A Brief, Fascinating History of Glass

Real History |

When was the last time you thought critically about glass? Unless you're a contractor or a glass blower, probably not for a long time, if ever. Glass, however, was a pivotal invention in human history, and one that has a fascinating story.

We actually don't know much about the first attempts to make glass. General consensus credits the ancient Egyptians with being the first people to incorporate glass into their art, but the Mesopotamians were probably the first to actually make it. We've found Mesopotamian glass artifacts that date as far back as 2500 BC. The Egyptians trailed the Mesopotamians in glassmaking by about a thousand years.

Glass, a product of silica-sand, lime and soda, was not made in a pure form until the Old and Middle Kingdoms of Egypt. It was used in jewelry, animal figurines and mosaics.

It was later used to make vessels in the New Kingdom, during the reign of Tuthmosis I. The Egyptians probably learned the technique during their expansion into the Middle East.

The New Kingdom period also saw the advent of large-scale glass manufacturing, starting around 1550 BC. It was mostly used to make beads. Glassmaking likely would not have taken off in Egypt had it not been for the forced help of glassmakers captured by Thutmose II.

Glass blowing was not invented until the Roman Era. Before then, the Egyptians relied on the method of core-forming and cold cutting to make their glass. The technique was later abandoned in favor of glass blowing.

While glass is typically a very inexpensive commodity these days, it was almost as valuable as gemstones in the ancient world. Glass objects were typically only possessed by elites, and were given as gifts between powerful and wealthy people.

Glass production slowed after the 21st Dynasty and wasn't revived at large scale until the 26th Dynasty, 664 BC.

Interestingly, some historians believe that glassmaking did not originate in Mesopotamia, but in Egypt. There is some evidence that suggests the Mesopotamian glass artifacts we have from the earliest period of Mesopotamian glassmaking are actually inferior derivatives of Egyptian glass that would have been contemporaneous with them. Other historians believe that glass was first made in the coastal region of northern Syria.

Glassmaking technology was developed in India around 1730 BC. The Chinese also produced glass, but later than the Egyptians, Romans and Indians.

Glass art is still popular. Dale Chihuly, an artist who makes large glass sculptures, is one of the most popular artists working today.

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