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1600–Year-Old Glass Workshop Discovered in Israel

1600–Year-Old Glass Workshop Discovered in Israel

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A newly discovered glass workshop reveals that Israel was an important center for glass production in Roman times.

During excavations prior to a road construction in the Carmel Mountains a team of archaeologist from the Israel Antiquities Authority discovered glass kilns dating to the 4-5th century AD. (Late Roman period).

The kilns that were exposed right next to the train tracks.

The kilns that were exposed right next to the train tracks. (Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority)

Yael Gorin-Rosen, head curator of the Israel Authority Glass Department said in a press release:

“This is a very important discovery with implications regarding the history of the glass industry both in Israel and in the entire ancient world. We know from historical sources dating to the Roman period that the Valley of ‘Akko was renowned for the excellent quality sand located there, which was highly suitable for the manufacture of glass. Chemical analyses conducted on glass vessels from this period which were discovered until now at sites in Europe and in shipwrecks in the Mediterranean basin have shown that the source of the glass is from our region. Now, for the first time, the kilns have been found where the raw material was manufactured that was used to produce this glassware.”

A fragment of the raw glass as it was found at the site.

A fragment of the raw glass as it was found at the site. (Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority)

The kilns that were uncovered were equipped with two built compartments: a firebox where kindling was burnt to create a very high temperature, and a melting chamber – in which the mixture of special sand (silica) with traces of other elements such as boron, phosphorus, and lead was inserted. These ingredients were melted together at a temperature of about 1200° C. (3000° F.). The glass was thus heated for a week or two until enormous chunks of raw glass were produced, some of which weighed in the excess of ten tons. The newly formed glass, when cooled, was noncrystalline, smooth, extremely hard, and quite brittle.

Glass an Ancient Commodity

Glass appears to have been produced as far back as the second millennium BC by the Egyptians and perhaps the Phoenicians. In Egypt glass beads have been found that archaeologists believe were made some 4,000 years ago. Yet, evidently glassmaking originated in Mesopotamia, where pieces of well-made glass have been found, believed to date from as early as the third millennium BC. The biblical figure Job spoke of glass as being very precious. (Job 28:17) Though opaque, it was used in making animal figurines, perfume boxes, necklaces, and other jewelry. The Romans were among the first to produce transparent glass.

Mesopotamian fluted glass bottle (1300-1200 BC)

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

During the Early Roman period the use of glass greatly expanded due to its characteristics: its transparency, beauty, the delicacy of the vessels, and the speed with which items could be produced by blowing – an inexpensive technique adopted at the time that lowered production costs.

Glass was used in almost every household from the Roman period onward, and it was also utilized in the construction of public buildings in the form of windows, mosaics and lighting fixtures. Consequently, large quantities of raw glass were required which were prepared on an industrial scale in specialized centers. The installation that was discovered in the current excavation is an example of one of these ancient production facilities.

A fragment of the raw glass as it was found at the site

A fragment of the raw glass as it was found at the site. (Assaf Peretz, Israel Antiquities Authority)

According to a price edict circulated by the Roman emperor Diocletian in the early fourth century AD, there were two kinds of glass: the first was known as Judean glass (from the Land of Israel) and the second – Alexandrian glass (from Alexandria, Egypt). Judean glass was a light green color and less expensive than Egyptian glass.

Historians have long since identified some centers that manufactured this Judean glass, which was a branded product known throughout the Roman Empire and whose price was engraved on stone tablets so as to ensure fair trade. However, the recent discovery may provide new clues to the location of where the famous Judean glass was produced.

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

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

Featured Image: A chunk of glass that was found in the kiln (studio photograph). Source: Shmuel Magal, Israel Antiquities Authority.

By Sam Bostrom

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