Faience in Egyptian Culture
A dazzling history of a special ceramic material.
Little is known about the early technology of faience, though some scholars speculate it may have been a product of experimentation where the application of glazing resulted in discovery of a new material.
The earliest evidence of faience production comes from a 7500 years old workshop located near the temple of the god Khentiamentiu in Abydos. The workshop comprises several kilns in a form of a circular pit lined with fire-reddened bricks. The associated layers of ash made it possible to date those kilns.
The production and style of faience changed through Egyptian history, reflecting different tenue – an aesthetic and manner of use of decorative accessories. It began with the creation of beads within the Badarian culture (c. 4400-4000 BC) of the Predynastic Period. Those faience beads were formed using glazed steatite – a soapstone rich in talc.
In the Early Predynastic period beads and amulets remained common and popular, but the artisans altered their style and began to produce larger objects such as vessels and figurines for funerary, religious and votive practices.
During the Middle Kingdom, faience makers began to model objects and shape them over moulds. A marble technique was also developed through mixing two different colours. It was popular to incise and inlay faience into other ornaments, as for example in hippopotamus figures painted with aquatic scenes. A similar method was used in bowls and jars decorated with Nilotic scenes.
The New Kingdom brought about another change in manufacture. This period was the highpoint of faience making, and a large quantity of beads, jewellery, amulets and scarabs were manufactured.
At that time glass was also used in the making of faience. This helped to extend the range of colours. Some materials used to colour glass were also used to colour faience during the reign of Thutmosis III in the 18th Dynasty. Makers incorporated the application of different colours for symbolic purposes. For example, blue represented the Nile River on earth and in the after-life; green indicated re-birth in the Field of Reeds; and red symbolised protection.
Researched by Natalie Cassaniti
Dr Stan Florek , Collection Officer