The works on view in this area illustrate the ingenuity of the earliest glassmakers, who used a variety of techniques to shape and decorate glass objects, including vessels, jewelry, inlays, and sculpture.
Glass has always been found in nature, but the first glass created by man 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) and encasing a solid metal rod or core material in glass to form vessels, a technique called core forming. The earliest works in the Museum’s collection, such as the pendant cast as a figure of the goddess Astarte [55.1.64], date to about 1450 B.C. and exemplify these early manufacturing efforts. 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 to create decorative scenes on wooden and ivory furniture [Egyptian figure, 66.1.216], and for architectural embellishment. Glass was also formed into containers to hold precious scented oils [Egyptian core-formed container, 50.1.1].
As time passed, glassmaking centers began to emerge in more cities in the eastern Mediterranean world. During the Bronze Age, Phoenician traders distributed core-formed perfume vessels throughout the Mediterranean, and glass became more widely known. The techniques used to shape glass, casting and core forming, remained the same for more than a thousand years. It was not until the second century B.C., during the Hellenistic period, that a new method—mosaic glass— was developed [Mosaic glass bowl, 55.1.2]. Creative designs and patterns were achieved by assembling small, cut pieces or lengths of rods (canes) of glass, some with patterns and some in solid colors, and fusing them together to create vessels and inlays.