Ancient Egyptian City Yields World's Oldest Glassworks

James Owen
for National Geographic News
June 16, 2005
Glass was a scarce and highly valued commodity in ancient times, so those who knew how to make it possessed a powerful technology.

Glass fragments unearthed in modern-day Iraq suggest that glassmaking began around 1500 B.C. in Mesopotamia and was kept a closely guarded secret for many centuries. Or so it was thought.

Now a new study suggests the ancient Egyptians mastered the art of glassmaking very soon after the Mesopotamians, using the technology to extend their influence throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

The findings are published tomorrow in the journal Science.

Artifacts unearthed in Egypt's eastern Nile Delta show glass was made there from raw materials around 1250 B.C. The artifacts were found at the site of Pharaoh Ramses II's capital city. The remains reveal the earliest known glassmaking site anywhere in the world and the only one dating from the Bronze Age.

The finds also show for the first time the methods used to make early glass.

"This is the first site we can put our finger on and say, This is where they did it, and this is how they did it," said study co-author Thilo Rehren, professor of archaeological materials and technologies at University College London.

Rehren added that the next earliest known glassworks, in Rhodes, Greece, dates to around 200 B.C.—more than a thousand years after the ancient Egyptian glassworks.

Royal City

The glassmaking equipment and material was identified late last year following three years of excavations at Qantir, site of the ancient royal city of Piramesses. The finds date to the time of Ramses II, who reigned when Egypt was a major imperial power.

The artifacts reveal a two-stage manufacturing process. Raw materials, including silica and plant ash, were heated inside ovoid vessels that might have been recycled beer jars. The mixture was then crushed and washed before being colored and melted a second time in cylindrical molds to form round, glass ingots.

Rehren said these ingots would have been transported to workshops where skilled craftsmen made glass perfume bottles and other decorative items, such as inlays for furniture and luxury ornaments.

"Many people thought Egyptians weren't capable of making their own glass but got the finished glass chunks from Mesopotamia," Rehren said. "We can say that within 200 years [of the origination of glassmaking in Mesopotamia] the Egyptians were well capable of making their own glass, and not just any glass but difficult-to-make red glass."

Red glasses, which use copper-based colorants, require a high level of technical know-how, according to Caroline M. Jackson, a senior lecturer in archaeology at Sheffield University, England.

Other colors produced during the Late Bronze Age (1600 to 1100 B.C.) ranged from purple and cobalt blue to yellow and white.

Jackson, who wasn't involved with the study, said the authors "convincingly show that the Egyptians were making their own glass in large specialized facilities that were under royal control."

Vivid Colors

Jackson also noted that glass was difficult to work with and complicated to produce, yet available in vivid colors. As such, it likely played an important political role in the Mediterranean and Middle East during this period.

Glass manufacture at a royal city like Piramesses isn't surprising, she added, because glass was an elite material used to enhance power, status, and political allegiances.

Large numbers of colored glass ingots were discovered among the cargo of a Late Bronze Age shipwreck that was excavated off southern Turkey from 1984 to 1994. Those ingots were found to match the internal size and shape of glass molds excavated at Qantir. This, the researchers say, demonstrates the importance of such ingots in international trade in the ancient world.

Furthermore, the chemical composition of glass vessels, plaques, and inlays found at high-status archaeological sites throughout the Mediterranean matches that of the Qantir ingots, suggesting Egypt as the country of origin.

Rehren, the study's co-author, said the material wouldn't have been traded in the traditional sense. Rather, glass was used as a kind of diplomatic currency. For instance, Ramses II might have exchanged glass objects with his governors in territories abroad and with foreign rulers.

"Glass wasn't important practically but important emotionally and statuswise," Rehren noted. "There's no money being exchanged. But you can impress someone by giving them a glass offering."

Rehren compared the political clout of glass in ancient Egypt to that of nuclear power today. "You can't buy nuclear power. You have to be good pals with the guys who have it," he said. "You acquire nuclear capability through a political framework of alliances and friendships."

Jackson, the Sheffield University archaeologist, said the Qantir finds suggest that there was an Egyptian monopoly not only on the exchange of luxury glass but also on the diplomatic currency that glassmaking technology offered its rulers.

The new study, she added, "reinforces and reappraises the role of glass both within Egyptian society and as an elite material that was exported from Egypt to the Mediterranean world."

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