Virtual exhibit
The Norton Collection of Ancient Glass

This exhibition is a first for the Beaulne Museum for the value and quality of the objects on display. It is composed exclusively of artefacts from the Norton Collection of Ancient Glass belonging to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. For many years these same objects were once kept here at Norton Manor, before the collection was eventually broken up and the artefacts dispersed elsewhere. Apart from highlighting Harry Norton’s work as a collector, this exhibition explains the historical context of the pieces on display, from their production to their geographical range and their various uses in ancient times.

We would like to extend our deep gratitude to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts for the loan of the artefacts, and also our sincere thanks to the Ministry of Culture and Communications, the Town of Coaticook, the Foundation “Les Amis du Musée Beaulne”, Caisse Desjardins des Verts-Sommets de l’Estrie, Group Cabico Inc., Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton, Mrs. Johanne Provencher, Mr. Gerald Cutting, Mr. Roch Létourneau and all other partners who have supported this project.

Harry Norton, the Collector

Harry Arunah Norton was born in Coaticook in 1872. He was the son of Arthur Osmore Norton, an entrepreneur and affluent businessman who owned factories in Coaticook and Boston that manufactured jacks for the railroad.

Most of his pieces seem to have been bought through dealers, mainly through Azeez Khayat (1875-1943), a self-educated antiquities dealer and owner of a New York art gallery.

Khayat, who was Lebanese, returned regularly to Lebanon, which at the time was part of the Ottoman Empire. On these trips he would buy art work and bring pieces back to sell on the North American market. He kept his sources of supply and his purchases in Lebanon highly secret, as it was illegal to export antiquities under the Ottoman regime.

Some of his collectibles were carefully kept on display at his property in Coaticook, as seen in photographs taken in 1942 by G. Nakash.

Harry Norton first donated pieces to the MMFA in the 1920’s. When he died, his collection was broken up. Some of it was gifted to the MMFA or to the Royal Ontario Museum. The rest was sold over the next few years to dealers and to other collectors.

Harry Norton (1872-1948)
Beaulne Museum

Objects from Norton’s Collections displayed on shelves at Norton Manor (Beaulne Museum)

History, Materials, Techniques

The most ancient objects made of glass are from Mesopotamia and Egypt, dating from about 2500 years BCE.

Glass was one of the very first synthetic materials. It is composed essentially of sand and soda. Sand—silica—forms glass when heated. Silica is one of the most common naturally occurring substances on the earth. It can be found either as sands to varying degrees of purity, as quartz, or as flint that can be crushed. It melts at a very high temperature (1,710 degrees Celsius, or about 3000 degrees Fahrenheit), turning to glass as it cools.

A few specialized centres made basic slabs of glass; these were the primary workshops from which glass would then be exported. Archaeological digs have shown that the most ancient primary workshops were in Egypt and the Syro-Palestine region. Later, around the 1st century, primary workshops were also established on the Italian peninsula. 

From these first centres, the pieces of rough glass were sent to secondary workshops throughout the Mediterranean.  

The techniques used were casting, core forming, ribbon glass, Glassblowing, Free-Blown Glass, mold blowing, etc.

Examples :

Core forming

Around 1400 BCE glassmakers developed the technique of shaping glass around a core of clay. This advance made it possible to create hollow containers with a small opening by shaping molten glass around a core made of a mix of clay and sand. 

The core was supported on a rod made of copper, wet wood, clay, or from the 1st millennium, of iron. Its shape formed the inside of the vessel. Once the core had been covered with molten glass and then cooled, it could be broken up and removed. Traces or impressions of the core are sometimes visible inside of containers made using this technique. Core forming was quite limited technique and could be used as such only for making narrow vases that were quite small. 

Over time, glassmakers developed new techniques using molds and turntables such as the potter’s wheel, making it possible to create a variety of vases from monochromatic to polychromatic vessels.   

1953.Dg.10. Amphoriskos
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
Syro-Palestinian Area (?) 3rd-2nd c. B.C.
Core wound glass
Photo MMFA

Ribbon glass

Containers made of ribbon glass (also known as banded glass) began to appear from the 2nd century BCE until the middle of the 1st century CE.

Bands of coloured glass were fused together in long ribbons, which were then arranged in parallel lines. The glassmaker fused them by holding a heated core attached to a metal rod directly over the coloured bands.

1953.Dg.25. Fragment
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
Eastern Mediterranean, 2nd c. B.C. - mid 1st c. A.D.
Banded glass
Photo MMFA

Free-Blown Glass

Glass vessels were first shaped by a technique known as “free-blown” glassmaking, which is still in use today. The glassblower picks up a red-hot gather of glass (known also as a gob) on the end of a hollow metal pipe, known as a blowpipe. 

He then rolls the molten glass on a flat surface, the marver, to give it an evenly cylindrical shape. Once this is achieved, he blows a small air bubble through the pipe into the gather (known as the parison at this stage). He swings the pipe to form a long narrow tube, and then since the parison is still soft at the end, he blows through the pipe again until the vessel achieves the desired shape. He uses a tool (a type of pincer; a “jacks” is made of metal, a “clapper” of wood) to flatten the base.

1953.Dg.48. Flask
Montreal Museum of Fine Art
Eastern Mediterranean, 1st c. A.D.
Blown marbled glass
Photo MMFA


The main uses of glass in the period of Antiquity are: adornments, cosmetics and perfume, food and drink, preservation, funeral practices, etc. Examples:


Ancient people first used glass to adorn themselves. The earliest items made of glass were beads. Over the centuries, glass jewelry came to include pendants, earrings, bracelets, rings, intaglios, and military decorations. In the 2nd millennium BCE pieces of glass jewelry were rare and considered highly valuable; glass jewelry in the Roman era, on the other hand, was worth much less than similar items made of gold or silver.

1929.Ea.9. Necklace
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
Egypt, About 1550-1292 B.C.
Blue faience, glass and gilt metal beads
Photo MMFA

1953.Dg.179. Necklace
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
Roman Empire, 1st c. B.C. -1st c. A.D.
Glass, gilded glass and gilded brass beads (?)
Photo MMFA

Cosmetics and perfume

From very ancient times, glass was used to fashion containers for personal toiletries such as perfumes and scented oils, ointments and creams, cosmetics and medicinal balms. Glass has many qualities that made it desirable: it is non porous, has a smooth and shiny surface, and can be coloured. Glass perfume containers began to gradually replace those made of ceramic during the reign of Emperor Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE).

In ancient times, both men and women would perfume their bodies and their hair. Perfumes were available as solid pastes but more often in liquid form. Animal grease, oils (olive, linseed, almond, castor oil, or others) or even water was mixed with aromatic substances, some of them from distant locations. Ancient perfume scents included rose, lily, iris, cinnamon (very expensive), laurel, marjoram, frankincense and myrrh. Perfumes were made using cold maceration or warm extraction processes. The technique of making perfume by distillation was unknown to the ancient peoples. This method was only discovered later, in the 9th century CE.

Besides perfumes, toiletry articles included pomades, beauty masks, foundation, eyeshadow, lipstick, and even toothpaste. These mixtures were held in containers made of various materials—of shell, ceramic, bone, or in little glass bottles. People used glass sticks of different colours for mixing and applying cosmetics and creams.


1953.Dg.80. Unguentarium
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
Roman Empire, 1st 2nd c. A.D.
Blown glass
Photo MMFA

1953.Dg.166. Unguentarium
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
Roman Empire, 1st c. A.D.
Blown glass
Photo MMFA

Food and drink

Glass is smooth and non porous, and is well suited to be used for dining. When glass plates or vessels are transparent, they highlight the food or beverages contained within. As early as the 8th century BCE, transparent glass cups were used for important occasions. Although molded glassware remained a luxury product, it nevertheless became more commonly used during the 2nd century BCE. During the Roman era, blown glass dishware was used for everyday dining and food service. Both common and more rare objects were in use at the time, from ordinary drinking and pouring vases, and dishes and cups, to less common items such as funnels, siphons and glass spoons.

1953.Dg.84. Bowl
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
Roman Empire, Late 1st early 3rd c. A.D.
Blown glass
Photo MMFA

1953.Dg.108. Goblet
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
Roman Empire, 4th 7th c. A.D.
Blown glass
Photo MMFA


As a waterproof and stable material, glass is ideal for storing and transporting liquids, condiments, and other preserved foods. Glass containers held oil, wine, and “garum”, and items preserved in salt, vinegar and mustard. Containers could be formed in an infinite variety of shapes. The risk of cracking or breaking was their only drawback.

In ancient times, glass jars were made in a wide variety of spherical or egg-shaped forms, with or without handles, in order to hold, transport and preserve food and condiments. These containers varied considerably in their holding capacities. During the Roman Empire, round wide-mouthed jars made of green or blue glass were generally used for storing. Thick-walled bottles that had been shaped by mold blowing into prism-shaped, square or rectangular forms were useful, as they saved space. Such bottles were used for transport. They could be sealed with a cork, a piece of canvas, or a clay stopper. When they were loaded onto boats to be transported, bottles were often stacked and separated by a layer of plant or vegetable matter. They could be individually wrapped for protection, such as with a basketry of woven reeds for example, or carefully placed in wooden cases or in baskets which were then stuffed with straw or cloth. Individual woven reed covers for bottles also had the advantage of improving the preservation of the foodstuffs inside.

Moreover, people at that time did what we often do now, that is, they reused both commercial jars (such as modern Mason jars) and their wrappings over again, for other purposes.

1953.Dg.138. Bottle
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
Near East or Egypt, 2nd 4th c. A.D.
Blown glass
Photo MMFA

1953.Dg.119. Jar
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
Syria, 4th 5th c. A.D.
Blown glass
Photo MMFA