different cultures that occurred consequently.
Although Glass did not play as important of a role in arts and crafts in China when compared to ceramics and metalwork, glassware was imported to China from regions to the West during the late Spring and Autumn period (771-403 BCE). Imported glass can be identified in the archaeological record by its composition, typically soda-lime glass, which differs from that which was later produced in the region itself. Archaeological excavations have revealed imported glass eye beads, which were considered valuable objects, across South East Asia in the Philippines, Thailand, Java, Sumatra and Borneo. In South China, glass beads have been found in not only the tombs of nobles but also in those belonging to regular citizens.
Furthermore, mosaic purple glass Roman bowls made from the same soda-lime silica glass, have been uncovered at sites in China. Bowls of this type were popular across the Mediterranean during the first century and reached China via Silk Roads trade. Additionally, at the eastern port of Nanjing, Roman glass has been uncovered in tombs from the Eastern Jin (317-420 CE) period. Later, pieces of Sasanian (224-651 CE) glassware from the Iranian Plateau were brought to China via the overland Silk Roads and these spread to the north of China before reaching Japan via maritime routes.
Similarly, glassware from the 5th century discovered in Silla tumuli (burial mounds) in the Korean Peninsula again is of a chemical composition (containing alkali) dissimilar to glass produced in ancient Chinese glass, suggesting it is of Roman origin.
Studies have indicated that glass making with local materials did not begin in China until around the 4th or 3rd century BCE. Compound eye beads were amongst some of the earliest glass products made in China and these were imitations of those produced in Western Asia.
There is considerable evidence for far reaching trade relationships involving the exchange of glassware, which stretched across the Silk Roads, and concurrently of the cross-cultural interaction, which took place in terms of the incorporation of different artistic and stylistic elements within glassware production.