Roman marbled glass piriform unguentarium.

The Beautiful and Complex Artisanship of Glass-making in the Ancient World

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In today’s society, glass is a material that is easily available. Due to mass production, glass objects are considered common and can be found everywhere. In the ancient world, however, glass-making was a specialised knowledge that only certain societies had at their disposal. As a result, glass could only be obtained from these few societies, thus elevating it to the status of a luxury item.

The Early Glassmakers: Phoenicians, Mesopotamians, and Egyptians

Whilst naturally occurring glass, such as obsidian, has been used since the Stone Age, it is less clear as to when human beings began manufacturing glass. According to the Roman author, Pliny the Elder, glass was first (accidentally) produced by merchants moored on the river Belus in the Syrian region of Phoenicia. These merchants were said to be transporting nitre (potassium nitrate) in their ship. As they were preparing their meal on the beach, the merchants could not find suitable stones for supporting their cauldrons. Therefore, they decided to take some lumps of nitre from their ship for that purpose. When the nitre combined with the sand on the beach, and reacted with the heat from the fire, “they beheld transparent streams flowing forth of a liquid hitherto unknown”.

Phoenician pendant in the form of a bearded head. (4th-3rd century BC)

Phoenician pendant in the form of a bearded head. (4th-3rd century BC) ( Wikimedia Commons )

Pliny attributes the discovery of glass to the Phoenicians,  but archaeologists have suggested that glass was first produced either by the ancient Mesopotamians or the ancient Egyptians. The oldest man-made glass objects, for instance, were mainly non-transparent glass beads, found both in Egypt and Mesopotamia.

These objects are thought to date back to around the middle of the 4th millennium BC. During the 3rd millennium BC, glass was used in Mesopotamia to produce glazes on pots and vases. Like the Phoenicians in Pliny’s account, this discovery is believed to have been made by chance. It has been suggested that calciferous sand managed to find its way into an overheated kiln, combined with soda, and formed a coloured glaze on the ceramic vessels.

Hollow glass vessels were produced later, as the oldest known fragments of glass vessels date to the 16th century BC. Once again, these artifacts were found in Mesopotamia.

Mesopotamian fluted glass bottle (1300-1200 BC)

Mesopotamian fluted glass bottle (1300-1200 BC) ( The British Museum )

The earliest known glass factory, however, was not discovered in Mesopotamia, but in Egypt. This factory, which has been dated to the middle of the 13th century BC, was discovered at Qantir, in the Eastern Nile Delta. During the 13th century BC, this was the city of Piramesses, the capital of Ramesses II. It was at this site that glass-making equipment and material were identified.       

Egyptian vases with the name of Ramesses II.

Egyptian vases with the name of Ramesses II. ( Wikimedia Commons )

Ancient Techniques for Glass production

Several techniques used to produce glass in the ancient world are known. These are core-forming, slumping, and mould-forming. The first technique involved coating molten glass around a mass made of dung or clay. A similar process was used to form glass beads, though a rod coated with a release material replaced the core.

Slumping was used to produce open vessels such as bowls and plates. Molten glass was poured into a heat-resistant mould (either a positive of negative refractory form), and was allowed to flow downwards due to gravity. When the glass cooled, it would achieve its desired shape. Bowls and plates were also produced by the mould-forming technique. However, the way to create these items does not rely on gravity, but forms the vessel by squeezing soft glass between two shaped refractory moulds.     

Great Changes in Glassmaking

It was between 27 BC and 14 AD that the glass-making industry underwent a major change. It was during this time that the technique of glass-blowing was discovered. Using this technique, it was possible to produce a wider variety of hollow glass vessels more quickly and more easily.

Egyptian glassblowers from the 12th dynasty (approximately 2,200 BC)

Egyptian glassblowers from the 12th dynasty (approximately 2,200 BC) ( Wikimedia Commons )

Even today, this is still the method most used by craftsmen who still produce glass by hand. While it is believed that this technique was first used by Phoenician craftsmen, it was soon adopted by the Romans as well, and examples of blown glass vessels can be found throughout the Roman Empire.

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