is well represented in many collections of Egyptian artifacts, and yet it is commonly overlooked by visitors in the mistaken belief that it is either glass or glazed pottery. This view is unsurprising, particularly given the tendency of some collections to replace the term “faience” with an alternative, such as “glazed composition” so that a single material appears under a variety of headings in different collections. Faience may be defined as a nonclay ceramic with soda-lime-silicate glaze on a crushed silica body; the material is more correctly known as “Egyptian faience.” The name was probably suggested through comparison by European travelers of its—frequently blue-green—glaze with those on a type of tin-glazed pottery known as faience, which was originally manufactured in Faenze, Italy, from medieval times. Since there is little chance of confusing the Egyptian material with the tin-glazed clay ceramic that is now called majolica, there seems little need to use the “Egyptian” element of the term or any of the numerous suggested alternatives.


Although for faience the glaze is not complete until after firing, it is usually the glazing technique that is used as a means of subdividing the objects, glazing is treated here before the discussion of the shaping technology. Early accounts of faience production, such as that by W. M. Flinders Petrie in his Tell el-Amarna (London, 1894), assumed that it was glazed in the same way as pottery—namely, by applying a glaze to the exterior. This was a natural assumption, since the material seems to owe its origin to the Predynastic practice of producing objects of glazed quartz or steatite, probably in imitation of semiprecious stones, such as turquoise, lapis lazuli, and green feldspar. Such early pieces surely had applied glazes, but research since the 1960s has increasingly suggested that the earliest faience which, like glazed stone, appears during Predynastic times, may have employed a more diverse range of techniques.

The faience body material is silica, either made from sand or crushed quartz pebbles; after firing, light was reflected in a less uniform way than it would have been for an object of glazed quartz or steatite. The result, bright and often sparkling, probably made it prized as an imitation of semiprecious stones—as recognized in its ancient name, ṯḥnt, meaning “dazzling” or “shining.” The way the transition from glazing objects of solid stone to ones of crushed silica came about is not known, although the Predynastic seems to have been a time of experimentation—and this may be the origin point for the three main glazing techniques used in pharaonic times. Application glazing of faience would have been similar to glazing quartz, with the object painted in a slurry or a powder of glazing mixture, made of quartz, lime, alkali, and colorant; these were simply crushed finely or fritted (see below) together, then crushed to a powder for application. The objects glazed by this means may show brush marks or drips of glaze, and the glaze may have clearly defined edges, where parts have been left uncoated to prevent it sticking to surfaces in the kiln. The body soaked up some of the glaze so that the boundary between it and the glaze is diffuse. Little interstitial glass is visible when examined under the Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM).

As well as application glazing, two other methods are known, and are believed to be present, from the Predynastic (although more work on this early material is still needed). Both are known as self-glazing techniques. The first is efflorescence glazing, in which the ground quartz is mixed with alkali salts, such that the carbonates, sulphates, and chlorides of either sodium or potassium are mixed with the quartz. Analytical studies, such as those by Kaczmarczyk and Hedges (1983), suggest that from Predynastic into Roman times the alkali was normally added as plant ash, rather than the mineral soda natron whose primary source is the Wadi Natrun. With firing, the salts migrate to the surface, where they form an effloresced layer that fuses to become a glaze. Examination of the body of such pieces with the SEM reveals a considerable quantity of interstitial glass, since the heating process fuses the mixture between the quartz grains. The technique is recognizable on an artifact because of the variable glaze thickness and because areas where it was in contact with the ground or other surfaces have little or no glaze.

The third glazing method is known as cementation, or the Qom technique (after a village in Iran where it was first observed in the 1960s). In this method, the artifact is buried in a mixture of glazing powder that contains lime, ash, silica, charcoal, and colorant; with firing, this mixture reacts with the surface of the object, leaving it with a fairly uniform overall glaze. The unreacted powder draws away from the object and does not become fused. Pieces glazed in this way do not show any marks from kiln furniture, the interface between glaze and body is well defined, and under the SEM very little interstitial glass is visible.

These three types of glazing have been recognized from the examination of ancient objects, yet Egyptian craftsmen may well have used some of them in combination. For example, a slurry of the efflorescent glazing mixture might be applied to objects where carving had cut through the original effloresced layer, as with certain decorated chalices. The three glazing techniques involve firing temperatures in the range 800–1000°C, although little evidence exists for the type of fuel used. Nicholson (1995) has unearthed charcoal that has been identified as the remains of the sycomore fig (Ficus sycomorus). The Roman kilns from Memphis were believed by Flinders Petrie to have been fueled with straw, but this seems improbable since straw burns so rapidly that very large quantities would have been needed (and even today straw is a valuable commodity in Egypt). Domestic rubbish, which is attested from the furnaces at Tell el-Amarna, is a much more likely source of fuel. Dung is also widely used as fuel in Egypt, and it may have been used in kilns and furnaces (but the writer has not seen it employed in this way among contemporary Egyptian potters) and it is not certainly attested from excavated kilns.

Technology and History.

Unlike clay, which has smooth platelets that render the material highly plastic, ground quartz has angular edges, and as a result is more difficult to work. Quartz paste is thixotropic, thick at first but soft and flowing as it is deformed—although rapid deformation leads to cracking. It was assumed by modern researchers that the raw faience paste would have the properties of wet sand, making it extremely difficult to shape; however, in a series of experimental studies at the Rhode Island School of Design, Mimi Leveque has shown that if the quartz is ground very finely, it can be shaped easily, and that the grains adhere well rather than tending to crumble. This allows the material to be modeled by hand, as it was occasionally during Predynastic times, and more particularly to be roughly shaped by hand and then abraded once partly dry. Although many other crafts are represented in tomb scenes, giving at least some indication of how they were carried out, the production of faience is nowhere certainly attested. The only scene that may show it is from the tomb of Ibi (Aba) at Thebes (tomb 36) and belongs to the time of Psamtik I of the twenty-sixth dynasty. One man is shown grinding or rolling something while another is making some element of jewelry, but there is no identifying text, which severely limits the meaning of this scene. As a result, scientific and experimental studies have been invaluable in building knowledge of ancient faience manufacture.

Modeling combined with surface grinding seems to have been the preferred faience-forming method during the Predynastic and Early Dynastic periods. This view is based on the various studies of Pamela Vandiver (1982 and 1987), who examined artifacts of the period. No trace of manufacturing centers survives from that earliest developmental phase. Edgar Peltenburg in his study “Early Faience: Recent studies, Origins and Relations with Glass” (in M. Bimson and I. C. Freestone, eds., Early Vitreous Materials, London, 1987) reports that faience manufacture is essentially a “cold technology,” more akin to stone working than to glass working or metallurgy, since the body shape is formed cold. There are however, clear links with pyrotechnology, particularly from the New Kingdom onward, and these links are of equal importance.

With the Old Kingdom, the dominant glazing technique became efflorescence and, with it, came increasingly sophisticated methods of shaping. The most notable was the forming of the tiles for the third dynasty pyramid complex of Djoser at Saqqara. The tiles were once thought to have been molded, but Vandiver's studies suggest that they were made by rolling the faience paste between two sticks that served to determine the width and thickness of the tiles, which were then cut to length. As a result, we find tiles with a very consistent width, but of varying lengths. The reverse of these tiles clearly shows that they were efflorescence glazed, since little glaze has formed where the back was ground away to leave a boss, which was then pierced for a wire attachment. Old Kingdom faience is by no means as unaccomplished as has sometimes been thought. Not only are the Djoser tiles known but also, from the fifth dynasty, a series of elaborate inlays and tablets are known from the mortuary complex of Raneferef at Abusir. Some were inlaid with white paste, as well as with gold leaf, which was then engraved. Old Kingdom faience-makers added to the blue and blue-green colors of the Predynastic, occasionally making white, black, and purple. This was also the period of the earliest faience factory evidence, as unearthed by the University of Pennsylvania Museum–Yale University–Institute of Fine Arts, New York University expedition to Abydos, under the direction of Matthew Adams. Abydos yielded a number of bowl-shaped pits lined with fired brick, which are thought to have been for firing faience; so far no traces of superstructure are known for the pits, so it is suggested that the faience was fired in lidded jars, to protect it from the direct effects of smoke and flames. Numerous fragments of misfired and broken faience were found at the site, which seems to date from the mid-Old Kingdom into the Middle Kingdom.

Vandiver (1982, 1987) believes the First Intermediate Period was the time during which the forming of faience objects around a core began, as well as the technique of marbleizing, whereby faience pastes of two colors were mixed together (neither technique is common). The molding of faience may also have had its origins at this time, but it becomes more common during the Middle Kingdom, when vessels were sometimes shaped over a form. The use of a core to make shapes, such as the well-known hedgehog figurines, was also much more common during the Middle Kingdom, as was the widespread use of manganese as a decorative paint. In terms of glazing, cementation became popular in Egypt, although in Kerma (Sudan) there is evidence—runs or drips—of application glazing on tiles and other objects. George Reisner, in his Excavations at Kerma IV–V (Harvard, 1923), believed there was evidence for the wheel-throwing of faience; if correct, that would be the earliest known evidence. There is also factory evidence from Egypt, from the site of el-Lisht; this includes a kiln that may be reexcavated as part of the ongoing work of the Metropolitan Museum of Art at that site. Their excavations not only revealed a kiln, but from shaft 879 came the burial of an individual named Debeni, who held the title “Overseer of the Faience Workers.” Although unclear if he was in any way connected with the nearby area identified as a faience workshop, it indicates that during the Middle Kingdom the making of faience was a recognized craft.

In the Second Intermediate Period, faience technology was developed, with marbleizing becoming more common and perhaps providing the inspiration for inlaying a faience paste of one color into a body of another color. That technique reached its peak during the New Kingdom. The Second Intermediate Period identified the further use of application glazing, following which it remained part of the Egyptian faience-maker's repertory. The New Kingdom is the period for which most is known about faience manufacture—largely the result of Flinders Petrie's work at Tell el-Amarna in 1891 and 1892, when he and Howard Carter discovered the remains of several “glass and glazing [or faience] works.” From that account, faience and glass production seem to have existed side by side in the same workshops, as confirmed by Nicholson's excavations on behalf of the Egypt Exploration Society. A similar situation is thought to have existed at the Palace of Akhenaten's father, Amenhotpe III, at Malqata on Luxor's western bank.

J. Kühne noted in Zur Kenntnis silikatischer Werkstoffe und der Technologie ihrer Herstellung im 2. Jahrtausend vor unserer Zeitrechnung (Abhandlung der Deutschen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin, 1969) that the high proportion of interstitial glass found in some New Kingdom faience suggested its addition as ground glass. Analytical work at Oxford has, however, suggested that this interstitial glass is simply the result of the efflorescence glazing technique. The result is the same in both cases, however; the manufactured object is more durable. Thus the New Kingdom faience became suitable for small fragile objects, such as finger rings—many hundreds of which are known from Tell el-Amarna. These may have been given or sold on festival or other special occasions. Like the numerous amulets from the site, the rings were made by pressing faience paste into fired clay “open-face” molds. The shapes in the molds were probably impressions taken from originals in other materials, such as metal, wood, or even wax. Such molds (of which Petrie found some five thousand at Amarna) would have enabled the mass production of rings, amulets, and other objects. Usually the ring shank and bezel were made separately and subsequently luted together with faience paste; the two parts are sometimes of different colors—indeed bezels might even be of several colors—with inlaid hieroglyphs. During the New Kingdom, the faience worker's color palette was at its most extensive, with much use being made of yellow (not least by Amenhotpe III) and red—both then new colors—along with green, white, and the more traditional blue and blue-green. Some of those colors may be the result of adding ground glass.

Colors were used not only for monochromatic pieces or for the inlay in ring bezels but for ambitious architectural inlays. Three techniques have been recognized. The first is not really an inlay technique in the same way as the others but was used for making the well-known Amarna daisy tiles. A green tile was produced with a series of shallow circular depressions in it; after firing, the holes would be filled with yellow and white faience daisies that had been made separately; they were held in place with gypsum adhesive. The result was a joining of two pieces of faience. The other two techniques produced unified pieces. For one, a channel was cut into the main body color, then filled with faience paste of another color. The background was fairly dry, and the inlay was allowed to shrink away from it slightly; when fired, a small void became apparent around the inlay, giving a series of black lines around the inlaid pattern. For the other, the inlay paste was added early, so that the effects of differential shrinkage were less visible. Thus copper-based colors “bled” into the background color, which was usually white. After firing, this left a halo, which was used to striking effect—particularly on tiles showing foliage, where a kind of soft-focus image was achieved. The kind of glazing method used for the production of such tiles is not certain, although efflorescence is possible. Many of the tiles show three distinct layers in cross section: the glaze; a layer of very finely ground quartz; and a coarse ground quartz layer, often brownish. The fine layer helped give the object brilliance and was a technique known at least as early as the Old Kingdom, though it was rarely practiced before the Second Intermediate Period.

On the basis of his discovery of white quartz pebbles covered in glaze and sometimes adhering to pottery sherds, Petrie suggested that the floor of the furnaces at the glass and glazing workshops were covered in these pebbles and that the various glass and glazing operations were carried out in vessels that stood on them. The constant heating and cooling of the pebbles would eventually cause them to crack so that they could easily be ground up as a high-quality source of silica for use in glass or faience making, and it is likely that the fine quartz layer was made up of silica from such a source. While there is no doubting Petrie's evidence, his reconstruction should be questioned. He was quite explicit in stating that he found no furnaces for glass or glazing—only debris, from which he drew up a hypothetical outline of the process of glass and faience manufacture. Work at the Amarna site O45.1 has recently unearthed several circular kilns/furnaces, none of them with white quartz floors. The two largest of these furnaces probably served to manufacture glass but perhaps also blue frit, which might then be used as a colorant in faience. A smaller kiln may well have served for the firing of both pottery and faience, since both require a lower firing temperature than does glass. A potter's workshop is known from O45.1, along with openface molds and fragments of raw glass and frit, strongly suggesting a link between these vitreous-material industries.

Faience and glass production are also recognized together at the important site of Qantir in the Nile Delta. As yet, no furnaces for glass or faience making were found there, although there were finds of numerous molds and waste products from both the glass and faience industry. Qantir is also the source of a series of polychrome tiles that show foreign captives—the Nine Bows, who were the traditional enemies of Egypt. They were probably parts of throne diases and other elements in the palace of Ramesses II; tiles of a similar type are known from the palace of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu. The coloring and standard of workmanship for these pieces are exceptionally high, with clothing details picked out in various colors. Qantir is also the find-spot of a faience lion some 70 centimeters (27.5 inches) high, one of the largest pieces of faience known (the other, a was-scepter of Amenhotpe II, had been made in sections and joined after firing). The link between the pyrotechnical industries was reinforced after the New Kingdom, and for this the chief evidence—several rectangular furnaces—came from a site excavated by Petrie at Memphis, which dated to the Roman period. The misfired vessels from the site clearly illustrate the manner in which the plates and bowls were stacked in the kilns; they were inverted and separated from one another by small cones of clay that served as setters. These would normally be removed, leaving only a small trace on the inside of the vessel but a larger mark on the stand-ring of the underside. Where vessels were misfired, they were left in place—as a result, the process can be reconstructed.


As an artificial semiprecious stone, faience seems to have been regarded as a suitable substitute for actual stones. Thus the goddess Hathor was referred to as the “Lady of Turquoise” but offerings of faience artifacts were made to her at Deir el-Bahri, Serabit el-Khadim, and elsewhere. It was probably the color symbolism that had come to be more important than the material itself, and faience was by far the most common material for the production of amulets.

Even important funerary objects, whose material was specified in religious texts, might be substituted in faience. Thus the heart scarabs, which were to be made of the green nmhf stone (green jasper, serpentine, or basalt), were also found in faience. Heart amulets—common only after the New Kingdom—were supposed to be made in shrt stone (probably carnelian) but were made in numerous other stones, as well as red faience, which is known only from the New Kingdom. Color symbolism was of great importance to the Egyptians, and since faience could be used to simulate colored stones, it became an obvious choice for amulets.

Egyptian Blue Frit.

One of the alternative names for faience deserves attention here, since it is actually a related material—to be distinguished from faience and even from glass, with which it is sometimes confused. The term frit should not be used to mean “faience,” since it is a distinct, though compositionally related, material. Work conducted by M. S. Tite and others has distinguished two types of frit. The first is blue, with a dominant crystalline phase of copper calcium tetrasilicate, known as Egyptian blue (CaO.CuO.4SiO2), in a limited matrix of glass. The second is turquoise in color, with wollastonite (CaSiO3, a calcium silicate), which is crystallized from the copperrich glass matrix. These two groups may each be coarse or fine textured, the second resulting from the grinding of the first. Unlike faience, this material is either blue or turquoise throughout; unlike glass, it is crystalline.

The mid-first-century BCE Roman architect Vitruvius, in his De architectura, stated that Egyptian blue (which he knew as caeruleum) was first manufactured at Alexandria; in fact, its origins are much earlier. Not only was it known in Greek times (as kyanos) but it was found in Egypt as early as the fourth dynasty. The material was used by the Egyptians both as a pigment and for molding into objects, such as figurines and even small vessels. Frit is the product of the fritting process, a reaction in which quartz, alkali, lime, and colorants (like copper) are heated together to become a crystalline mass. This process was also widely used as the first stage in the manufacture of early glass, since it allowed for the escape of gases that might otherwise cause bubbles in the molten mass. The result was glass making as a single-stage process. Frit may thus be a material in its own right, as Egyptian blue was, or it may be from a step in the making of glass. The relationship emphasizes the special need to avoid loading the term frit with another meaning, namely as an alternative term for “faience.”


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Paul T. Nicholson