Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Ancient glass illuminates ancient societies

From small glass vessels and glass jewellery of the ancient world to the later mass production of containers after the invention of glass-blowing and the production of cathedral and church windows, glass objects have been used for a variety of functions for at least 4,500 years.

Today it is an everyday material we take for granted, but now the secrets of how we came to benefit from the many uses of the most unique of substances are revealed in a new book by Professor Julian Henderson from the University of Nottingham.

Versatile composite material

The illustrated Cambridge University Press volume, ‘Ancient Glass’, is the first monograph of this versatile composite material to combine forensic techniques of investigation from both the sciences and the humanities.

The book examines why and how glass came to be invented in the Bronze Age and reveals the ritual, social, economic and political contexts of its development across the world up to the 17th century.

The investigations also include a detailed scientific exploration of the provenances of ancient glass using isotopic evidence for the first production of late Bronze Age glass and its trade in the Mediterranean.

Illuminating ancient societies

Professor Henderson, an expert in innovative techniques in the analysis of archaeological materials, said: “The application of science to ancient glass research illuminates ancient societies in new ways.”

“The exciting part of this research using forensic techniques is when a wide range of fascinating new features about past societies, economies, cultures and even rituals are revealed. As the social and ritual values of glass changed from its first prestigious use as a ritual material to its massive-scale use as tableware and containers this is reflected in the ways in which it was made and traded.”

‘Ancient Glass’ tells the story of the earliest production of this transparent, refractive and colourful material, how early artisans learned to heat the two main ingredients, silica sand and plant ash which served as a source of soda-lime flux that decreased the melting point of the glass. The story focuses on three contrasting archaeological and scientific case studies: Late Bronze Age glass, late Hellenistic–early Roman glass, and Islamic glass in the Middle East. Using isotopic and chemical techniques discoveries are reported about provenance, primary production, raw materials and trade.

The main strength of the book is an interdisciplinary exploration of archaeological glass in which technological, historical, geological, chemical and cultural aspects of the study of ancient glass are combined.

There is an in-depth examination as to why and how this unique material was invented and considers the ritual, social, economic and political contexts of its development.

Origins of glass

The earliest known glass objects of the mid third millennium BCE were beads primarily in Egypt and Mesopotamia, perhaps initially created as accidental by-products of metal-working or during the production of faïence, a pre-glass vitreous material made by a process similar to glazing.

It was a material for high-status objects, with archaeological evidence for the Late Bronze Age (LBA) showing an almost exclusive distribution of glass finds at palace complexes such as in the city of Amarna in Egypt.

To highlight the status of this early glass, texts that list offerings to Egyptian temples would start with gold and silver, followed by precious stones (lapis lazuli) and glass, then bronze, copper etc.

Past Horizons. 2014. “Ancient glass illuminates ancient societies”. Past Horizons. Posted: November 20, 2013. Available online:

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