In 1968, Dr. Robert Brill, the Museum’s Research Scientist Emeritus, participated in a National Geographic Society expedition to document traditional pyrotechnologies in order to determine how the comparable ancient processes may have occurred. As the expedition was passing through Herat, Afghanistan, the group noticed a glass and antique shop. The traditional-style glass offered for sale turned out to have been made in a nearby village. Arriving at the one-room factory, the group was astonished to see evidence of glassmaking practices that seemed to echo what had been recorded in ancient cuneiform texts about 2,700 years ago.
This was a rare opportunity to discover more about ancient glassmaking techniques. Most of what we know comes indirectly from examinations of surviving objects, and the few remains of early glass furnaces and written records. Similar small furnaces had been discovered in Damascus, Hebron, and Cairo, but these were re-melting scrap glass instead of melting glass from raw materials, as the Herat factory was doing.
Two cousins, Saifullah and Saidullah, and one of their sons operated the business. They said their family had been making glass for about 200 years. Their nearly two-meter-long furnace was built of local stones daubed with clay and mud. The batch was melted in mudbrick crucibles above the firing chamber. The glassmakers were making objects similar in style to those made by their very distant ancestors.
The cuneiform recipe mentioned above, a replica of which is displayed in the Museum’s Origins of Glassmaking gallery, details the ingredients necessary to make glass from raw batch materials in ancient Mesopotamia. White pebbles from a riverbed are prescribed as the primary siliceous ingredient in the glass, and plant ashes are listed as the necessary alkali component. In the 1960s, the glassworkers in Herat were using these same ingredients. They were careful to select only the whitest pebbles from the riverbed. Nomad families in the desert prepared the plant ash, ishgar, which was also used in making soap and pottery glazes.
In the fall of 1977, a six-person crew traveled to Herat and spent four weeks studying and filming the glassmakers at work. The Glassmakers of Herat film is the fruit of their labor.
The area of Herat has suffered various forms of turmoil in recent decades. The status of the factory is currently unknown.