Heritage

Research highlights how glass was a ‘symbol of power’ to ancient cultures

The world’s highest and longest glass-bottomed bridge opened to visitors in central China, connecting two mountain cliffs in Zhangjiajie, Hunan province.

Despite the often practical use of glass today, ancient cultures invested in technological skills such as glassmaking for power and prestige rather than economic functionality, according to an expert from the University of Leicester.

Dr Chloe Duckworth from the University of Leicester School of Archaeology and Ancient History suggests this is in contrast to modern social attitudes, where technological change is inevitable, ongoing, and a driving part of the human experience.

In an article for Think: Leicester, the University of Leicester’s platform for independent academic opinion, Dr Duckworth argues the development of ancient glassblowing highlighted people’s desire to exert control over nature and facilitated, rather than caused, mass production.

In the article Dr Duckworth says: “Glass is an astonishing material, which is rarely given the attention it deserves. Today, it is thanks to glass fibre-optic cables that we have high speed global internet connectivity. And without specialist glass lenses, what would have become of the scientific discovery of the universe through microscopes and telescopes?

     

“The earliest glasses, opaque and highly coloured, were decorative inlays, and perfume flasks, but they were also symbols of power: of the control over nature which allowed people to replicate the appearance of semi-precious stones like lapis lazuli and carnelian.

“At Karnak, Egypt, in the 15th century BC glass was depicted on a temple relief in ingot form, highlighting that – like metal – it could be melted and transformed. It was power, and prestige, not economic functionality, which drove people to invest in the technological skills required to make glass.

“Glassblowing itself was probably experimented with extensively before it emerged in a recognisable form, with an iron blowpipe being used to make glass vessels. The development of glassblowing thus responded to an existing demand, and while it facilitated mass production, it most certainly did not cause it. For glasses to be mass produced, a social and economic niche for blown glassware already had to be in place.

“From our current perspective, technological change is inevitable, ongoing, and a driving part of the human experience. Yet for most people in the past, and many in the world today, technology is something which responds to, rather than defines social factors. The development of glass technology was perhaps something of a ‘blue skies’ project at the start, only becoming economically and scientifically functional much later.”

UNIVERSITY OF LEICESTER

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