Thursday, November 12, 2015

Dazzling things for Akhenaten & Nefertiti: Glass production at Amarna | Egypt at the Manchester Museum

Dazzling things for Akhenaten & Nefertiti: Glass production at Amarna

In a guest blog, Dr Anna Hodgkinson, of the Freie Universität and the Egyptian Museum, Berlin, discusses some interesting pieces from Amarna, the capital city of ‘heretic’ king Akhenaten

I recently spent two days working in the stores of Manchester Museum, studying objects related to glass-working from the sites of Tell el-Amarna, in Middle Egypt, and Gurob, in the Egyptian Fayum. Both sites were partially excavated by W.M.F. Petrie in the 1890s, which is the reason for the large numbers of objects from these sites at Manchester and other UK collections.

My research project, which is based at the Freie Universität and the Egyptian Museum, Berlin, focusses on the manufacture of glass- and faience items in Late Bronze Age Egypt and Mesopotamia, in conjunction with the production of foodstuffs. While this largely took place at a domestic level, much evidence of institutionalised industries exists. This particularly applies to the palatial, or royal settlements of the ancient Egyptian New Kingdom.

Much evidence of glass-working and, possibly, raw glass production exists from Amarna. However, while extremely high quantities of objects have been found in the course of recent, thorough, excavations, such as those led by Barry Kemp since 1977, the early excavations by Petrie (1891-2) also yielded vast quantities of such items. Petrie had a special interest in the manufacture of glass in ancient Egypt, and, for this reason, he brought back a huge quantity of items, which were presented to various museum collections. Unfortunately, since the precise find locations were not recorded, we are only aware of the general area in which the objects were found: the north-western Main City and also the Central City “palace wasteheaps” at Amarna.

During my time at Manchester, I studied almost 160 objects related to glass-working from Petrie’s work at Amarna. While finished glass artefacts, particularly intricately decorated vessels, can be considered elite objects, simple items of jewellery would have still been accessible to people who were less well-off. The distribution of finished goods is thus equally important a case study as that of the manufacturing materials. I am, however, concentrating on the latter group, since this can tell us much more about the methods used and the skills involved in the working of glass.

The large number of items was rather unexpected, and some items had been grouped under a common accession number and needed to be given individual numbers. Items I studied encompass fragments of glass ingots of various sizes and colours, i.e. blocks of raw glass used for the production of finished objects. Furthermore, there were numerous glass rods that had been drawn from the molten ingots, and used for the manufacture and decoration of core-formed vessels and items of jewellery. They had occasionally been flattened into bars and chipped in order to be used as inlays for hieroglyphic inscriptions or to decorate pieces of sculpture. Two large fragments of cylindrical pottery vessels are coated in run-off glass, indicating that they were probably used as moulds for normed glass-ingots.

Petrie even produced his own reconstruction of the manufacturing processes and the ovens used for melting the glass. He states in his publication from 1894 that “Fortunately the sites of three or four glass factories, and two large glazing works, were discovered; and though the actual work-rooms had almost vanished, the waste heaps were full of fragments which shewed the methods employed: moreover the waste heaps of the palace, as we have mentioned in Chap. Il, contained hundreds of pieces of glass vases which illustrate the finished objects.” Petrie used the cylindrical vessels and the oven debris to reconstruct the glass factories in the Main City North. However, excavations by Paul Nicholson in the area in the 1990s have created a slightly different picture: Site O45.1 was found to contain two large and thick-walled kilns, capable of reaching temperatures high enough to produce raw glass from scratch.

In 2014 I was able to undertake a season of excavations at buildings M50.14-16 in Amarna’s southern Main City. This site did not contain any large ovens or kilns, but evidence of pit firing was found, indicating glass-working at lower temperatures. The site also yielded numerous fragments, rods and bars of glass, together with c.90 unfinished and waster glass beads. Similar items were also found by Petrie, probably also in the northern Main City.

While the cataloguing of the glass objects from Amarna in museums worldwide continues, the Manchester collection has already demonstrated that the materials recovered by Petrie are far more numerous than previously assumed. The evaluation of the materials in Manchester Museum will contribute to our knowledge of New Kingdom Egyptian glass-working techniques and the skills of the craftsmen who, in around 1350 BC created large amounts of colourful glass objects in their houses and in larger workshops, catering to the elite, to Pharaoh as well as producing objects for their own use.

Read further:

Petrie, William Matthew Flinders, 1894. Tell el-Amarna, London: Methuen.

Nicholson, Paul T., 2007. Brilliant Things for Akhenaten: The Production of Glass, Vitreous Materials and Pottery at Amarna Site O45.1, EES EM 80, London.