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Ancient Egyptian faience

Magazine Antiques,  Sept, 1998  by Florence Dunn Friedman

The immediate charm of Egyptian faience is the glaze, often blue-green - the result of adding ground copper as the colorant to the ground quartz (sand, quartz pebbles, or flint). To this were added an alkali, a little lime, and a little water to create what ceramists today call Egyptian paste. The copper-based blues and greens and the ceramic forms and decoration often recall life in the marshes and along banks of the Nile, which swelled each year with the river's flood until the building of the Aswan High Dam in 1970.

The palette of faience expanded over the millennia to include carnelian reds, lemon yellows, and rich cobalt blues and violets - each color with its own symbolic meaning. These glazes could be created by dipping the object in a slurry or coating it with a powdered glaze before firing. Most often the color resulted from efflorescence or self-glazing in which the colorant was mixed with the quartz body and became part of it. While drying, the salts migrated to the surface, taking the colorant with them. The object entered the kiln almost colorless, with a matte finish. On firing the piece was glazed automatically. It emerged in dazzling color, charged with light (see Pl. II). The dramatic transformation was probably responsible for the central role of faience in Egyptian ceramic art for more than three thousand years.

Faience objects are generally small, like the funerary figurine and charming hippo shown in Plates II and III. But a few unusually large works survive, such as a six-foot high scepter in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which is a tantalizing reminder of the large artifacts, now lost, that were created for Egypt's monuments.

Faience is often characterized as an inexpensive substitute for rarer, more costly materials such as turquoise and lapis. However, to the Egyptians it held a significance that far outstripped its humble ingredients. They believed that faience was a magical substance imbued with light and the powers of rebirth. They called it tjehnet, meaning that which is brilliant or scintillating, and in writings spanning the centuries faience is likened to the brilliance of the sun, moon, and stars. To the ancient Egyptians, objects made of faience shimmered with an immortal light and offered the brilliance of eternity.

When faience was developed, well fore Egypt's Dynastic Period bean about 3000 B.C., clay had aldy been in use for thousands of ears for pots and figurines. By bout 2400 B.C., in the Fifth Dynasty, clay vessels were being turned on the wheel. Although it is time-consuming to prepare, day has attractive working properties: it absorbs water when wet so it can be stretched, and it shrinks when drying so that it can easily be removed from a mold. Yet decorated clay ceramics never became a high art form in Egypt, as they did, for example, in Greece. Egyptians sometimes painted their clay objects before or after firing, but they did not begin to glaze them until Roman times. The iron-rich silt day from the Nile would have produced a dull, muddy surface if glazed, and it is perhaps for this reason that the Egyptians sought other means of obtaining high-gloss colored surfaces, specifically blue-green.

From the Late Predynastic Period (31002920 B.C.) into the Early Dynastic Period (First and Second Dynasties; 2920-2649 B.C.) the survival of shiny blue-green beads, votive objects, and tiles makes it clear that faience was a new ceramic industry - and a real industry judging from the abundant First and Second Dynasty objects deposited in temple sites from the Delta in the north to Elephantine in the south (see Pls. VI, VIII).

Blue was the color associated not only with the Nile but also with the waters of heaven and the home of the gods. Green signified vegetation, regeneration, and rebirth. Glazed in these hues, faience seems from its inception to have been a convenient ceramic substitute for other blue-green materials such as the turquoise found veining rocks in the Sinai peninsula, and lapis lazuli, probably brought from Afghanistan. It is clear that those who dictated fashion, surely the leaders and the elite, wanted objects of this color because even before faience appeared, steatite, a soft stone, was carved and glazed blue-green. During the Early Dynastic Period a related material, but more like glass, now called Egyptian blue was developed (see Pl. V). It was an unglazed material used for millennia alongside faience and glazed steatite. The techniques of glazing faience with an applied slurry were probably first discovered by accident and then cultivated throughout the Early Dynastic Period and the Old Kingdom (2649-2134 B.C.) to produce objects as diverse as the small seated figure shown in Plate VIII and Fifth Dynasty (2465-2323 B.C.) furniture inlays.

Faience tiles were a favorite in the First and Second Dynasties when temple walls at Abydos, Hierakonpolis, and Elephantine (and perhaps the Delta as well) were decorated with these files embellished with reed and other vegetal designs. The reed motif was continued in the famous underground chambers of Djoser's Third Dynasty Step Pyramid complex at Saqqara, where low-relief images of the king were originally surrounded by thousands of little blue-green faience tiles (see Pls. IV, XXII). These tiles have given rise to a number of questions: What did they symbolize? What kind of workshop organization was involved in their production, since each required some hand-tooling as well as molding? What was used to fire the kilns in an allegedly deforested country? A much later, New Kingdom workshop complex of about 1330 B.C. recently uncovered at the royal city of Tel el-Amarna contains kilns used for pottery, glass, and possibly faience. Some had the remains of charcoal fuel, but it is unknown whether the wood from which the charcoal was made was domestic or imported.