Joshua J. Mark
published on 11 August 2010
Egyptian faience is a glassy substance manufactured most expertly by the ancient Egyptians (though the process was first developed in Mesopotamia, first at Ur and, later, Babylon). Faience was made by grinding quartz or sand crystals together with various amounts of sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and copper oxide. The resulting substance was formed into whatever shape was desired, whether an amulet, beads, a broach or a figurine and then said pieces were heated. During heating, the pieces would harden and develop a bright color finely glazed. It is thought that the Egyptian artisans perfected faience in an attempt to imitate turquoise and other hard to find gem stones. The calcium silicates in the mixture were responsible for the bright colors and the glassy finish.
The Egyptians used faience for the manufacture of jewelry (rings, amulets, necklaces) but also in statuary, for scarabs, to create the board and pieces for the game of Sennet, for furniture and even for bowls and cups. Among the most popular objects made from faience, however, were the Shabti dolls which were placed in the tombs of the dead. The Shabti was a figure, sometimes fashioned in the likeness of the deceased, who would take the dead person’s place at communal work projects, ordained by the god Osiris, in the after-life of the Field of Reeds. The poor of Egypt, if they could even afford a Shabti doll, would have one made of wood, while the more wealthy and the nobility commanded Shabti of faience. The colors of the faience were thought to have special symbolism such as blue to reflect the Nile river on earth and in the after-life, green for re-birth in the Field of Reeds, red for protection, and so on. The Egyptian word for faience was tjehenet which means 'gleaming’ or 'shining’ and the faience was thought to reflect the light of immortality. So closely was faience associated with the Egyptian after-life that the tiles for the chamber walls of tombs were made of faience as was seen at King Djoser’s tomb at Saqqara and, most famously, in the tomb of Tutankhamum where over one hundred objects were entirely or partially of faience.
The earliest evidence of a faience workshop has been unearthed at Abydos and dated to 5500 BCE. The workshop consists of a number of circular pits, clearly the remains of kilns, with a lining of brick and all of them fire-marked. Layers of ancient ash in the pits are evidence of continuous use over many years. Small clay balls were also discovered and it is thought that they may have been used as the surface on which faience beads were fired in the kilns. The names of the faience makers are lost to history save for one man, Rekhamun, who was known as “Faience Maker of Amun”, and another known as Debeni, the overseer of faience workers. Of the other craftsmen in faience, and there must have been many, nothing is known.
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- Don Nardo. Living in Ancient Egypt. Greenhaven Press, NJ, 2003.
- Margaret Bunson. Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. Gramercy, 1999.
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