Ancient Egyptian City Yields World's Oldest Glassworks

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.

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