Ancient Egypt: the First Examples of Glassware

This glass is more than merely antique; in fact it's literally ancient. While glass itself may first have been invented and used by the ancient Phoenicians, where Lebanon is today, the earliest known examples of glassware actually come from ancient Egypt.

During the Old Kingdom, glass was mixed with other substances to create decorative beads, amulets, and small figurines. These became more plentiful as the Old and Middle Kingdoms progressed. But genuine glass vessels first made their appearance around the time of Thutmose I, at the end of the 16th century BCE.

Some people believe this new use for glass occurred because Egypt had begun to expand its sphere of influence farther into the Middle East. If that was the case, and glass really was invented by the Phoenicians, the Egyptians could have found it in areas where those people traded, and brought this innovation back to Egypt. They might have brought craftsmen back to their country, whether as slaves or volunteer teachers.

In the beginning of the practice of the glass making craft in Egypt, production was a royal monopoly, and the main beneficiaries were the royal court, priests, and high officials of the land. It's no coincidence that the glass making workshops that have been discovered have pretty much all been adjacent to royal palaces.

The search for workshops such as these took some time, and archeologists have uncovered them only gradually. Some might think it odd that tomb paintings, which often portray other industries like fishing, building, bread making, shipping, hunting, and so on, do not include glass making among them. That might have helped the search for Egyptian glass making find results much earlier.

But it was not unusual for industries that fell under royal monopoly not to be painted in the tombs. These paintings were done for the purpose of showing what was connected to the tomb owner's life in particular. So if he had land where people grew grain and prepared bread, that would be painted. If he or his tenants engaged in fishing, that would be there as well. But since none of the aristocracy owned glass making shops, those would not be portrayed in the paintings.

The glass itself was made from a silica-sand, lime, and soda mixture. Egyptian glass vessels were created by first forming a core of clay and sand, and then this core, in the shape of the interior of the future vessel, was dipped into a crucible of molten glass and turned several times to coat it with several layers. Before the end product cooled, that was when lines and other decorations were made in it. Once the whole thing was cool, the core was scraped out. Various colors were produced with different sorts of pigments: tin or lead oxide produced a milky white color, copper oxides produced red or orange, and so on.

The Egyptians produced mostly smaller vessels of glass such as little bottles, bowls, or goblets. The bottles often held perfumes, and most of the glassware was destined for high-born women, to be used for cosmetics and fragrances.

Production of glass stopped for a while after the New Kingdom ended, perhaps around 1077 BCE, and didn't arise again until the Graeco-Roman period a few hundred years later. But despite some of the fits and starts that Egyptian production went through, it's clear that the use of glassware goes back a long way, and glass vessels have been important to human beings, both for their beauty and their utility, for almost as far back as you can go.