Sunday, November 25, 2007

Weekly Websites - Egyptian glass

Yet again, David Petersen has been sending me some great news items and resources on the Web. This week he has focused on Egyptian glass. Here are some of his links:

Archaeologists Discover an Ancient Egyptian Glass Factory (John Noble Wilford)
New York Times

In Egypt and the rest of the Middle East in the 13th century B.C., bronze was the heavy metal of power, and glass the rare commodity coveted by the powerful, who treasured glass jewelry, figurines and decorative vessels and exchanged them as prestige gifts on a par with semiprecious stones.

But definitive evidence of the earliest glass production long eluded archaeologists. They had found scatterings of glassware throughout the Middle East as early as the 16th century B.C. and workshops where artisans fashioned glass into finished objects, but they had never found an ancient factory where they were convinced glass had been made from its raw materials.

Two archaeologists now report finding such a factory in the ruins of an Egyptian industrial complex from the time of Rameses the Great. The well-known site, Qantir-Piramesses, in the eastern Nile delta, flourished in the 13th century B.C. as a northern capital of the pharaohs.

Glass Making
Tour Egypt

There is still some doubt as to when and where glass was invented. The tradition passed on by Pliny locates the event on the Phoenician coast, in modem Lebanon, where there later grew one of the most important glass-making centers.

In Egypt, the first glass we know of, as a component of faience ware, dates from as far back as the Neolithic Badarian culture at the turn of the 5th and 4th millennia BC. Glass is produced from a mixture of silica-sand, lime and soda, colored with the copper ore malachite and fused at a high temperature.

In the oldest Egyptian faience ware a skin of this substance was applied to a core made of silica-sand and clay, or of the stone steatite. This was used at first only for beads, but later on for amulets, shawabtis (the little figurines of the attendants of the deceased), other figures and inlays (shapes inserted into the sides of vessels, wooden objects, or into plaster). Particularly in the Middle and New Kingdoms a faience glaze was often applied to complete vessels and statuettes.

Pure glass as a separate material came later, in predynastic times, in the form of translucent beads.

The Chemical Composition of Glass in Ancient Egypt (Mikey Brass)
The Antiquity of Man

It was only during the time of the Romans that glass became common place in the Mediterranean world. The people of the preceding periods considered its function to be decorative rather than utilitarian. Glass in the ancient world usually appears in the form of semi-precious stones made from materials as various as turquoise (pale blue glass) and fluorite (purple glass) (Freestone 1991). The precious quality of glass is captured in references from Mesopotamian cuneiform texts to "artificial lapis lazuli"; lapis lazuli is a gemstone that originated in Afghanistan and was traded as far afield as Ancient Egypt.

Glass in the ancient world was manufactured by melting a combination of an alkali (potash or soda) and silica (raw materials such as quartz cobbles and sand).

Amarna Glass in the Egypt Centre

The earliest glass in Egypt dates to around 1500 BC and is of a very high quality. That some of the words for glass in Egyptian are Hurrian or Arkadian has led to the belief that the early glass was imported. Indeed, the Amarna letters mention imported glass and there is some suggestion that it was a royal monopoly. Soon after its first appearance there is some evidence of actual working but no experimental period leading to the suggestion that this glass was made by foreign glass workers, perhaps brought over by Tuthmosis III (1479-1425 BC).

Early glass is often treated like stone and may be cut like a gemstone rather than blown or moulded. An 18th Dynasty kohl pot of glass in the British Museum was solid cast and then had its interior drilled out like stone. Glass sickle blades were made in the same way as flint sickle blades in the tomb of Tutankhamun. Indeed, one of the words for glass in ancient Egyptian is ‘the stone that flows’.

Petrie believed the glass was made at Amarna and outlined a possible method. However, there has been some dispute as to whether this was the case and some recent commentators believe that during the Amarna Period glass was imported into Egypt.

See the above pages for full details.

One of the earliest known glass sculptures is Egyptian. It is a portrait of Amenhotep II and is held at the Corning Museum of Glass. It can be seen on the Museum's "Origins of Glass Making" web page.

No comments: