When you think of the pharaoh Tutankhamun (approx. 1341 – 1323 BCE), or “King Tut,” as he is popularly known, you probably think of gold. After all, the presence of gold in Tutankhamun’s tomb, when virtually all other pharaohs’ tombs were looted in antiquity, was what made the discovery famous. However, did you know that glass has an important place in the legend of King Tut?
Tut’s tomb was discovered with the help of a blue faience cup. Faience is a ‘chemical cousin’ and historical predecessor of glass, made by mixing silica (sand), potash, and alkali with a binding agent, shaping it as desired, and firing it in a kiln so that the surface vitrifies (becomes glassy). The end product looks similar to glazed ceramics. An American businessman, Theodore Davis, found a blue faience cup with Tutankhamun’s name on it, along with some other items, in a pit in the Valley of the Kings, Egypt, in 1907. Archaeologists had not yet found Tutankhamun’s tomb, although they had searched for it. Davis dismissed the find’s significance, but Egyptologist Howard Carter believed the cup was a sign that Tut’s tomb might be in the Valley of the Kings, too. He was right.
After years of searching, Carter finally discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. (To learn more about Carter’s excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb, visit the Griffiths Institute website.) The discovery of Tut’s tomb created a lot of excitement in the 1920s, but the artifacts from the tomb didn’t leave Egypt until almost 50 years later. Starting in London in 1972, the exhibition, Treasures of Tutankhamun, opened at the U.S. National Gallery of Art in 1976 before traveling to other museums across the country. It was one of the first “blockbuster” exhibitions in the United States.
The Corning Museum of Glass’s Research Scientist Emeritus, Dr. Robert Brill, was invited by a colleague at the National Gallery to examine the artifacts for glass. The Rakow Research Library is lucky enough to have access to some of the slides Dr. Brill created while examining the treasure, as well as his personal notebooks.
One of Dr. Brill’s first impressions of the treasure was how prevalent glass was – appearing as inlays, molded objects, and beads. In a notebook, for example, Dr. Brill notes that the distinctive stripes on the nemes headdress on Tut’s golden funeral mask were created with blue glass inlay, not paint or lapis lazuli. Similarly, glass was inlaid in the false beard. Glass was used along with gold and precious gems in the scarab pectoral ornament found on the mummy’s chest. One of several headrests – which ancient Egyptians used instead of pillows – found in the tomb was made of blue glass. According to Dr. Brill, the extent to which glass can be found in the Pharaoh’s treasures testifies to its popularity and use in ancient Egyptian society, at least among the upper class. It also indicates that glass working was already an established craft in Egypt, even though the techniques of core forming and glass blowing had not been developed yet.
Gold will always be a spectacular feature in the treasures of Tutankhamun. From faience to the pharaoh’s funeral mask, glass also has a noteworthy place in this famous story. (It is a coincidence but nonetheless fitting, then, that Harry Burton’s photographs capturing the excavation of Tut’s tomb were recorded not on film negatives but on glass plate ones.) The resources made available through Research Scientist Emeritus Dr. Brill are no less a spectacular feature of the Rakow Research Library’s holdings. To see more library materials on scientific research, visit http://www.cmog.org/research/scientific.