With the prevalence of glass today it is hard to imagine a time when glass was rare. You see it everyday: your car (window), the bottles you drink from, lamps, tables, television screens, and dozens of other common household objects are all made from glass. We mass produce and recycle glass in quantities that would astound our ancestors even a few hundred years ago. In the ancient world a piece of glass large enough to fit a modern (window) would have been a rare extravagance. Glass, even thick glass, was fragile and did not travel well. Large pieces were difficult to form with the techniques available to early glassmakers, and the process itself was a secret guarded closely by artisans and royalty alike.

Glass has always existed naturally. Archeological evidence shows that obsidian, a type of volcanic glass, was heavily used and traded during the Stone Age. The first evidence of humans making glass appears during the 15th century BCE. Scientists once believed that glassmaking originated in Mesopotamia, but recent discoveries elsewhere are leading them to believe that Egypt may have been the place where glassmaking originated.

How Glass Was Made
Glass-making in Ancient Egypt began with quartz. Small pieces of the mineral would be finely crushed and mixed with plant ash. The quartz-ash mixture was then heated at fairly low temperatures in clay containers to roughly 750° C, until it formed a ball of molten material. This material, called faience, was then cooled, crushed, and mixed with coloring agents to make it red or blue. After coloring the glass would be funneled into a cylindrical container and heated a second time at a higher temperature. Once the container cooled it would be broken and the thick glass ingots that formed during the cooling process were removed.

Glass Factory
Scientists once believed that Egyptian glass was imported from Mesopotamia, but recent discoveries at a dig site in Qantir have revealed that instead of importing glass, Egypt exported it as early as 13 BCE. Archeological evidence at Qantir, site of the royal city of Pi-Ramesses, revealed that not only did Ancient Egyptians make their own glass they managed to master making red glass. Red glass was difficult to produce because the process required that the glass be fired in an environment without any oxygen to prevent the copper from oxidizing and turning blue. The glass at Pi-Ramesses was made into thick ingots, then shipped to artisans to be made into a variety of objects.

As Egypt expanded throughout the Mediterranean they encountered others cultures with their own glass-making techniques. It is believed that some of the artisans were brought back to Egypt as slaves, where their skills were used to make glass objects for royalty. Glass-making sites close to royal palaces like those at Malqata, Pi-Ramesses, and Lisht suggest that the process of making glass was kept a close royal secret.

What They Made
Beads and Common Products
Ancient Egyptian glass was rarely used to make large objects and was available only to those of high social status. Glass was instead used to make jewelry such as pendants and beads. Colored glass was used in mosaics, inlaid into furniture, or formed into figurines. Colorful amulets were created using semi-precious stone and small pieces of polished glass set into gold and embellished with enamels. Decorative glass pieces and figurines were carefully carved to include details such as facial features, hair, and clothing.

Larger Products
As glass-making techniques were perfected glass found other uses. Intricately designed glass vessels were made to hold oils and perfumes, inlaid with metals that formed designs in the translucent material. The method of making larger objects was called core forming. A mold would be made of clay and then wrapped in thin tubes of molten glass. The mold would be heated as each tube of glass was added so the pieces would fuse around it. Metal tools were sometimes used to create patterns in the molten glass such as zig-zags and scales. Once the vessel was completely encased, the outer glass would be polished smooth and the clay mold scraped out.

Trading Glass
Glass in the ancient world often had the same value as semi-precious stones, but problems with fragility remained. A glass vase or figurine was likely to be broken in transport. The problem of transporting glass was solved by forming it into small, thick ingots. The ingots could be shipped with minimal threat of breakage and sold to artisans, who could melt them down and form the glass as they desired. Ingots like those made at Pi-Ramesses have been found in Mesopotamia, as well as in the wreck of a Late Bronze Age ship found off the coast of Turkey, suggesting that Egypt used glass as a valuable trade commodity.

Whether shaped into beads, carved into figurines or molded into fanciful animals, Ancient Egyptian glass is a stunning example of simple technique and technical know-how that has endured into modern times.
Article written by Lexi Westingate
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