Glass delusions from the ancient Egyptian world
By Alice Stevenson, on 4 November 2015
This post is part of a series exploring the exhibition Glass Delusions at the Grant Museum of Zoology.
We often visualize ancient Egypt in sandy hues against the backdrop of a clear blue sky, or the watery Nile framed by green vegetation. Yet there was a much wider palette of colours used in the adornment of palaces, temples and decorative objects. The Egypt world was brightly, sometime garishly, vibrant with colour. Glass was one of the luxury materials that came to be used for decoration during the period Egyptologists call the New Kingdom, around 1500 BC.
The 3300-year old coloured rods on display as part of the Grant Museum’s Glass Delusions exhibition are a selection of material from industrial areas found at the ancient Egyptian city of Amarna, now looked after by the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. It was excavated in 1891–2 by Egyptian teams under the direction of Flinders Petrie and with the help of a young Howard Carter, who was on his first Egyptian excavation. In his autobiography Carter confessed that his own early excavation efforts were poor (Petrie agreed), but amongst his notable successes he does mention the identification of glass manufacturing at Amarna.
Amarna was founded as the new, albeit short-lived, capital city of Egypt by the ‘rebel’ pharaoh Akhenaten, who ruled here with his principal wife, Nefertiti, between roughly 1351 and 1334 BC. Akhenaten introduced a new religion that saw the sun god, Aten, replace the entire pantheon of Egyptian gods and goddesses. With a change in religion, also came a distinctive artistic style based on a new sense of realism. There was now movement and fluidity in images and the royal family’s bodies were portrayed in exaggerated forms that broke with convention.
The palace at Amarna was elaborately furnished with images of the natural world, including the use of glass and related materials like faience. It was amidst these colours that the young Tutankhamun (known then as Tutankhaten) grew up.
Soon after glass first made its appearances in Egypt around 1500 BC, high quality materials were being produced and it has been suggested that pharaoh Tuthmosis III (1479–1425 BC) brought foreign glass workers to Egypt. Some scholars have proposed that glass itself was imported to Amarna rather than produced on site. The issue is still hotly debated and Amarna has been an important site for understanding ancient Egyptian glass making, which after Mesopotamia is amongst the earliest in the world. The discoveries first made by Petrie’s teams have remained central to research, including here at UCL. They are also proving inspirational for artists like Eleanor Morgan.
Glass Delusions is an exhibition at the Grant Museum of Zoology, it is the end result of a year-long residency by artist Eleanor Morgan. It is open until 19th December 2015.
Alice Stevenson is the Curator of the Petrie Museum of Egypian Archaeology.