Last Updated: Apr 23, 2018 Views: 22
Thank you for your question! According to our Assistant Curator of Ancient and Islamic Glass, the oldest objects in the collection are those displayed in the Glass in Nature area at the Museum. Glass in nature includes obsidian, desert glass, and fulgurites ("petrified lightning"), among others. Much of this material was made by geologic processes tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of years ago. You can read more in this brief article, "Glass in Nature," in All About Glass on the Museum's website.
The Museum also has obsidian blades that were chiseled from raw obsidian by Neolithic people between 5,000-10,000 years ago (for examples, see the image of five obsidian tools from the Museum's collection at right.)
As for human-made glass, pieces that date before 1500 BC are very rare. We have some pieces (mostly beads) that could be that old but are not necessarily that old. This is true for a lot of our early glass – we know it was made in the Late Bronze Age (about 1500-1200 BC), but not when in the Late Bronze Age, because some styles didn’t change very much for those 300 years.
The portrait head of Amenhotep II (79.1.4), probably made when he was pharaoh from 1426-1400 BC, is the earliest piece for which we have a clear date. Other candidates for earliest piece on view are the two pieces from the Near East in the upper left of the Origins of Glassmaking case – Disk Pendant with Star Pattern (63.1.26) and Pendant with Nude Female (55.1.64).
As for the oldest piece of man-made glass anywhere, there are a couple of beads and other small pieces of glass that have been found in archaeological contexts of the 3rd millennium BC (4,000-5,000 years ago, or 3000-2000 BC). The best known piece of really old glass in a museum is in the British Museum. It is a piece of blue raw glass found at the site of Eridu in modern Iraq. It dates before 2,050 BC, or more than 4,000 years ago. There’s a bit more information, and a photo, on the British Museum website.
Listen to Dr. David Whitehouse discuss the portrait head of Amenhotep II to learn more about it:
Also read The Corning Museum of Glass blog post, "Akhenaten and Amenhotep: Two Egyptian kings on display at CMoG" (March 21, 2013).
For more in-depth research, you might be interested in the following:
- Dubin, Lois Sherr. The Worldwide History of Beads: Ancient, Ethnic, Contemporary. Rev. ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2009.
- Henderson, Julian. Ancient Glass: An Interdisciplinary Exploration. Paperback edition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
- Shortland, Andrew J. Lapis Lazuli from the Kiln: Glass and Glassmaking in the Late Bronze Age. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2012.
- Whitehouse, David. Glass: A Short History. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2012.
- Wight, Karol. Molten Color: Glassmaking in Antiquity. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011.
Younger researchers might be interested in the following:
- Koscielniak, Bruce. Looking at Glass Through the Ages. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 2006.
Feel free to contact us any time you have a glass-related question!