Origins of Glassmaking

35 Centuries of Glass Galleries

Glass has always been found in nature, but the first glass created by humans can be dated to about 4,000 years ago, when craftsmen working in Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, discovered the art of mixing sand, soda, and lime to make glass.

The methods used to shape ancient glass consisted of heating it in open molds (casting). Some of the earliest works in the Museum’s collection, such as a pendant cast in the shape of a fertile woman [55.1.64], and a portrait of Pharaoh Akhenaten [2012.1.2], exemplify these early manufacturing efforts. Another glass making technique, called core forming, involved covering a mud core with glass, then removing the hardened mud to create a hollow vessel. The majority of glass objects made during this early period have been found in Mesopotamia and Egypt.

Glass was considered a luxury item and was reserved for the upper classes. Glass objects were used for personal adornment, for inlays [66.1.216] to create decorative scenes on wooden and ivory furniture, and for architectural embellishment. Glass was also formed into containers [50.1.1] to hold precious scented oils and perfumes.

As time passed, glassmaking centers began to emerge in more places in the Mediterranean world. During the Iron Age, Phoenician traders distributed core-formed perfume vessels throughout the Mediterranean. The Etruscans in Italy made glass vessels [71.1.6], Greeks experimented with colorless glass [59.1.578], and the La Tene people in central Europe were buried with glass beads and bracelets [2005.1.2]. Beginning in the third century B.C., during the Hellenistic period, a new method — mosaic glass [55.1.2] — became more popular. Glass workers assembled small, cut pieces or lengths of rods (canes) into creative designs and patterns and fused them together to create vessels and inlays.

Featured Objects Of The Origins Of Glassmaking Gallery