Glassmaking may have begun in Egypt, not Mesopotamia

Artifacts from Iraq site show less sophisticated technique, color palette

Ancient glass

GLASS CONTRASTS  Glassmaking started in ancient Egypt, not the Near East as often assumed, researchers say. Approximately 3,400-year-old fragments from a decorated glass vessel found in Iraq (right) may even represent a fairly crude attempt to copy more advanced Egyptian glass colors and designs (left) from the same time.

©Trustees of the British Museum; K. Eremin/Harvard Semitic Museum

SAN ANTONIO — Ancient Mesopotamians have traditionally been credited with inventing glassmaking around 3,600 years ago. But Mesopotamians may have created second-rate knock-offs of glass objects from Egypt, where this complex craft actually originated, researchers reported November 19 at the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research.

Arguments that glass production originated in Mesopotamia largely rest on artifacts recovered nearly a century ago at Nuzi, a site in what’s now Iraq. Glass finds there included colored beads, vessels and pendants.

It’s unlikely those discoveries come from the dawn of glassmaking, said conservation scientist Katherine Eremin of Harvard Art Museums. She and an international team of colleagues, led by archaeologist Andrew Shortland of Cranfield University in England, determined that glass items excavated at Nuzi represent a mix of ancient Mesopotamian items and glasswork from later occupations, some as recent as the 1800s. Genuine Mesopotamian glassware comes from sediment recently dated to around 3,400 years ago, later than initially thought, Eremin added.

Comparably old Egyptian glass items display an array of colors, including red, green, yellow, opaque blue and translucent blue (SN: 1/24/15, p. 8). Some Egyptian glass features patterns of wavy, colored lines. Nuzi items from Mesopotamian times show a poorer grasp of glassmaking, Eremin said. Those remains consist mainly of beads, a majority of which are colored translucent blue. Wavy, colored lines on some beads are crudely formed and arranged.

“Nuzi glassmakers may have consciously copied Egyptian styles rather than leading the way in the glass industry,” Eremin said.

Further study of ancient glass objects from other sites is needed to resolve the question of whether glassmaking originated in Egypt or the Near East, she said.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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