Phoenician Encyclopedia
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Early Glass

Glazed objects were first made in the Near East in the 5th millennium BC. The glaze was applied as a powder on the surface of the object to induce a self-glazing process, becoming vitrified by the fire or mixed with materials. The first examples of man-made glass, however, seem to date only to the last quarter of the 3rd millennium BC when glass beads were first made in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Glass vessels were rare in eastern Mediterrranean in the Late Bronze Age. Only princes and the very rich could afford them. Some vessels were dedicated to temples and shrines. Others were found in tombs. The process of casting glass in moulds was also invented in the mid-2nd millennium BC. A homogenous group of blue glass pendants in the shape of a nude female (possibly a fertility goddess) is represented in such widely separated sites as Nuzi, Alalakh, Beth-Shean, Megiddo and Lachish. Others have been found in Cyprus, in the Aegean and a very few in Egypt. During the 14-13th centuries BC, a flourishing Mycenaean industry of cast glass jewelry developed.

Phoenicians Unintentionally Discover Glass

The earliest historian to write about the history of glass making was Pliny the Elder. He wrote about an unintentional discovery. On a long-forgotten evening after landing on the coast of eastern Mediterranean near the mouth of the Belus River, the Phoenicians set about the task of preparing their evening meal. Being unable to find proper rocks on which to set their pots, they obtained some cakes of saltpeter from their ship's cargo and placed their cooking vessels on them before lighting a fire. The heat from the flames caused the saltpeter and quartz sand on the shore to melt. These combined into streams of an unknown fluid, which hardened into a translucent substance later known as glass. Here is a quote of his exact words:

A ship belonging to traders in soda once called here, so the story goes, and they spread out along the shore to make a meal. There were no stones to support their cooking-pots, so they placed lumps of soda from their ship under them. When these became hot and fused with the sand on the beach, streams of an unknown liquid flowed, and this was the origin of glass. (Pliny, 362)
Evolved Craftsmanship of Glass

Excavations in the palaces of the kings of Assyria at Nimrud revealed glass vessels that are richly moulded and cut. Glass vessels formed around a core also reappear in this period in Mesopotamia. The moulded and cut glass were apparently made by Phoenician craftsmen. A few moulded and cut cosmetic palettes were discovered at Megiddo and near Samaria. Fragments of a bowl of this type were uncovered at Aroer. In the 8th century BC Phoenician glassmakers also produced monochrome and mosaic-glass inlays which were used in making exquisite furniture (mainly banquet beds) or were inlaid in ivories (also for furniture). Remains of such ivories were also found in the palaces of the kings of Israel at Samaria. Phoenician glass inlays also embellished cosmetic stone palettes, numerous examples of which have been found at Megiddo.

Small amphoriskoi, aryballoi, alabastra and juglets were produced on a large scale from the 6th to the 4th century BC. The center for this production seems to have been on the island of Rhodes. Vessels of this type, common all over the Mediterranean area, have been found in Athlit, Achzib, Hazor, Gibeah, En-Gedi and Meqabelein (near Amman). Alexandria may have been a center of glass-making in the Hellenistic period but very few of its luxury products have been found.

Glass drinking bowls became fashionable in Phoenicia during the 2nd century and increasingly so in the 1st century BC. Fragments of such bowls have been found in Ashdod, Jerusalem, Samaria, Tel-Anafa and other sites. They originate from a local glass-producing centers along the Phoenician coast. On the whole, all through the 2nd and 1st millennia BC, glass was a highly prized material used for making receptacles for precious ointments and drinking vessels. This is reflected in the equation of glass with gold in Job (28.17).

An epoch-making advance occurred in the 2nd half of the 1st century BC with the discovery of glass blowing. This quick and inexpensive method of glass-making seems to have been invented in in Phoenicia. Remains from a mid-1st century BC glassmaking workshop's refuse dump were found in the excavations Jerusalem. Among the finds were fragments of the earliest blown glass vessels yet discovered. In the course of the 1st century AD, glass blowing was introduced into many parts of the Roman Empire. Alexandria led in the production of luxury moulded and cut glass until the early 3rd century AD. Phoenician glass-blowers maintained a high standard in blowing techniques all through the Roman period. Their mould-blown vessels of the 1st and 2nd centuries AD have remarkable decorations in relief bearing Greek inscriptions and often of beautiful colors.

Vessels were made by an ingenious method involving moulding on a core. Since glass-blowing was unknown in this early period, a core was made in the shape of the desired vessel from a material strong enough to withstand heating and fireable enough to be removed from the finished article. Viscous glass was applied to this core. The surface of the vessel was then decorated with threads of colored glass combed into ornamental patterns. The vessel was afterwards rolled on a flat surface and a handle and a base were added. This method required a high degree of skill. The colors of the glass used in this period indicate that the makers tried to imitate precious stones such as lapis-lazuli and turquoise.

The finest mould-blown glass vessels of antiquity are signed by their maker, Ennion of Sidon in the Tibero-Claudian era. Other glass-makers working in Rome in the 1st century AD signed their names in Greek and Latin and boasted of their Sidonian origin. In the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, glass vessels were the most common grave goods and reveal the large scale on which this industry must have been producing. The end of the Roman period in the west was paralleled by a decline in standards of glass making in the East. Glass of the 6th century AD is rather poor compared with earlier examples.

Glass Trade and Export of the Skill

Along with other goods, Phoenician merchants and sailors began disseminating glassmaking craft and finished glass objects along the coasts of the Mediterranean. That was a new journey in the evolution of glass art and technology.

With plenty of silica and soda naturally available, the Egyptians nurtured a glass industry of enameled and gilded glass works into a very successful venture. Egyptian and Phoenician glass works traveled the Mediterranean via Phoenician ships and stirred local artisans around the Mediterranean into the new glass art and technology with vigor.

In the reign of the first Roman emperor, Augustus (27 B.C.-A.D. 14), glassmakers established themselves in Rome and other parts of Italy." They were still using the older method of forming glass at this time, casting it in pre-made "blank" molds, very similar to the "terra sigillata" technique used in pottery. Many examples of this are thought to have come from Adria, near the northeastern coast of Italy. There is one cast green "boat" vessel that was found in Pompeii that is believed to come from the second quarter of the 1st century AD. (Newby, 4) This is important because it can be specifically dated to within about 100 years because Pompeii was buried in ash in 79 AD..

There are not many sites of ancient glass blowing houses, but there have been partial remains found in Eigelstein, near Cologne, and in Phiadius in Greece dating from the 5th century B.C.. Pieces of glass from half of a mold, partial remains of a glass furnace and a crucible in which the glass was heated to a molten state, are all artifacts found at these sites. (Price, 118) Along with sites we have a multitude of glass objects, and although many cannot be placed, we have a few carinated bowls from Pompeii which can definitely be dated before 79 A.D.. (Newby, 11) Another famous piece of evidence dated to the 1st century B.C. is a wall-painting in the House of Oplontis, in the Bay of Naples, which depicts a clear blown glass bowl filled with fruit. (Tait, 64) Probably with time more sites of ancient glass blowing houses will come to light, and possibly give the world some manuscripts to help us better understand the actual process of glass blowing.

Phoenician glass blowers of Malta have been known for thousands of years and the Maltese of today use skills and materials that differ little from those of the Phoenician traders who first introduced it around the Mediterranean. Modern Maltese glass is valued for its beauty and color.


  1. Daumas, Maurice. A History of Technological Invention. New York: Crown Publishers, 1969
  2. Edwards, Charleen K. A Survey of Glassmaking- From Ancient Egypt to the Present. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1974
  3. Harden, Donald B. Glass of the Caesars. Milan: Olivetti, 1987 `
  4. Harden, Donald B. Greek and Roman Glass I. London: British Museum Publications Ltd., 1981
  5. Hayes, John W. Roman and Pre-Roman Glass- in the Royal Ontario Museum. Toronto: Hunter Rose Co., 1975
  6. Merrill, Nancy O. A Concise History of Glass. Princeton: Village Craftsmen, 1989 |
  7. Newby, Martine and Kenneth Painter, Roman Glass - Two Centuries of Art and Invention. London: Burlington House, 1991
  8. Tait, Hugh. Glass 5,000 Years. New York: Harry N Abrams Inc., 1991
  9. Robertson, R. A. Chats on Old Glass. New York: Dover Publications, 1969
  10. Whitehouse, David. Glass of the Roman Empire. New York: Corning, 1988
  11. Zerwick, Chloe. A Short History of Glass. New York: Corning, 1980
  12. Hampton, Susan. Glassmaking in Antiquity. Website.

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