Middle Eastern Glass

The Middle East, namely the area of ancient Mesopotamia, is seen as one of the populations to first invent glass.  The extent of glass in the Middle East (both geographically and chronologically) provides a vast amount of data, and I cannot begin to summarise all of it here.  Instead, I’m going to look at studies of 1st-13th century glass, since that is the time period I generally frequent in my own research.

The main focus of a lot of work on Middle Eastern glass, like that of Roman and Egyptian glass, is on manufacture and the recipes used to create it.  This isn’t terribly surprising, given the similar shift in chemical type to Egyptian and Roman glasses.

The Objects

Most of the studies focus on vessel fragments and chunks of raw glass.  Some, however, look at glass weights, windows, bangles, production waste, frit, and tesserae.  Since the focus is on both chemistry and manufacture, it is unsurprising that both glass objects and the raw materials or byproducts of their manufacture feature in these studies.

Distribution

           Geographical: Sites generally range across the Middle East, from Egypt to Iran.  Glass from Egyptian and Roman contexts is usually used for comparison.  Some well-known sites are Al-Raqqa (Syria), Tell Zujaj (Syria), Tell Fukhkhar (Syria), Tel el Ashmunein (Egypt), Qumran (Egypt), Appolonia (Byzantine), Dor (Byzantine), Bet Eli’ezer (Israel), Bet She’an (Israel), Banias (Israel), and Basra (Iraq).

          Chronological: Most studies for this period (1st through 13th centuries AD) focus on the latter half, from roughly the 6th century to the 13th.  This often coincides with what archaeologists term the “Islamic” period and the period of “Islamic” glass.  (I’ve largely avoided that term, because it makes the assumption that everyone in the Middle East at this time was Muslim.  Likewise, it ignores the variety of groups and cultures present in the Middle East, instead lumping everything together under a single category.)

Technology

Glass blowing was fairly common, and included a technique where the glass was blown into a mold.  There are also discussions of etching and carving glass.  One technique involved etching (or cutting) a design into the glass, while another involved carving out the background (leaving the design in relief).  Certain types of the latter style were called Hedwig glass after the Silesian princess Hedwig, who supposedly owed three.  Some sources mention the technique of luster painting, which involved painting the glass with metalic pigments to make it shine.  This particular technique is often attributed to the Middle East, though there may be examples from Roman and Egyptian contexts.  Nevertheless, the Middle East perfected a number of new and complex techniques for working glass during this period.

Chemistry

The same point made in Roman and Egyptian glass studies is also made for the Middle East: glass tends to be v-Na-Ca prior to the Roman period, m-Na-Ca during the Roman period, and then switches back to v-Na-Ca after the Roman period.  However, Henderson (2002) tentatively identifies possible experimentation during the later shift at Al-Raqqa.  Additionally, the later v-Na-Ca glass is not the same recipe as that of pre-Roman times.  This would suggest that the shift back to v-Na-Ca wasn’t necessarily a direct reversion to the older recipe, but a reinvention or rediscovery of the general components, resulting in different trace elements.

There is also mention of the idea that specific general chemical compositions would be used for specific colours of glass outside of simply adding the colourant.  That is, rather than just the colourant elements varying between glasses, it would be multiple elements not necessarily connected to colouring the glass.

Stemming off of this, there is mention that each glass manufacture sites is making batches of glass with different chemical signatures.  That is, while all the glass for this period is v-Na-Ca, the manufacturer will combine the other elements in such a way to create a variety of v-Na-Ca recipes.  Rather than using a single recipe, each manufacture site (according to some scholars) would actually create glass using multiple recipes.  This has a wide variety of implications, the largest of which are all mentioned in my post on issues with chemical analysis.

Social Structure

There is discussion of Byzantine and other Middle Eastern glasses having incredibly similar compositions.  This might suggest that the glass in both areas was being made in the same tradition or even by related artisans.  Personally, I see no reason why the glass could be made in both areas and traded between them, but the connection between the regions is an interesting one.

Perhaps most importantly for the social structure is the evidence at Tell Zujaj for both glass making and glass working.  Roman, Egyptian, and Anglo-Saxon sources all discuss the stark separation between glass making and glass working, and a similar separation generally happens in discussions of South Asian material.  Interestingly, the only time I have really seen mention of potential glass making and glass working on the same site is in Southeast Asia.  Some scholars suggest such activities occurred at Arikamedu in India, but the evidence for manufacture from Arikamedu does not clearly indicate both activities – it could easily all originate from glass working alone.  If glass working and glass making are occurring at the same site, that indicates a different infrastructure from most other places working with glass for this period, and leads to many, many questions.

References

Ettinghausen, R
1942    An Early Islamic Glass-Making Center.  Record of the Museum of Historic Art, Princeton University 1(2):4-7.

Freestone, Ian, K.A. Leslie, M. Thirlwall, and Y. Gorin-Rosen
2003    Strontium Isotopes in the Investigation of Early Glass Production: Byzantine and Early Islamic Glass from the Near East.  Archaeometry 45(1):19-32.

Henderson, Julian
2002    Tradition and Experiment in First Millennium AD Glass Production – The Emergence of Early Islamic Glass Technology in Late Antiquity.  Accounts of Chemical Research 35:594-602.

Henderson, J, SD McLaughlin, and DS McPhail
2004    Radical changes in Islamic glass technology: evidence for conservatism and experimentation with new glass recipes from early and middle Islamic Raqqa, Syria.  Archaeometry 46(3):439-468.

Lukens, MG
1965    Medieval Islamic Glass.  Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 23(6):198-208.

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About Heather Christie

Heather is an archaeologist, photographer, and writer whose research focuses on beads and bead trade, particularly in a maritime sense. She's currently working working on a PhD in Digital Design (focusing on heritage visualisation) at the Glasgow School of Art.
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One Response to Middle Eastern Glass

  1. Pingback: South African Glass | Stringing the Past

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