Egyptian glass is among the finest of the ancient world. Yet how did the ancient Egyptians make it? New work, at the world’s earliest-excavated glass making factory in Tell el-Amarna, is unravelling the mysteries. Here Paul Nicholson delves into the archives of the late great Egyptologist, Flinders Petrie, who excavated at Tell el-Amarna in the 1890s; and then takes us to his own excavations, a century later, as field director of the Egypt Exploration Society’s Amarna Glass Project. Here he tells of his excavations, how he undertook a host of fiery experiments, and why his team has shattered a raft of old interpretations.
Tell el-Amarna, some 360 miles south of Cairo, was the capital of the ‘heretic pharaoh’ Akhenaten (1352-1336 BC). Planned as a ‘new town’ by Akhenaten, Tell el-Amarna was abandoned soon after his death. His town, therefore, offers a rare and significant snapshot of urban Egyptian life and industry in the late 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom (1550-1075 BC).
The site rose to prominence thanks in part to the work of Flinders Petrie who excavated at the site in 1891-2. Then, in 1912, a German expedition found the famous bust of Nefertiti, the chief wife of Akhenaten. This fixed the site in the public gaze. Following World War I, the archaeological concession passed to Britain’s Egypt Exploration Society – or E.E.S. – who worked there in the 1920s and 1930s and resumed work under Professor Barry Kemp in the late 1970s.
My work, in conjunction with the E.E.S., focussed on glass. At the time of Akhenaten it was still a new material. But how did the Egyptians produce it? Did they make glass from its raw materials (silica, lime and soda) or did they simply import the raw glass from elsewhere?
Petrie’s pioneering work was fundamental to understanding early glass production, not only in Egypt but throughout the Near East. However, on closer examination, I found that some of his seminal theories are difficult to reconcile with his finds, which raised questions as to whether or not they were correct. To explore his theories, we need to wind back the clock to 17 November 1891 when Flinders Petrie arrived at Tell el-Amarna.
This article has been condensed. To see the whole feature, see Current World Archaeology No.28