The first glass used by prehistoric people was obsidian, a natural glass of volcanic origin. It was considered a stone and was worked into artifacts by the Egyptians from the Predynastic period onward. (The Libyan Desert glass that had been formed by the heat of meteoritic impact was not exploited in antiquity.) From Neolithic times onward, craftsmen worked with controlled fire and pyrotechnological processes, experimenting with a variety of materials and also the basic materials that were later to be used in glassmaking: these included quartz sands, containing powdered mollusk shells (which became slaked lime with heat); sea-plant ashes that had high contents of soda and/or impure soda (used as flux to lower the melting temperature); and metallic ingredients that became coloring agents. Processing various proportions of the ingredients resulted in glaze, Egyptian faience, Egyptian blue, Egyptian green, frit, glassy faience, and many intermediate vitreous products (some of them used as pigments).

The first artificial glass that occurred in the ancient Near East was a glaze. It perhaps accidentally resulted as a byproduct of metallurgy—like vitreous slags and layers on interior walls of prehistoric metalworking installations. In the mid-sixteenth-century BCE, glass was produced as a material in its own right and was soon worked into artifacts. Where the various glass and glasslike materials were first made is, as yet, uncertain, although the Near East is the favored locale. Investigations by Christine Lilyquist and Robert Brill in Studies in Early Egyptian Glass (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1993) indicate that almost no examples of pre-sixteenth-century BCE glass exists in Egypt.


The melting of basic ingredients to make raw glass was certainly at first confined to specialized centers with sufficient nearby fuel. They made uncolored glass and exported it as chunks or ingots, which would be used in glassworking (see below). Ancient glass may have been made in a one-stage or a two-stage heating process. For the two-stage process, the crushed ingredients were heated for a long time, at about 850°C to produce a frit; then the cooled frit was ground to a powder and melted at about 900° to 1100°C, to become a refined glass. The melting process for glass depends on the ingredients, temperature, and time. Long heating can lower the melting temperature, as low as 900°C. Ancient raw glass is translucent and has tints of blue, green, or yellow, resulting from trace metal elements included in the quartz sand. Clear glass was rarely known in Egypt before Ptolemaic times, since traces of metallic inclusions were not yet being carefully controlled. Glass was generally made transparent to opaque and mostly colored in bright shades of dark blue, turquoise blue, violet-purple, yellow, white, and red—to often imitate precious stones.

In the cuneiform texts called the Amarna Letters, written in the Hurrian and Akkadian languages, “glass” is termed ehlipakku and mekku. The Egyptians never developed a name for it but called it “the stone that floats,” “molten turquoise,” as well as “artificial” or “molten lapis lazuli.”

Glassworking and Glassware.

The manufacture of glass objects was possible wherever glass chunks or ingots and a forced fire were available. No evidence exists for glass furnaces dating from pre-Roman times. When Egyptian rulers in the sixteenth century BCE had freed Egypt from the Hyksos (invaders from the Near East), the first securely dated glass artifacts appear in Egypt; for example, beads of uncolored, translucent glass that are engraved with the royal names of the early eighteenth dynasty. According to his Annals at the temple of Karnak, Thutmose III (1504–1452 BCE) imported chunks of raw glass from his Near Eastern military campaigns. Captive glassworkers, perhaps from northern Syria and the Mitanni region seem to have been involved in the development of a variety of glassworking techniques for Egypt's young glass industry. Outstanding pieces were glass vessels, a persea fruit, and a shawabti figure, all inscribed with the king's name, as well as a miniature sarcophagus and multicolored jewel inlays.

Beads were formed around a rod, and inlays were cut from flat plaques or made in open molds. Solid monochrome objects could be molded and retouched, as were the rare small glass sculptures—made mostly for the court. Vessels were shaped around a preformed core that was fastened at the end of a rod. The core, corresponding to the interior of the vessel, was apparently covered with crushed glass and heated above a fire, which melted the glass and created a layer of glaze. This procedure was repeated until the glass wall had the required thickness. The layers smoothed—as did the later applied threads—because of the surface tension of the hot glass. The thread decoration of Egyptian glass vessels was achieved by holding them above a fierce fire; prefabricated glass canes were thereby softened, and wound around the vessel, dragging them into patterns. This technique was confirmed in 1994, by B. Schagemann's experiments as director of the Lehr-und Versuchsglashütte des Staatlichen Berufsbildungszentrums für Glas in Zwiesel, Germany. The core's coating was neither made by dipping (the molten glass was too viscous) nor by trailing a coil of glass around the core as William Matthew Flinders Petrie had suggested in his 1894 monograph Tell el Amarna. No evidence of spiral coiling of early glass vessels exists; however, coiling was a characteristic technique only after core-forming was revived in the first millennium BCE. The finished vessels—the early as well as the late ones—were cooled in hot ashes, the rods were removed, and the cores scraped out, leaving sandy-looking remains on inner surfaces, which added to the opacity.

Many glass artifacts were recovered from the tomb of Amenhotpe II (r. 1454–1419 BCE), whose campaigns to the Near East are well documented. Among them are fragments of more than seventy glass vessels; some are inscribed with his name, including Egypt's tallest, 40 centimeters (about 16 inches) high; some revealing Near Eastern influences. Ornaments and first inlays on coffins have also been identified from this time. Two shawabti figures of the king's officials and engraved heads, probably representing Amenhotpe II, are master sculptures.

These early glass artifacts in Egypt include the largest known until Roman times. They also show an array of glassworking techniques never surpassed until the fifth century BCE, which include the following: rod-and-core forming, molding, twisting canes, fusing-on chips, prefabrication of appliqués and inlays, enameling, reverse painting on translucent glass, the assembling and fusing of glass mosaics, engraving, and grinding.

Glass objects from the tomb of Amenhotpe's successor Thutmose IV (r. 1419–1410 BCE) are smaller than the early pieces and of typical Egyptian shape. During peace with the Asian provinces, Amenhotpe III (r. 1410–1372 BCE) installed Egypt's earliest known glassworking site, in typical proximity to faience production, at his royal residence, Malqata, at Thebes. Finds there included an uncolored chunk of raw glass, glass canes, parts of crucibles, and coloring agents. Malqata's glassworkers went with Akhenaten (r. 1372–1355 BCE) to Tell el-Amarna (ancient Akhetaten), a town with many glass finds including jewels and amulets. There, workers had quarters in which the different crafts shared materials, equipment, and knowledge. Quantities of glassworking remains and the excavations directed by Paul T. Nicholson revealed evidence for at least an experimental phase of glassmaking in Egypt.

Some one hundred and seventy, mostly blue, glass ingots, the complete ones weighing about 2.5 kilograms (5.5 pounds) each, were found in the late Bronze Age shipwreck discovered at Ulu Burun, off the south coast of Turkey. Those ingots would fit roughly into the cylindrical crucibles at Amarna. Their glass is reported as similar to contemporary Egyptian and Mycenaean glass. Ulu Burun glass might have been sold to Egypt for scrap gold, including the Nefertiti scarab found in the wreck. If the secret of making glass from Amarna's sand and other nearby ingredients was already known, why would the king ask, in the Amarna Letters, for glass from his vassals in Palestine? It is certain that, for instance, yellow glass was not made in Egypt.

Tutankhamun's (r. 1355–1346 BCE) tomb yielded masterpieces of turquoise glass, such as two headrests and the writing set. Yet the king's purplish-blue glass figurine, perhaps made by the lost-wax technique, and the glass vessels show poor workmanship. Tutankhamun's burial equipment was lavishly embellished with glass inlays, including his coffins, his gold mask, and his throne. While inlays were used in the early eighteenth dynasty, they have extensively adorned sarcophagi, shrines, and furniture only since the reigns of Amenhotpe III and IV, where figures with fine relief faces decorated coffins discovered at Saqqara. From the fourteenth to the twelfth century BCE, great quantities of glass were worked; reliefs on palaces and on temple walls were even highlighted with faience and glass inlays.

A spectacular central production site for red glass has been dated to the reign of Ramesses II (r. 1304–1237 BCE). It was integrated into an area of multifunctional workshops and a huge bronze-working industry at Piramesse, in the eastern Nile Delta. There, a red ingot and the remains of forty crucibles for melting one hundred kilograms of glass are comparable in shape to Ulu Burun's ingots and Amarna's cylindrical vessels. New excavations by Edgar B. Pusch (1997) demonstrate the first securely dated making of uncolored raw glass in Egypt. As no artifacts were excavated, the site has been interpreted as a specialized center for making and coloring glass for distribution.

At the entrance to the Faiyum, near el-Lisht, glassworking materials were found in a village house, used mostly in the thirteenth century BCE. A huge lump of translucent blue glass was also found. While Malqata and Amarna glass were colored blue with imported cobalt ore, the nonroyal Ramessid el-Lisht workshop used only copper. Glassworking is also assumed at Medinet el-Ghurab, Menshiya, and Tell el-Yahudiyya.

Glass vessel manufacturing ceased after the end of the New Kingdom, around 1081 BCE. Beads, amulets, and inlays continued to be made, on a small scale, until their production was increased in the sixth century BCE, when elaborate figural and hieroglyphic inlays were employed to decorate numerous wooden shrines. From the fifth century BCE to early Roman times, inlays also embellished coffins of wood, cartonnage, plaster, or gesso. The latest coffin is dated around the second century CE. Most ancient Egyptian inlays were monochromatic. In Aper-El's burial in the fourteenth century BCE, inlays were made by fusing different colored pieces of glass. Increasingly developed for inlays of coffins and furniture, this technique resulted in Egypt's true mosaic technique. The earliest examples were discovered at the Kharga Oasis in a fifth-century BCE temple complex and identified by Marie-Dominique Nenna.

The minute designs of such mosaic inlays were fabricated by bundling cold, colored-glass canes into the desired pattern, then fusing them to a bar. To miniaturize the pattern, the bar was lengthened by pulling. Thereafter, mosaic slices were cut from the bar, ground, and polished. Both monochromatic and mosaic inlays were excavated from temporarily erected temple-decoration workshops of Ptolemaic and early Roman times in Gumaiyima near Tanis, and in Tebtynis at the Faiyum. The mosaic technique was mastered when Alexander the Great founded the port city of Alexandria in 332–331 BCE. According to ancient authors, Alexandria was famous for her luxurious glasses. Alexandrian glassworkers probably developed mosaic glass bowls. Alexandrian mosaic inlays with Egyptian and Greek designs were found at many Egyptian sites; some were exported even to the kingdom of Meroë (in modern Sudan) until the first century CE.

The manufacture of core-formed vessels had a renaissance in the Near East and the Mediterranean during the first millennium BCE. They were made in a new technique by coiling a hot glass thread around a prefabricated core. The few vessels of this era excavated in Egypt may have been made in Alexandria. Since glass finds have been scarce in Alexandria and environs, it can only be assumed that Alexandrian workshops produced luxurious vessels, such as cameo, overlay and gold glass vessels: all were made of hot glass on the turning wheel. Certain types of glass vessels and artifacts found in the kingdom of Meroë among glasses imported from the Hellenistic world and the Roman Empire—once ascribed to Alexandrian glass houses—are now assigned to Meroitic glass workshops.

In Egypt, only gold and silver were more highly prized than glass, which equaled the precious lapis lazuli and turquoise in value during the eighteenth dynasty. Consequently, glass manufacture was long under royal control. Comparing the Annales of Thutmose III to the Harris Papyrus of Ramesses III, in enumerating presents to the gods and their temples, the value of glass fell slightly. Although the number of royal names on glass artifacts decreased during the New Kingdom, glass remained precious throughout Egyptian history. Valuable coffins, royal furniture, and the shrines of deities were embellished with glass until early Roman times. Glass vessels, the most ambitious glass artifacts beside sculpture, served as fine tableware or containers for valuable unguents, oils, and cosmetics. They were donated as royal gifts to privileged persons and to temples in Egypt and abroad. Excavated from wealthy tombs and temples on eastern Mediterranean islands, such as Cyprus, or in the Syria-Palestine region, their export quantity increased from the reign of Thutmose IV (1419–1410 BCE) to the Ramessid period.

When glass blowing was invented in the first century BCE, glass became available for nonroyalty. A vast glass industry was settled on the hills near the salt lakes of the Wadi Natrun, where innumerable and as yet insufficiently studied relics provide evidence of an enormous growth in glass manufacture.


  • Bass, George F. “Oldest Known Shipwreck Reveals Splendors of the Bronze Age.” National Geographic 172 (December 1987), 716–718, 732. Concerning the largest find of ancient glass ingots.
  • Bianchi, Robert S. “Those Ubiquitous Glass Inlays from Pharaonic Egypt: Suggestions about Their Functions and Dates.” Journal of Glass Studies 25 (1983), 29–35. First comprehensive study on Egyptian glass inlays.
  • Cool, H. E. M. “Sedeinga and the Glass Vessels of the Kingdom of Meroe.” Annales du 13e congrès de l'Association Internationale pour l'Histoire du Verre, pp. 201–212. Lochem, 1996. On Nubian glass manufacture in Meroitic times.
  • Cooney, John D. Glass, British Museum, 4. London, 1976. Catalog of one of the major collections of Egyptian glass, with examples of almost all kinds of artifacts and techniques.
  • Cooney, John D. “Glass Sculpture in Ancient Egypt.” Journal of Glass Studies 2 (1960), 11–43. The most comprehensive study on glass sculpture.
  • El Goresy, Ahmed, Fuad Tera, Birgit Schlick-Nolte, and E. Pernicka. Chemistry and Lead Isotopic Compositions of Glass from a Ramesside Workshop at Lisht and Egyptian Lead Ores: A Test for a Genetic Link and for the Source of Glass.” Seventh International Congress of Egyptologists, Cambridge, 3–9 September 1995, pp. 471–481. Leuven, 1998. On the import of lead ores and yellow glass to Egypt.
  • El Goresy, Ahmed. “Polychromatic Wall Painting Decorations in Monuments of Pharaonic Egypt: Compositions, Chronology, and Painting Techniques.” Proceedings of The First International Symposium on the Wall Paintings of Thera. August 30th through September 4th, 1997. Santorini, Greece. Half of the contribution is devoted to the vitreous pigments used.
  • Goldstein, Sidney M. Pre-Roman and Early Roman Glass in the Corning Museum of Glass. Corning, N. Y., 1979. Illustrates the full history of early glass with examples from the collection.
  • Grose, David F. Early Ancient Glass. New York, 1989. Offers a good catalog from The Toledo Museum of Art, of early glass until the first century CE; includes modern imitations.
  • Keller, Cathleen A. “Problems of Dating Glass Industries of the Egyptian New Kingdom: Examples from Malkata and Lisht.” Journal of Glass Studies 25 (1983), 19–28. Presents unpublished glass remains from two main glassworking sites.
  • Lierke, Rosemarie. “Early History of Lampwork—Some Facts, Findings and Theories. Part 2 Fire or Flame? Lampworking Techniques in Antiquity.” Glastechnische Berichte 65.12 (1992), 347. Demonstrates that an open fire must have been used in ancient glassworking.
  • Lierke, Rosemarie. “Glass Vessels Made on a Turning Wheel in Roman Times (survey), Also Glass Vessels Made on a Turning Wheel. Cameo Glass.” Annales du 13e congrès de l'Association Internationale pour l'Histoire du Verre, pp. 55–76. Lochem, 1996. (Footnote 11 on page 71 concerns core-formed vessels of the first millennium BCE). The author rediscovered, by her own experiments, the ancient secret of working hot glass on a turning wheel in manyfold techniques.
  • Nicholson, Paul T. Egyptian Faience and Glass. Aylesbury, 1993. Short introduction to the history and technique of vitreous materials.
  • Nicholson, Paul T. “New Evidence for Glass and Glazing at Tell el-Amarna (Egypt).” Annales du 13e congrès de l'Association Internationale pour l'Histoire du Verre, pp. 11–19. Lochem, 1996. Promising results of excavating furnace and glass remains at Amarna.
  • Nenna, Marie-Dominique. “Eléments d'incrustation en verre des nécroples alexandrines.” Annales du 12e congrès de l'Association Internationale pour l'Histoire du Verre, pp. 45–52, Amsterdam, 1993. Presents new evidence for dating monochromatic and mosaic glass inlays from Alexandrian sites.
  • Nolte, Birgit. Die Glasgefässe im alten Agypten. Münchner Ägyptologische Studien, 14, Berdini 1968. Comprehensive study of the glass vessels from New Kingdom times.
  • Rehren, Thilo, and Edgar B. Pusch. “New Kingdom Glass Melting Crucibles from Qantir-Piramesses.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 83 (1997), 127–142. Important excavations of a huge glass-melting center.
  • Schlick-Nolte, Birgit. “Kostbare Glasgefässe aus dem ‘Schatzhaus.’” In Kamid el-Loz 12. ‘Schatzhaus’-Studien, edited by R. Hachmann, pp. 183–202, pl. 34–36. Saarbrücker Beiträge zur Altertumskunde, 48. Bonn, 1996. For the value and the export of glass vessels to the Mediterranian and the Near East.
  • Schlick-Nolte, Birgit, and Rosemarie Lierke. “From Silica to Glass: On the Track of the Ancient Glass Artisans.” In Miracles of Glass. Jerusalem, 2000. From the ingredients and objects of glass to the techniques before glassblowing.
  • Simpson, Philip. “Egyptian Core Glass Vessels from Sinai.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 76 (1990), 185–186. Report about almost one thousand core-glass vessel fragments—the probable remains of donations to the temple of Hathor.
  • Stern, E. Marianne, and Birgit Schlick-Nolte. Early Glass of the Ancient World. 1600 b.c.—a.d. 50: Ernesto Wolf Collection. Ostifildern, 1994. Technical considerations on glassmaking and glassworking, including the working properties of glass, the pyrotechnological facilities, and the various manufacturing techniques demonstrated on artifacts from the Near East, Egypt, and the Mediterranean in a catalog of fine-quality ancient glass.
  • Wuttmann, Michel, et al. “Premier rapport préliminaire des travaux sur le site de ʿAyn Manawir, oasis de Kharga.” Bulletin de l'Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale 96 (1996), 385–451. Mosaic inlays, identified recently by M.-D. Nenna, and monochrome glass inlays from a fifth-century BCE temple complex.

Birgit Schlick-Nolte