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How Egypt turned dust into treasures of glass

For those interested in the history of glass, here is some new

–Judy Bjorkman

How Egypt turned dust into treasures of glass

Archaeologists discover factory dating back to 1250 B.C.

By Kathleen Wren - Science
Source -

WASHINGTON - Archaeologists have uncovered for the first time
the remains of a Bronze Age glass factory, where skilled
artisans made glass from its raw materials. Surprisingly, this
factory, which was bustling around 1250 B.C., is in Egypt
rather than Mesopotamia, which is generally thought to be where
glass was first made.

Glass was extremely valuable during the Bronze Age, so this
discovery implies that Egypt may have enjoyed more clout than
was previously thought as a producer of this sought-after

The oldest-known glass artifacts of consistently high quality
date back to approximately 1500 B.C. These may have been made
in Mesopotamia.

But this is the first place that we have been able to put our
fingers on and say, Here it was and this is how they did it,^
said Thilo Rehren of University College London in London. Until
now we have only seen the final products of the glassmaking
process, and nothing showing the level of skill and
organization in which it was done.

Rehren and Edgar Pusch from the Pelizaeus-Museum in
Hildesheim, Germany describe their findings in Friday’s issue
of the journal Science, published by AAAS, the nonprofit
science society.

A precious commodity

The most common glass objects made during this time period
were glass beads and vessels with narrow necks, which may have
held perfume or other valuable liquids. They were often made of
blue glass, colored to emulate precious stones like turquoise
and lapis lazuli, inlaid with white and yellow lines.

These were not everyday items. This was absolutely a
pharaoh-level of home decoration, Rehren said.

Most of these objects have been found in Egypt and the region
between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that was once
Mesopotamia. They were made in two separate stages.

In the primary production stage, glass was made from plant ash
and crushed quartz dust into round disks or ingots. In the
secondary stage, the ingots were melted down and re-formed into
specific objects. Many clues such as a Late Bronze Age
shipwreck off the coast of Turkey that contained a cache of
cobalt-blue glass ingots indicate that the ingots could have
been made in one location and then exported to distant
locations for the second stage.

In the last 20 years, we archaeologists have realized this is
a serious issue. We can tell the style of the glass objects,
but we dont necessarily know where the glass came from, Rehren

Importer or exporter?

Some indirect evidence has suggested that the Mesopotamians
produced glass before the Egyptians did. For example, a victory
inscription from an Egyptian pharaoh who had returned from
battle claimed he had brought back skilled glassworkers from
Mesopotamia. Some Egyptian tomb paintings also show people who
appear to be Syrian bringing glass to Egypt, according to

In the late 19th century, Sir Flinders Petrie discovered the
remains for Bronze Age glass production in Tell el-Amarna,
Egypt, though there was conflicting evidence over whether this
was primary or secondary glass production.

Clay tablets at the Amarna site documented a request by
Pharaoh Akhenaten for glass to be brought to Egypt, suggesting
that glass was not produced in Egypt but only reworked there.

On the other hand, the blue glass ingots found in the Turkish
shipwreck matched the dimensions of the glass molds found at
Amarna, suggesting that perhaps primary glass production did
occur there after all.

Beer jars and special vessels

The artifacts recently discovered at Qantir were clearly used
in primary glass production, according to Rehren.

They were found in a large cluster of workshops where hundreds
of artisans once worked, also making bronze doors and glazed
bricks. The workshops were part of the industrial quarter of a
new capital on the Nile Delta that was one of the many building
projects undertaken by Ramesses the Great during a peaceful
period in Egypt.

In the workshops, the researchers found over 1,000 fragments
of various vessels used for producing glass from its raw

Ceramic vessels that may have been recycled beer jars held the
plant ash and crushed quartz while they were heated to
relatively low temperatures. One of the vessels the researchers
found was still full of this semifinished glass.

After cooling, the jars were smashed to remove the
semifinished glass inside, and then the glass was crushed and
washed to remove salt from the plant ash, leaving behind the
ashs key ingredient, soda, bonded to the quartz. The processed
powder was then poured through funnels into specialized
crucibles, colored (mostly red but also blue and purple), and
then heated to higher temperatures to form true glass.

Once the crucible cooled, it contained a glass ingot ready to
be sent to another workshop for remelting. Most of the
fragments at Qantir have a thin layer of lime on their inner
sides, which would have prevented contamination and helped the
ingot separate from the container when the crucible was broken

The researchers didnt find any evidence of the hearth or
furnace used, but they hope to continue investigating the site.

In a commentary also published by Science, Caroline Jackson of
Britain’s University of Sheffield notes that glass was
difficult to work, complicated to produce and available in
vivid, symbolically significant colors. As such, it was
probably a royal commodity exchanged as a gift to enhance
power, status and political allegiances.

Any group that controlled the production or consumption of
glass would have occupied a powerful political or social
position, according to Jackson. Based on the findings at Qantir
and the previously excavated site of Amarna, Egypt may have
been a major exporter of glass, she writes.

The glass artifacts from Qantir are now staying put in Egypt,
however. In the past, so many Europeans removed artifacts from
Egypt that the government now bans any export of the ancient

Years ago I happened across a watkins vitamin bottle full of what
looked to be old parts of bracelets, being a yard sale I asked the
lady and she said her husband {deceased} was a professor, had
gathered them in a trip to the area and have related them to mycinie
or that era. They are predominately blue but there is black and a
turquoise color. all similar in size and circumference I thought
they may have been glass rims for cups. Is there any real value to
them and how would I get them providanced? I thought they would make
earrings that were kinda special


Is there any real value to them and how would I get them

Ringman, your question about provenancing (British usage) or
proveniencing (American usage) those pieces of perhaps ancient
Mycenaean glass gets into a problematic area. Usually, the best place
to have such things evaluated is a museum at a university with folks
who know the ancient history of the Mediterranean. However, in the
last 20-30 years, most museums will not do this unless the artifacts
have a trail of acquisition showing that they were exported legally
from their country of origin. This is a serious effort to cut down on
the amount of stealing of ancient artifacts (not just by tourists but
by locals and by professional thieves).

However, if the professor just gathered them off the surface of the
ground, they are historically valueless (because they have no
context) and may actually date from more than one historical period,
including the present one.

If you find someone who knows ancient Mediterranean glass, try
asking them. They may find them interesting from other points of
view than their monetary value. Another option would be to take a
picture of them (or just photocopy them) and send the picture and an
explanation to the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, NY. Maybe
their historians could say something about them. Of course, in some
places they charge a fee for evaluating things (I don’t know about

Otherwise, I’d say, use them in your jewelry, attach a little note
saying where the glass might have come from, and just enjoy the way
they look. They sound lovely.

Judy Bjorkman