You use glass every day but do you know about it's long and fascinating history? We're pleased to share the first of two blog posts exploring the incredible story of glass from pre-historic to modern times.
Long before humans developed many uses for glass, it formed naturally in the environment. Fulgurites are created when lightening strikes on sandy beaches or in deserts. Similarly, Moldovite and Lybian Desert Glass are two examples of glass formed when meteorites strike sand.
Moldovite, produced when a meteorite struck sand in Czech Republic
Obsidian is formed when molten volcanic lava is cooled instantly by sea water. It comes in many varieties including black, mahogany with iron inclusions and snowflake with quartz inclusions.
Obsidian was the first glass used by humans, cut into knives and spear points for hunting and shaped into beads and other jewelry for adornment. Being so useful, obsidian was traded extensively throughout the ancient world.
Black Obsidian, created when hot lava meets cool ocean water
Although the Roman historian Pliny wrote that Phoenician merchants in 5000 BC produced the first glass, archaeological evidence suggests the first man made glass originated in Eastern Mesopotamia and Egypt around 3500 BC.
Because Mesopotamians had a written language, cuneiform, we know how they used glass. The first manual of glass making dates to 650 BC, found on tablets in the library of the Assyrian King Assurbanipal. For the Mesopotamians, glass as a material was sought-after, being similar to semi-precious stones.
Cuneiform tablet on glassmaking 650 BC, a copy of an Assyrian text from 2000 BC Source: Brill, R. H. 1972
Beads were the very first items produced. Little did the earliest glass makers know that beads would be made for centuries to come and traded throughout Europe, Africa, India, the South Pacific and North America.
Despite appearing at times to be a simple material, the technical requirements for glass production are quite complex, with knowledge and expertise needed on heat sources, tools, furnaces and chemical components of input materials including sand and metals. The original glass makers also drew knowledge from allied trades of pottery making and metal smithing. After beads, tiny vases and jars with rims were among the first glassware products.
Until 100 AD “core glass” vessels were made by forming the glass around a solid metal rod that was taken out as the glass cooled. Glass was time-consuming and expensive to produce and the resulting product was thick and heavy. The use of glass was therefore mostly restricted to the elite.
A rapid expansion of glass-making occurred around 100 AD in the Roman Empire with the invention of glass blowing. This enabled glass to be produced more quickly, at lower cost and produced thinner, lighter glassware suitable for daily use. As such, after the 1st century AD, glass became more commonly available throughout Europe with items traded world-wide. Roman glass has been found from that period in archeological digs as far away as India and China.
Another important development during this time were glass molds, used to produce cups and carafes with ornate designs. Ennion was perhaps the greatest master of Roman molded glass.
From the 8th century and through the late 1200's Venice grew to become a major centre of glass production in Europe. Venetians were prolific glassmakers. Vases, carafes and wine glasses were items of value, symbols of wealth and cherished personal belongings.
Because glass making involved hot kilns, the industry was a constant fire hazard to Venice, a city with buildings of wood. Glass production was off-shored to the island of Murano in 1291. This had the added benefit of protecting the trade secrets of the remarkable Venetian glass artisans, techniques that continue to be practiced to this day. Millefiori, which means "a thousand flowers" in Italian, is one of the best-known Murano glass making techniques.
Brill, R. H. "Some Chemical Observations on the Cuneiform Glassmaking Texts." Annales du 5e Congrès de l’Association Internationale pour l’Histoire du Verre. Liège: Edition du Secrétariat Général, 1972, pp. 329-351. https://www.cmog.org/sites/default/files/collections/3E/3E3EFE2C-22DD-4028-9735-ACC9B269B510.pdf
Christies Real Estate. Refracted Glory: the story of the chandelier. https://www.christiesrealestate.com/blog/refracted-glory-the-story-of-the-chandelier/
Corning Museum of Glass. Life on a String: 35 Centuries of the Glass Bead https://www.cmog.org/article/life-string-35-centuries-glass-bead
Glass of Venice: history of venetian beads. https://www.glassofvenice.com/venetian_beads_history.php
Lightfoot, Christopher. Ennion: Master of Roman Glass https://books.google.ca/books?id=P_yiBQAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&redir_esc=y&hl=en#v=onepage&q&f=false
New York Times. Murano Glass, An Ancient Art Revealed. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/30/t-magazine/murano-glass.html
Pliny the Elder, Natural History. https://www.cmog.org/article/pliny-elder-gaius-plinius-secundus-historia-naturalis-about-ad-77
Yeon, Haram. History of the European Glass Industry. https://www.zum.de/whkmla/sp/1011/penseur/penseur2.html