By Marie Parsons
The sweet little blue-hued Hippopotamus figurine known as "William" is a fine example of faience-making. Museum-goers are familiar with the breath-taking Egyptian treasures of rich jewelry and objects using many minerals and stones such as turquoise, lapis, jasper, amethyst, and gold. The pectorals, circlets, collars and other objects were fashioned in a variety of colors and by various techniques, throughout the centuries of Egypts history.
Faience came from possibly humbler ingredients and may have been simpler to work with, but its results are nonetheless as beautiful as the finest of Tutankhamuns gold. And it could be used to make figurines, jewelry, bowls, ankhs, scepters, whatever was required. Faience could even be used to make tiles for the walls of chambers, as was found in King Djosers tomb at Saqqara.
To the Egyptians, faience was known as tjehnet, and more rarely as khshdj, the same word used for lapis lazuli. Both words are related to those for the properties of "shining," "gleaming," or "dazzling," Faience was thought to glisten with a light symbolic of life, rebirth and immortality.
What is Faience
Faience is a glazed non-clay ceramic material or silica, composed of crushed quartz or sand, with small amounts of lime, and either natron or plant ash. Its main ingredient was quartz, obtained from sand, or crushed pebbles to which was added an alkali, a bit of lime and ground copper as colorant. Egypt is rich in silica, in the form of desert sand, but for faience-making, certain sand sources were considered superior to others. Sand is not pure silica, as it contains impurities such as chalk, limestone or iron.
The silica forms the bulk of the body, the material from which the object shape is formed. Ground silica/sand is not easy to form, and even though water is added to help shaping, the finished product will crumble when dry. Adding lime and soda helps to cement the quartz grains together as it dries. But the main strengthening factor is in the firing.
The body is coated with a soda-lime-silica-glaze, most commonly a bright blue-green color due to its use of copper. When fired, the quartz body developed its typical blue-green glassy surface. Other colors were eventually possible, such as white, yellows, reds, and even marbled browns, blacks and other hues.
History of Faience Development
During the Badarian Predynastic period, beads made of glazed steatite were strung together to make necklaces and belts. Shortly thereafter, the use of faience developed.
With the Early Dynastic period, the size of faience pieces increased somewhat to vessels and small figurines, though beads and amulets were still the most common products. In the first two dynasties, faience was used extensively for religious and funerary purposes in the form of small votive temple offerings, temple wall tiles and royal tomb objects. Votives in the form of scorpions, baboons and other creatures appear at temple sites in the Delta to Abydos, Hierakonpolis and Elephantine in the south. Approximately 36,000 wall-tiles used in Djosers Step-Pyramid were made of faience probably glazed by efflorescence. Other inlays have been found at Abusir, some bearing decoration in incised gold-leaf, such as the cartouche of King Neferefre in the Fifth Dynasty.
The earliest evidence of a faience workshop has been unearthed at Abydos, not far from the temple of the god Khentiamentiu. The workshop consists of several very clear circular pits, thought to be the remains of kilns, with no evidence of superstructures over them. Some have a lining made from broken bricks and all are fire-reddened. Layers of ash in some of the pits indicate much use. Numerous small clay balls were also discovered, perhaps serving as the surface on which faience beads were fired. A clay disc with finger impressions, each approximately the size of the clay balls, may be connected as well in the technology.
Two faience workshops were unearthed dating to the Middle Kingdom period, one at Lisht and the other at Kerma in the Sudan. During this period, modeling, forming on a core and shaping over a molding, were the processes used to make faience objects. Shapes such as the hedgehogs which approximating to a sphere, were modeled around a ball of straw. Faience hippopotamus figurines, frequently painted with scenes of aquatic plants, were also popular at this time. Bowls with Nilotic scenes were made to very fine quality, as were jars.
A marbled effect for the faience was derived during this time by mixing two different colored body pastes. Incising and inlaying of faience also became more frequently used, as was carefully executed linear designs in dark paint on a blue background.
The New Kingdom was the zenith of faience-working. Large numbers of beads, rings, amulets, and scarabs, such as those produced during the reign of Amenhotep III, were produced. Glass was used to extend the range of colors, and some of the materials used to color glass, such as antimony, cobalt and lead, were used from the reign of Tuthmosis III, to color faience.
One fine example from this period is the Goblet from the reign of Tuthmosis III in the 18th Dynasty. It has gold sheet at its lip and foot, with marbleizing of white, yellow-beige, red and turquoise, to imitate stone. Though it is possible that this particular piece was imported from the Near East (it was found in the tomb of the Syrian minor wives), such stylesmanship was also used in Egypt.
Three workshop factories from the New Kingdom period were unearthed at Malkata, the palace of Amenhotep III at Thebes, at Amarna, and at Qantir in the Delta.
During the Graeco-Roman period there were faience factories at Naukratis, the Greek settlement in the Delta, at Buto also in the Delta, and at Memphis.
Who were the faience-makers?
There are many scenes in Egyptian art showing potters at work, but only one scene which might possibly show faience makers. It comes from a 26th Dynasty Theban tomb of the chief steward of the divine adoratrice during the reign of Psamtek I.
The excavation of a tomb at Lisht revealed the burial of Debeni, overseer of faience workers, and there are also other funerary texts relating to such individuals. A 19th Dynasty funerary papyrus belonging to a man named Qn-hr gives this mans title as imy-r irw khshdj, which by the New Kingdom had come to include faience. Two 19th Dynasty stelae made of faience belonged to a man named Rekhamun, who held the title "Faience maker of Amun."
Other than these and a few others, the many workers who left their works for us to see remain nameless.
During the Dynastic Period, the glazing of crushed quartz as an artificial medium presumably developed by application. Some modern experiments indicate that the technology was done without heating, and also that it is possible to produce faience paste and glaze from the powdery by-products of drilling stone beads with copper tubes.
The core was probably reduced to shape by abrasion, similar to making stone artifacts, or shaping by hand as with clay. Objects made during this time were small beads and amulets.
Faience behaves as a solid at first, then becomes soft and flowing as it is shaped. If shaping is too rapid, the material cracks or splits. Objects were later shaped by using a mold.
First mix the ingredients, the colorant or copper oxide, the crushed quartz, the lime or chalk and the alkali, such as natron. The quartz or silica comprises up to about 99% of the body. It forms the material from which the object shape is formed and is also the source of its brilliant sheen. The addition of lime and natron help to cement the quartz grains together in drying.
Next add a little water to make a paste. This would be similar to rolling dough in baking. Then shape the paste, either by hand or via a mold. Press the lump of paste into the mold. After removing the paste from the mold, cut away the excess bits and add desired details onto the shape. Then fire the object, which will acquire its characteristic glaze afterwards.
Efflorescence is a self-glazing method. The glazing materials, soluble salts, are mixed with the raw crushed quartz and alkalis of the body. As the water in the body evaporates, the salts cling to the surface within thirty minutes to form a scum-like layer. In firing, this layer melts and fuses to leave a glaze of varying thickness. Rapid drying leads to the greatest thickness of glaze.
A second glazing technique is Application, which involves the glazing materials being ground to a small particle size and mixed with water to form a paste, which is then applied to the quartz core. Cementation is a third technique, and it involves the artifact being buried in glazing powder with a high flux content, within a vessel. The vessel and its contents are then heated, fusing the powder to the object.
Earlier, Tutankhamuns treasure was contrasted against faience. Who can forget the gold funerary mask, that has become nearly synonymous with Egyptian riches. But within Tuts recovered treasure trove were listed over one hundred objects that were either entirely or partially made of faience. These included jewelry, ritual equipment, vessels, furniture and games. Broad collars contained faience beads, rings and wadjet-eye pectorals were made of faience, shabti figurines too, and not just for the young King but for other burials as well. Libation vessels, amuletsall could be made of faience.
Faience was used to make utilitarian, funerary, and ornamental objects, until beyond the Roman period.
- From Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology
- From Gifts of the Nile:Ancient Egyptian Faience ed. Florence Friedman
Last Updated: June 8th, 2011