Technological Myths and the Invention of Glass

Posted by ap507 at Aug 19, 2016 09:23 AM |
Dr Chloe Duckworth from University of Leicester outlines how power and prestige drove ancient technology
Technological Myths and the Invention of Glass

Dr Duckworth examines a replica of a blown glass vessel from the 4th century AD

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Are we technological creatures? Certainly we seem to see ourselves in this way. Technology – in the sense of making, using and (crucially) re-designing tools – seems to be at the heart of our self-perception. It often features high on the list of ‘what makes us human’; and our visions of the future are often heavily focused on either technological advancement, or a loss of technological knowledge.

You may, then, be surprised to know that the very concept of technology we rely on today is really rather new. The first recorded use of the term itself in the English language dates to 1612, but it was not used in the modern sense, to describe the whole machinery, technological know-how, and branch of knowledge dealing with applied science, until the mid-19th century. Is it a coincidence that the term ‘archaeology’ follows a broadly parallel trajectory? Perhaps not. In the mid-19th century, archaeologists demonstrated that our distant ancestors had made and used stone, then metal tools, and that over time these tools had seen gradual improvement. Unsurprisingly, given that both disciplines dealt with the distant past, the idea of technological progression became wedded to that other mid-19th century theory: evolution. Suddenly, our ability to make and use tools was at the heart of an ideology which justified colonialism, Western cultural superiority, and the intensive exploitation of the natural world.

These ideas, today discredited by the vast majority of scholars, are nonetheless present at the root of how we understand both technology and archaeology, which makes it very difficult to remove all traces of them from popular and academic discourse. If you want to understand how we frame our place in the world, you could do worse than to check out our museums. Museums of science and technology frequently present a picture of smooth development from one stage to the next; the model is implicitly evolutionary. Technological development is normalised in our society to such an extent that the gradual, directional improvement of technological processes seems to be a given human trait.

Increasingly, however, archaeological studies are demonstrating that this is an oversimplification. If we are to understand the human relationship with technology, we need to be able to see from new vantage points, not just as people sitting on the cusp of a historically unique, 200 year-long wave of rapid global communication and productive power.

Traditional archaeological approaches favoured the idea of technological and cultural ‘revolutions’, followed by the diffusion of these ideas from one geographical location to the next. The implicit assumption was that once a technological improvement was invented or discovered, it would be naturally adopted by any who were able to access the know-how to take it on. Yet this approach completely neglected the significance of social factors in technological change.

Much of my research focuses on the past production, use and recycling of glass. Glass is an astonishing material, which is rarely given the attention it deserves. Rather than being defined by its chemical composition, like metals, or minerals, glass is a state of matter – the result of cooling a liquid to a solid state before it has time to crystallise. 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?

But was glass always so functional? Not in the classic sense of the word. 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.

It is often stated that glass moved from being a specialist, expensive material and became a mass-produced one due to the invention of glassblowing in the first century BC. But if we examine the evidence more carefully, we find that moves towards mass production were being made already before glassblowing became common practice: people moved from using two-sided to one-sided glass moulds in order to cut down on the time-consuming polishing process. Glassblowing itself was probably experimented with extensively before it emerged in a recognisable form, with an iron blowpipe being used to make glass vessels; experienced historical glassblower Marianne Stern certainly thinks so. 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.


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