Glass in the Ancient World

Glass is a hard substance, often brittle and typically transparent or translucent. Glass is seen around us every day, from windows, to light bulbs, to drinking cups and so on. It can come in different varieties, textures and hues. These are one of the few characteristics that have made glass one of the most admired and sought-after substance for Millennia. As a result of how commonplace glass is, one tends to overlook its history and the level of craftsmanship involved in its production. Manipulating glass is no easy feat, even by today’s modern standards. This is the reason why glass production in the ancient worlds was only practiced by a few and exceptionally gifted craftsmen and their works were revered by noblemen and kings.

The earliest true glass from Western Civilization was excavated in Mesopotamia and dates from around 2500 BC. Most of glass objects from this era were opaque and made to replicate popular precious gems such as lapis lazuli. They were not glass as we know them today. Even in ancient Egypt, glass-like materials were used before the production of glass itself. An example is the Egyptian faience, a popular material used in the production of amulets and small vessels. Faience is a mixture of quartz sand with an alkali binder, some of the major components of glass. It was then molded, and fired, causing a bright glaze to migrate to the surface.

It was not until 1500 BC that the first glass vessels were made in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia by a method known as Core-forming. This style which was the industry standard for over 1000 years is especially prevalent in ancient Mesopotamian and Phoenician vessels which were characterized by wound repetitive festoons around their body and neck.

Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Near East and the Mediterranean introduced glass artifacts to a new audience. The Hellenes (Greeks) around the time of this conquest were the wealthiest in the ancient world and their exotic tastes went beyond that of gold and silver. Glass was also considered valuable and was extensively sought after. This gave rise to glass being used in the production of everyday objects such as kitchen utensils, in the house of nobles, as against vessels.

The rise of Rome, from 40 BC to 650 AD and the declining influence of the Greeks affected glass production techniques. The ancient Romans manipulated glass production to suit their taste. They pioneered the glass-blowing technique which is the greatest achievement in glass production to date. Realizing that glass can be inflated opened up a new world of possibilities. Glass can then be shaped into intricate patterns. Beads made out of glass were also common. Glass blowing led to mass production of vessels as it was an inexpensive and extremely fast process. This made glass a lot more available and affordable for the general populace. This is also the reason why most of the ancient glass collected today is from ancient Rome. Glass art was also incorporated in other forms of Roman art such as the mosaics which consists of glass paste, marble, terracotta, pearl, shells, enamels, gold and silver.

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