Our ancient ancestors considered glass (along with wood, stone, bone and shell) as invaluable materials integral to the ancient crafting of tools such as arrow heads, spears and knifes. In the early dawn of humanity glass was found-not made. Natural occurring glass was highly desirable and one of the most precious trade items for stone age societies (30,000 BCE to 3,000 BCE) as it was so incredibly rare and allowed the easy manufacturing of extremely sharp tools.
As glass has always played (and continues to play) a unique function in the lives of all humans, studying glass trade throughout history is intimately linked with its production. It is a window into a given societies economic systems, social values and customs. Most sources put the start of human manufactured glass around 3,000 BC.
Glass can be shaped into many different objects with a wide range of different utilities (windows, vases, candle holders, medicine bottles, lens, chandeliers, pipes, etc). Studying the history of glass and glass trade lends to creating a comprehensive understanding of how different industries interacted, just through the lens of glass and its relationship at that particular time to humans and human industry/technology.
It should be noted problems in studying glass trade history could occur based on the inconsistency and wide range of materials used to manufacture ancient glass. That glass can be so readily recyclable also further complicates distinguishing glass into sub groups based on age and materials used.
Historical evidence points to glass being highly regarded by ancient societies- just below the most sacred materials of silver and gold (on the same level as precious gem stones). Production of ancient glass (16th-10th century BCE) might have been limited to as few as 3 production “shops” (Egpyt), with their limited technology ancient humans managed to create colored glass beads using cobalt and copper. Before the advent of glass blowing (1st century BC) glass was a highly desirable and traded exclusively by the elite. Glass blowing took glass out of the hands of the elite into the hands of the common folk.
Once glass blowing was invented, glass became much more wide spread as ancient societies were able to manufacture more glass using less materials. Technology improved and along with it, consistency.
As humans spread across the globe glass trade (mostly in beads) spread from Mesopotamia to Egypt across Greece, Asia and the Mediterranean.
The Roman empire can be credited with helping spread glass across the globe in part through their conquests. Glass was an extremely important trade item for the Roman empire-beyond the continued trade of glass beads, glass was highly desirable for architecture (windows), table ware and ornamental art. Since its discovery glass has always been regarded by humanity as a sort of gem- one to be worn and admired right along with gold, silver, ruby and sapphire.
Just as different cities create economies around one or two industries, with the spread of glass inevitably there emerged a center of innovation of the industry. Today that city is still celebrated as a glass mecca of the world: Venice, Italy (~1000-1300 AD).
Entire bodies of work have been dedicated to the innovation and advances from this period of time. By the late 1800s glass benefits from the industrial revolution. Production dramatically grew more precise and cheaper, though glasses utility reminded consistent and unique. From storing vital medications (which spoil or corrode in any other material), windows, instruments of scientific measurement, lens to view the world and universe, cook & tableware, to jewelry & pipes, glass will always be a part of human civilization. We use glass to look deeper into the universe, to create windows with which to see the world from a drifting spaceship or airplane.
In many ways, glass will remain as a part of our continued story as the very things we use to expand our knowledge, grow society and improve life for all.
It is unique among materials regarded as precious to all of humanity: in its composition and how easily it’s shaped to fit a certain need, and how particularly perfect it is to solve certain problems: how to look outside but keep temperature control, how to create safe transportation with transparent optics that facilitate navigation, peer into the macro and micro world of nature, bring the world into focus for the near and far sighted.
Beyond that, it can be shaped and transformed into something utterly beautiful that captivates us all.
Humanity has cycled through many forms of economic trade; we place importance on the things most valuable to us at that particular point in history. From shells, bones, to salt, gold, paper and digital blockchain currency.
As things become easier to find or create, they lose value. Despite global glass production, once constant remains: Glass will always be regarded as something beautiful, as an art form in it of itself as valuable as a painting or marble sculpture. Like a gem, it will outlast all the human made foundations and constructions. Glass tells the story of human evolution, and will continue to tell it once we are gone.
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