Littell's Living Age/Volume 5/Issue 57/Glass-Making in Ancient Egypt
A striking fact is proved by the extant relics of the glass manufactures of ancient Thebes in the British Museum, as well as other museums, and by the illustrations of Rosellini (copied from the Tombs of Thebes) of the laboratories of the glass-blowers, and the workshops of the glass-manufacturers of Thebes, during the early eras of the eighteenth dynasty (1700 or 1600 b.c.)
It exposes the error of the ordinary ideas indulged by historians and antiquarians on the subject. It is common to assert that with the exception of some glass vessels at a great price, glass was little known, and little used, till the time of Augustus, and was never employed in windows till after the fall of the Roman empire. The circumstance of pieces of glass of good manufacture having been found at Pompeii ought to have thrown light upon this allegation, derived from an ambiguous assertion of Pliny. The fact is, that glass and porcelain, of an equally good quality as that in common use in modern times, was made sixteen or seventeen hundred years a.c. in Upper Egypt. It appears, also, to have been made in profusion. This is a second allegation, supported by adequate proof. But a third, of a more startling character, has been added. It is affirmed that the glass-blowers of Thebes were greater proficients in their art than we are. They possessed the art of staining glass, which, although not wholly lost, is comparatively but little known, and practised only by a few. Among the illustrations of Rosellini is a copy of a piece of stained glass which was found at Thebes. It comprises various colors, which he describes as struck through the whole vitrified structure, and refers to other instances of ancient Egyptian stained glass which he has seen, in which the colored design is equally struck through squares of glass an inch thick, thoroughly incorporated with the vitreous structure, and appearing the same on the obverse as on the reverse side. It was in consequence of being aware of this fact, that Winckelman asserted that the Egyptians of the eighteenth dynasty brought the manufacture of glass to a much higher point of perfection than ourselves. In fact, after the decline of the art, Egypt became to Rome what Venice became afterwards to Europe. The greater part of the supply of glass in his time, was considered by Pliny to derive its good quality from the ashes of a peculiar genus of kelp, growing in abundance by the Lake Mareotis and the Red Sea. That kelp, reduced to a kind of green ash, is represented by Rosellini as brought by the workmen in baskets to the glass manufactories, and also to the potteries, where a vitreous process was evidently employed for the purpose of glazing the earthen vessels. It would appear, both from proofs that remain and cotemporary records—provided full reliance can be placed on the latter—that Winckelman's somewhat startling allegation comes very near the truth. The Egyptian glass-blowers and glass-cutters of Thebes imitated amethysts, rubies, and other precious stones, with wonderful dexterity, and, besides a great proficiency in the art of staining glass, to which reference has been made, must have been aware of the use of the diamond in cutting it and engraving it. In Mr. Salt's collection in the British Museum, assignable to the era of Thothmes the Third, there is a piece of glass beautifully stained throughout, (like that described by Rossellini,) and skilfully engraved with his heraldic emblazonment, precisely on the principles of modern heraldry; or, as the double oval shields containing the names and titles of kings have (for some reason unexplainable by Champollion) been called "cartouchees. The profusion of glass in ancient Egypt is attested by several trustworthy authorities. The historical relation that the embalmed bodies of Cyrus and Alexander were deposited in glass coffins in Egypt has been, indeed, considered as a fable; but it may be said to be analogically proved by recent discoveries of portions of granite sarcophagi which are covered with a coating of stained glass, through which the hieroglyphics on the stone appear. Diodorus Siculus says, that entire coffins were commonly made of glass in Upper Egypt. This would demonstrate an extraordinary profusion; but certainly an equal of the dearest glass manufactures may be practically proved. Vast numbers of imitative precious stones, in glass, made by the jewellers of ancient Egypt, are to be found in all the museums of Europe. Among them are false emeralds of considerable size, in which the artisans of hundred-gated Thebes appear to have principally excelled. There is little doubt that many of the large emerald basins used in the early Christian churches were of their manufacture. The extensive character of the manufacture may further be inferred from a circumstance recorded by Pliny, that in the Temple of Jupiter Ammon there was an obelisk of emerald, that is to say, of glass in imitation of emerald, sixty feet high. The emerald hue which the glass-manufacturers of Egypt gave to glass, appears, from chemical analysis, to be imparted by oxide (if copper, and the reds used on ordinary occasions in staining plate-glass appear to have been given by minium. All these facts prove the extensive knowledge of chemistry among the natives of old Thebes. Glass bottles, (quart bottles?) nearly similar to our wine-bottles in color and measure, though in shape resembling the wide-mouthed bottles used in preserving fruit, may be seen in the British Museum, and are found in abundance in other European cabinets.
A remarkable fact connected with the manufacture of ancient Thebes 4,000 years ago, shows the traditional tenacity of ancient custom. It is well known that the oil-jars of the Levant are precisely similar to those which appear in the illustrations of Rosellini. So the Egyptian earthen amphora, without feet, adopted afterwards for strong wines by the bon vivants of Rome, retain their original shape and purpose among the Tuscan farmers. With reference to glass bottles, there are two classes used at the present day of equally ancient origin: these are the Florentine oil-flasks, holding about three quarters of a pint, and the turpentine carboys, as they are called, holding four or five gallons, from Cyprus and the adjoining shores of the Levant. Both are protected by matting, the first of a fine, the second of a coarser nature. Both are seen, with slight alterations, in the illustrations of Rosellini. Sir G. Wilkinson thinks that glass lanterns were used by pickets of soldiers, and gives a specimen of a group of Egyptian sentinels carrying a lantern on a curved pole. It is not improbable that an hieroglyphic on the Rosetta stones, translated manifestation, resembling a magic lantern with a handle, from which rays of light are issuing, may be something of the kind. That the glass-manufacturers made magnifying lenses is clear from Plutarch, (de facie lunæ,) Diodorus, and Ptolemy, the astronomer, and is proved by the extant cameos, which could only be cut by the aid of a microscope. But reverting to the subject of lanterns, it is probable, though it cannot be gathered from Pliny, that the lamps employed for yearly illumination at the Saite festival—a custom transmitted from remote ages to modern China—may have been of glass. The Egyptians, in the time of the eighteenth dynasty, appear to have used colored lanterns, like the modern Chinese, on the latter as well as ordinary occasions. Indeed, the modern people of Cairo use colored lanterns of striped gauze strained over a wire frame, after the Chinese fashion. But they are cylindrical and less florid and various in their decoration. The singularity is, that in the illustrations of Rosellini precisely similar cylindrical lanterns of colored gauze are seen in the hands of the running footmen and attendants on the grandees of ancient Thebes, when in the act of lighting their masters home from their evening banquets or fêtes chempetres.
In conclusion, it may be remarked as a singular circumstance, and which applies as well to other manufactures, (such as the potteries, metal founderies, the tanners, the turners, the dyers, and the hand-loom weavers,) that the initial process of glass-making retains its primitive simplicity. Now, as 4,000 years ago, the blow-pipe, shod with iron and heated red-hot, is inserted into the melted glass. In the ancient manufactories, workmen are employed in bringing the "frit" in baskets, for the purpose of vitrification. There can scarcely be a doubt that this frit is a combination, as in Venetian glass-making, derived from Egypt, of kali, from the ashes of salsola communis, or kelp, and a particular kind of sand. But this paper ought not to conclude without some more distinct reference to the chemical knowledge displayed in the more elaborate processes of glass-making. There are many striking examples of this proficiency in the new Egyptian room at the British Museum. But we will take the single instance of the tablet of stained glass found at Thebes, and of which Rosellini gives the illustration to which reference has been made. The design, as has been stated, is tasteful. It consists of a quadruple star, with a rose in the centre, and with foliage on the angles. Blue, yellow, red, and green colors are introduced, and they are struck through the body of the glass. In order to produce this effect of glass-staining, oxides of cobalt, or of calcined copper and zinc, must have been used for blue, oxide of silver for yellow, and oxide of copper for green. The ruby color of the rose, that color of which till lately we had lost the art of imparting, must have been given (as well as the rich purple hue of some of the fictitious gems) by the oxide of gold.
This proficiency may appear extraordinary; but indeed, the richly-painted walls of the temples, palaces, and tombs, where the unmatched colors remain as fresh as when first laid on, show not only a perfect proficiency with the mineral pigments, but a perfect use of the metallic oxides in their composition.
It is as easy as invidious to ascribe these applications to unintelligent accident or experiment, rather than to high proficiency in chemistry. Evidences, drawn from all the other arts and trades, prove that the ancient Egyptians, in the earliest times, were skilful chemists; and why should we deprive the land of Cham, Chemosh, and Chemonis, from which the name and art of chemistry—as well as alchemy, its foster-parent—was derived, of the just tribute due to its original study, discoveries, and inventions?
Quid feret Illiæ
Mavortisque puer, si taciturnitas
Obstaret meritis, invida Romuli!
Note.—Winekelman, on the Arts of the Ancients, has some observations on the ancient manufacture of glass, which may be conveniently added. Pliny attributes the discovery of glass to some Phœnician mariners, who, having kindled a fire on the beach for the purpose of cooking, placed their utensils on blocks of nitre. The fire melted the nitre and the sand, and produced a vitrified substance, which improvement converted into pure glass. The Tombs of Thebes demonstrate that 4,000 years ago the manufacture of glass was well known to the Egyptians. The frescoes exhibit glass-blowers forming bottles and vials of green glass. The specimens of Egyptian vials in the British Museum are by no means inelegant; they have long necks bulging towards the bottom, which, when filled with any liquid, would be much less easily subverted than the vials in common use amongst us. Pocket-bottles, cased in leather, such as are used in sporting, for containing spirits or liqueurs, are amongst the curious relics of the Theban glass manufacture. It is clear, from specimens that are left, that the ancient Egyptians knew how to make casts in vitrified materials, and to counterfeit in glass the amethyst and the emerald, with a degree of success unequalled in any country. Nor were they unpractised in the ingenious process by which the representation of a bird or flower may appear to be imprisoned within a piece of glass, so as to form part of its own substance. It appears that they constructed the device from filaments of colored glass, in the first instance; it was then covered with transparent laminæ of glass, and all were fused together with so much skill that no joinings in any part of the work can even now be detected by the most powerful magnifier. In these specimens the colored device appears as perfect on one side as the other. Figures of birds were thus composed; and if cut through at intervals, each portion so divided contained in itself a perfect copy of the bird. The celebrated Portland vase was long supposed to be a real sardonyx; but it is now known to be formed of layers of purple-colored glass united by fusion. By similar superfusion, the glass pieces used in the mosaics on the vaults of the domes at Venice have been enabled to preserve unimpaired their original coloring and gilding. A small diamond of the glass mosaic was gilded in the usual way, and then thinly coated with the vitrified material while in a state of fusion. This was an Egyptian art. The gold color and device appear incorporated with and struck through the body of the glass, so as to appear the same on both sides. An Egyptian sarcophagus of granite may be occasionally seen cased over in the same manner, in order to preserve unimpaired the sculptures and legends engraved upon the stone. To the eye of an ordinary observer, several necklaces, scarabæi, brooches, and small ornamental figures in the cases of the new Egyptian Room would appear composed of precious stones. They are, in fact, at least the great majority of them, composed of glass throughout the whole substance, or of materials covered with a glass coating. The tasteful colored networks of glass bugles, with which the wrappers of mummies were decorated, were made of the same materials, and are remarkable as being identical with similar ornaments made into bracelets, headbands, and waistbands, by fair dilettantis at the present day. With reference to the larger examples of vitreous superfusion to which reference has been made, a sarcophagus of this description was found by Belzoni in the Tombs of the Kings. The historical assertion is well known, and has frequently provoked commentary, that the body of Alexander, cased in gold, was buried at Alexandria, in a coffin composed entirely of glass. If the record be true, it is probable that the body so inclosed in glass was, for protection sake, reïnclosed within a granite or other more durable sarcophagus.
- Real precious stones, natives of India, and brought doubtless by the alleged railroad from Cosseir in the Red Sea, (amethysts, hæmatites, and lapis lazuli, and a species of topaz,) are found in the tombs of the era of Thothmes the Third.