Faience - The World's First High Tech Ceramic

Is Ancient Faience Egypt's Answer to Costume Jewelry?

Statuette of Hippo in blue Egyptian faience, Egyptian civilization, Middle Kingdom, XI-XIII Dynasty
Statuette of Hippo in blue Egyptian faience, Egyptian civilization, Middle Kingdom, XI-XIII Dynasty. W. Buss / De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images Plus

Faience (called Egyptian faience, glazed quartz, or sintered quartz sand) is a completely manufactured material created perhaps to imitate the bright colors and gloss of hard-to-get precious and semi-precious stones. Called the "first high-tech ceramic," faience is a siliceous vitrified (heated) and glost (glazed but not fired) ceramic, made of a body of fine ground quartz or sand, coated with an alkaline-lime-silica glaze. It was used in jewelry throughout Egypt and the Near East beginning about 3500 BCE. Forms of faience are found throughout the Bronze Age Mediterranean and Asia, and faience objects have been recovered from archaeological sites of the Indus, Mesopotamian, Minoan, Egyptian, and Western Zhou civilizations.

Faience Takeaways

  • Faience is a manufactured material, made in many recipes but mainly of quartz sand and sodas. 
  • Objects made of faience are beads, plaques, tiles, and figurines.
  • It was first developed in Mesopotamia or Egypt about 5500 years ago, and used in most Mediterranean Bronze Age cultures.
  • Faience was traded on the Ancient Glass road to China about 1100 BCE.

Origins

Scholars suggest but are not completely united that faience was invented in Mesopotamia in the late 5th millennium BCE and then exported to Egypt (it may have been the other way around). Evidence for the 4th millennium BCE production of faience has been found at the Mesopotamian sites of Hamoukar and Tell Brak. Faience objects have also been discovered at predynastic Badarian (5000–3900 BCE) sites in Egypt. Archaeologists Mehran Matin and Moujan Matin point out that mixing cattle dung (commonly used for fuel), copper scale resulting from copper smelting, and calcium carbonate creates a shiny blue glaze coating on objects. That process may have resulted in the invention of faience and associated glazes during the Chalcolithic period. 

The Ancient Glass Road

Faience was an important trade item during the Bronze Age: the Uluburun shipwreck of the late 14th century BCE had over 75,000 faience beads in its cargo. Faience beads appeared suddenly in the central plains of China during the rise of the Western Zhou dynasty (1046–771 BCE). Thousands of beads and pendants have been recovered from Western Zhou burials, many within the tombs of ordinary people. According to chemical analysis, the earliest (1040s–950 BCE) were occasional imports originating from the northern Caucasus or Steppe region, but by 950 locally produced soda-rich faience and then high potash faience objects were being made across a wide area of northern and northwestern China. The use of faience in China disappeared with the Han Dynasty.

The appearance of faience in China has been attributed to the trade network known as the Ancient Glass Road, a set of overland trade routes from western Asia and Egypt to China between 1500–500 BCE. A precursor to the Han Dynasty Silk Road, the Glass Toad moved faience, semi-precious stones such as lapis lazuli, turquoise, and nephrite jade, and glass among other trade goods connecting the cities of Luxor, Babylon, Teheran, Nishnapur, Khotan, Tashkent, and Baotou.

Faience continued as a production method throughout the Roman period into the first century BCE.

Manufacturing Practices

New Kingdom Faience Beads (1400–1200 BCE)
Miscellaneous floral pendants made of faience from the ancient Egyptian New Kingdom, Dynasty 18 or 19 (ca. 1400–1200 BCE), at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. STAN HONDA / AFP / Getty Images

In Egypt, objects formed out of ancient faience included amulets, beads, rings, scarabs, and even some bowls. Faience is considered one of the earliest forms of glass making.

Recent investigations of Egyptian faience technology indicate that recipes changed over time and from place to place. Some of the changes involved using soda-rich plant ashes as flux additives—flux helps the materials fuse together at high-temperature heating. Basically, component materials in glass melt at different temperatures, and to get faience to hang together you need to moderate the melting points. However, the archaeologist and materials scientist Thilo Rehren has argued that the differences in glasses (including but not limited to faience) may have to do more with the specific mechanical processes used to create them, rather than varying specific admixture of plant products.

The original colors of faience were created by adding copper (to get a turquoise color) or manganese (to get black). Around the beginning of glass production, about 1500 BCE, additional colors were created including cobalt blue, manganese purple, and lead antimonate yellow.

Faience Glazes

Three different techniques for producing faience glazes have been identified to date: application, efflorescence, and cementation. In the application method, the potter applies a thick slurry of water and glazing ingredients (glass, quartz, colorant, flux, and lime) to an object, such as a tile or pot. The slurry can be poured or painted on the object, and it is recognized by the presence of brush marks, drips, and irregularities in thickness.

The efflorescence method involves grinding quartz or sand crystals and mixing them with various levels of sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and/or copper oxide. This mixture is formed into shapes such as beads or amulets, and then the shapes are exposed to heat. During heating, the formed shapes create their own glazes, essentially a thin hard layer of various bright colors, depending on the particular recipe. These objects are identified by stand marks where the pieces were placed during the drying process and variations in glaze thickness.

The Qom Technique

The cementation method or Qom technique (named after the city in Iran where the method is still used), involves forming the object and burying it in a glazing mixture consisting of alkalis, copper compounds, calcium oxide or hydroxide, quartz, and charcoal. The object and glazing mixture is fired at ~1000 degrees Centigrade, and a glaze layer forms on the surface. After firing, the left-over mixture is crumbled away. This method leaves a uniform glass thickness, but it is only appropriate for small objects such as beads.

Replication experiments reproduced the cementation method, and identified calcium hydroxide, potassium nitrate, and alkali chlorides as essential pieces of the Qom method.

Medieval Faience

Medieval faience, from which faience takes its name, is a kind of brightly-colored glazed earthenware developed during the Renaissance in France and Italy. The word is derived from Faenza, a town in Italy, where factories making the tin-glazed earthenware called majolica (also spelled maiolica) were prevalent. Majolica itself derived from North African Islamic tradition ceramics and is thought to have developed, oddly enough, from the region of Mesopotamia in the 9th century CE.

The dazzling Islamic patterns in the 14th century Jameh Mosque with a view on unique faience mihrab, Yazd, Iran.
The dazzling Islamic patterns in the 14th century Jameh Mosque with a view on unique faience mihrab, Yazd, Iran. efesenko / iStock Editorial / Getty Images Plus

Faience-glazed tiles decorate many buildings of the middle ages, including those of the Islamic civilization, such as the Bibi Jawindi tomb in Pakistan, built in the 15th century CE, the 14th-century Jamah Mosque in Yazd, Iran, or the Timurid dynasty (1370–1526) Shah-i-Zinda necropolis in Uzbekistan.

Selected Sources