Faience, also known as glazed composition, is the oldest glazed ceramic in existence. It was created over 6000 years ago and widely used by the Ancient Egyptians. It is mainly composed of silica and mineral based colourants, and is a precursor to glass, which was invented around 2500 years ago.
How the Egyptians used faience
The Ancient Egyptians used this man-made material as a substitute for other, more expensive gemstones and materials. As Egyptian faience could be brightly coloured, it easily replaced stones such as turquoise, jasper and lapis lazuli. The Egyptians believed that whilst the vibrant colouring of faience was still used, it imbued the same qualities of the semi-precious gemstones it replaced. Turquoise, for example, was linked to fertility and life and was regarded highly by the Egyptians, who placed it often with Carnelian and lapis lazuli. To counteract the expensiveness of turquoise, a vivid green faience would be used instead, instilling the object with the same qualities but without the cost.
Faience was used for many objects, however those that most commonly survive today are jewellery amulets, votive statues, shabtis and scarabs. It was a material that survived for four millennia and was placed in high esteem by the Ancient Egyptians.
What does the word ‘faience’ actually mean?
The term faience can be broadly given to glazed pottery. It is associated with the glazed ware that comes from Northern Italy, from the city and region of Faenza. To distinguish from this group of pottery, Egyptian faience is used to refer to the silica material used by the Ancient Egyptians. Commonly, the phrase ‘glazed composition’ is also used by archaeologists and antiquity dealers.
The British Museum now describes faience as “glazed composition”
The British Museum describes Egyptian faience in the following way:
“The term is used for objects with a body made of finely powdered quartz grains fused together with small amounts of alkali and/or lime through partial heating. The bodies are usually colourless but natural impurities give them a brown or greyish tint. Colourants can also be added to give it an artificial colour. It can be modelled by hand, thrown or moulded, and hardens with firing. This material is used in the context of Islamic ceramics where it is described as stonepaste (or fritware).
Glazed composition is related to glass, but glass is formed by completely fusing the ingredients in a liquid melted at high temperature. This material is also popularly called faience in the contexts of Ancient Egypt and Ancient Near East. However, this is a misnomer as these objects have no relationship to the glazed pottery vessels made in Faenza, from which the faience term derives.
Other authors use the terms sintered quartz, glazed frit, frit, composition, Egyptian Blue, paste or (in the 19th century) even porcelain, although the last two terms are very inappropriate as they also describe imitation gems and a type of ceramic. Frit is technically a flux.”