Head of Pharaoh, possibly Amenhotep III

  • Egypt
  • 1401 - 1363 B.C.
Catalogue Entry

Egyptian, 18th Dynasty, 1400-1350 B.C.
Opaque medium blue glass, inlaid with black glass and alabaster (?).
Lost wax cast, cut and polished.
Three major joining fragments, several smaller joining wedges and chips1); two nonjoining fragments; patches of limely accretion and some evidence of devitirification.
Largest fragment Height 16.8cm, Width (across the back) 16.2cm,
Thickness 10.5cm

An Overview
Three dimensional glass sculpture is rare in antiquity, it may be just chance that so little survives. So, even though it has been more than forty years since an Egyptologist, specializing in glass, published all of the sculpture in glass known from Egypt, his work still remains the basic catalogue2). A few additional works have come to light but not much more has been published3).

In the second and first millennium B.C. glass was a rare and costly material which was highly prized and its production jealously guarded. On occasion, objects seem to have been turned over to hard stone carvers in order to produce a work of three dimensions. The Miho glass head would appear to be one of these exceptions. Glass sculpture is even more rare in the Near East. Early pendants representing the goddess Astarte exist from various excavations4) but they are simple and pressed into an open mold. They date from the mid-15th to the 13th century B.C. The only materials remotely comparable to the Egyptian head are the fragments of inlays and appliques5) which suggest that glass was used primarily to embellish stone and wooden statues. To date, no evidence exists confirming that such statues in the Near East were made entirely of glass even later in the 1st millennium.

With the invention of glassblowing at the end of the first millennium and the subsequent popularity of glass as a common material, little evidence of glass sculpture exists. The foreleg of a horse in black glass provides a single clue that glass was used on a monumental scale for Roman sculpture6). Two small scale copies of the famous Greek sculpture of the Cnidian Aphrodite7) are known. A tantalizing diminutive head of the Emperor Augustus and a somewhat increasing assortment of imperial glass heads are preserved8). Thousands of inlays exist and hundreds of extraordinary luxury vessels attest to the virtuosity of the Roman glassmaker. Yet over this period of nearly two millennia, little evidence either in the literature or from archaeological study exists to establish glass as a medium of three dimensional sculpture.

With this in mind, the existence of a roughly life-size head of solid glass from Egypt is of incredible importance for the history of glass. For Egypt, it must assume a place at the forefront of glassmaking, perhaps as the most significant accomplishment of the Egyptian glassmaker's art. It is reminiscent of the astounding beauty seen in the fragmentary Head of a Queen possibly Nefertiti or Kiya carved in yellow jasper, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York9). Other Egyptian sculptures in glass are beautiful but diminutive masterpieces. This object, though fragmentary, compares in quality with the finest royal stone sculptures fabricated in the Eighteenth Dynasty.

The glass is an opaque medium blue containing very few bubbles and is translucent only at the very edge, suggesting intense coloration11). A chemical analysis done by Dr. Robert H. Brill at the Corning Museum of Glass confirmed the glass composition was consistent with 18th Dynasty material excavated at Malkata12). The surface is unevenly covered with a medium brown limely accretion which retains some sandy inclusions. Similar to this layer but distinct from it is a thin light to medium brown glassy layer notably on the original worked surfaces of the face. This seems to be a layer of sugary devitrification and appears as a surface stain like a varnish or transparent shellac. Beneath this layer is a series of straight but random fissures or veins which run under the thin crust and are cracks in the matrix. These fissures occur on the interface between the massive fragment and the piece preserving the eye only on the massive side. Although the veins run randomly through the mass there appears to be a concentration at the center13).

Additional evidence of devitrification exists within the glass. The oval segment14) spalled from the cheek is covered with glossy thick patches of white crystalline structures. These bloom over a thin milky layer on the surface. The only related surface known to me is also Egyptian. The false beard on the gold mask of Tutankhamun15) has greyish blue glass inlays. The surface is also disturbed and may have been heated, perhaps to join the beard to the chin. The discoloration appears to be a result of devitrification.

The largest fragment16) preserves the flat top of the head probably where the forehead and crown joined and ran down to the base of the skull. Here the neck would have been added. It also preserves the proper lower right cheek and a sliver of the lower lip. The back is flat and has a large central mortise into which the tenon extending from the crown or wig was secured17). A similar mortise exists for attachment to the body on the back of the jasper fragment in the Metropolitan Museum. It is less likely that the channel secured the head to the body of the sculpture. The second largest fragment18) preserves the proper left side of the head including a portion of the forehead, eyebrow channel, inlaid eye, cheek and part of the upper and lower lip. A portion of the lower cheek spalled from the surface and was reattached.

The third and smallest fragment19) is a small wedged-shaped element which retains two thirds of the lower lip. Joining the three elements reconstitutes the entire area below the lip. It forms a roughly triangular flat surface with three holes worked through the wedge-shaped fragment and into the mass behind the chin. The flat surface begins immediately below the lower lip and runs back at a sharp diagonal down toward the neck, appearing as if the chin was purposely cut away.

The larger of the two nonjoining fragments is triangular with two short straight sides and a longer markedly curved side20). The polished surface has 19 cut parallel grooves with a cut curved line defining the long edge. The curved side and the one parallel to the lines are finished by polishing. Although the bottom edge is straight, it is unclear if this too is a finished surface or a smooth break. The other large nonjoining fragment21) is a short curved strip with relatively straight edges which may represent finished surfaces. The face is well-polished while the back is left rough and unfinished.

Evidence suggests that Egyptian craftsmen worked hard stones and obsidian with ease22). The technique of lost wax casting was also known to craftsmen working in related pyrotechnical areas23). It seems incredible that given this technology, glass craftsman would expend the considerable additional labor and material expense to carve the head from a solid glass block24). The distinct line or ridge along the triangular area above the chin and a similar ridge along the base of the skull at the neckline were created during casting and not reworked. The head was cast in several pieces most likely by a lost wax process.

The flat surface at the chin where the false beard might have been attached is relatively rough and uneven at its center while the outer edge has been carefully smoothed25). This suggests a glass to glass join. No such ridge exists at the top of the forehead. Either this area is not completely preserved or the crown or wig was of a material more easily fashioned and affixed. The figure was complex and large enough that craftsmen cast several smaller pieces of glass rather than casting in a single mold.

The central hole used to secure the chin element to the head was enlarged while the glass was hot, the edge is deformed. The smaller holes on either side also have rounded lips, appearing to have been formed while the glass was soft. However, a section examination confirms that some type of hollow core drill (0.5 cm. In diameter) fed with abrasive was used to enlarge the hole26). A translucent reddish brown resinous material and a small fibrous black rod were found floating within the hole. An analysis might confirm that the resinous material was a binder which held the pin in place. The fibrous rod may be one of these pins27). The same drill mentioned above, was used to create or enlarge the mortise in the back of the largest fragment.

The eye socket and the eyebrow channel were modeled in the wax original and were worked when the material was soft. The elements of the inlaid eye, composed of black glass and alabaster, are secured with a grayish green material. It is neither a glassy material or a resinous binder and differs from the reddish brown resin noted in the holes on the chin. A black bituminous material was used to affix the eye unit into its socket. The cornea and retina seem to be scratched during fabrication rather than polishing. There appear to be no polishing marks on the surface of the blue glass and yet it is highly unlikely that the sculpture could have been fire polished after casting.

The examination suggests that the head was lost wax cast in several pieces. Following the casting, the annealing process or slow cooling must have been quite lengthy and well-understood to produce such a large object. Nevertheless, some devitrification occurred and caused the object to fracture and separate over time. After casting and annealing, the pieces were mechanically joined with wooden dowels and resinous binders. The glass eyebrows and eyes were secured with bitumen. The surfaces were finished with rotary and fine polishing.

Style and Date
The fragmentary nature of the object makes a positive identification very difficult. Nevertheless, the quality of the object suggests an extraordinary and important individual of the New Kingdom, probably 18th Dynasty. The mass of the figure and the substantial weight in the cheek would suggest an individual after the time of Hatshepsut. The only parallel which can be cited in glass is the diminutive head of Amenhotep II in the Corning Museum of Glass28). The lips of the large head are different than those of Amenhotep II as is the shape of the eye. The Corning head seems more youthful and less formal.

The flatness at the juncture of nose and cheek as well as the formation of the eye is consistent with the representations of Amenhotep III). His lips are variously treated in 3 dimensional sculpture. A thin line often highlights the outer edge of both lips. Nevertheless, the overall facial features are consistent with the Miho glass head. Finally, The likeness of Tutankhamen seen in the face of Amun at Karnak30) should also be mentioned. This more stylized treatment of Tutankhamen may appear closer to the Miho head because of the head's fragmentary nature. However, the importance of the sculpture and its purpose might suggest a ruler more influential than Tutankhamen and thus the suggestion of Amenhotep III as the pharaoh represented. The existence of a glass face from a life-size composite statue, a unique and extraordinary object will require much additional stylistic and scientific study. Its importance to the history of glassmaking in Egypt and to the understanding of 18th Dynasty sculpture cannot be overstated. This entry is only an introduction to a new chapter in the history of ancient glass.

Dr. Sidney Merrill Goldstein


・American Research Center in Egypt, Catalogue of the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities at Luxor, Cairo, 1979
・Dan P. Barag, Catalogue of Western Asiatic Glass in The British Museum, vol. 1, London, 1985
・Robert H. Brill, Chemical Analyses of Early Glasses, 2vols.,Corning, 1999.
・John D. Cooney, "Glass Sculpture in Ancient Egypt," JGS 2, 1960, pp. 10-43.
・Sidney M. Goldstein, "A Unique Royal Head," JGS 21, 1979, pp. 8-16.
・Sidney M. Goldstein, Pre-Roman and Early Roman Glass in The Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, 1979
・Donald B. Harden et al, Glass of the Caesars, Olivetti, Milan, 1987
・William C. Hayes, The Scepter of Egypt, Part II, Cambridge, Mass., 1959
・Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Winter 1983-1984, Egyptian Art, New York 1984
・Axel von Saldern, Ancient Glass in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1968


1. There are three chips which fill various finished surfaces. One fits into a triangular loss where the two large fragments meet near the base of the nose. A one centimeter square chip fills a place in the lower lip and another triangular fragment fits a loss on the base at the neck line.
2. Cooney 1960, pp. 10-43.
3. Goldstein JGS 1979, pp. 8-16.
4. Barag 1985, pp. 45046, nos. 15-16, pl. 2; most recently published the sites in conjunction with his work on the Near Eastern Glass at the British Museum, see also Goldstein, 1979, p. 47, no. 1.
05. Barag, op. cit. pp. 75-77, nos. 62-71, pls. 8-9.
06. Harden 1987, p. 28, no. 6.
07. Harden 1987, p. 29, no. 7, see earlier bibliography; for the second example in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Saldern 1968, no. 28.
08. Ibid. pp. 21-24, nos. 1-4 and bibliography.
09. Hayes 1959, p. 260, fig. 156; Metropolitan Museum of Art 1983, p. 33.
10. This author had the opportunity to examine the fragments in early 1989. At that time a careful examination of the fragments was done with the aid of a binocular microscope. The descriptions and conclusions presented here were based on notes from that exercise. My recent visit to the Miho Museum allowed only a brief re-acquaintance with the object. I am indebted to Dr. Dorothea Arnold and Dr. Christine Lilyquist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York for their thoughts on this important sculpture. Dr. Lilyquist saw the piece sometime ago. She has studied it quite carefully with the intention of publishing an article on this small but extraordinarily important group of composite statues in stone and glass.
11. There is no apparent impurity within the body of the object but there are numerous "platelettes" and roughly spherical opaque white formations. These do not appear to be stone or unmelted batch material but rather traces of devitrification within the body of the glass itself. This process is seen in varying stages by examination of different fragments, again rather atypical but not unknown for this particular color.
12. Brill 1999, vol.1, p. 36 sample 3389; vol. 2 p. 39, (for tables). I am grateful to Dr. Brill for his analysis of the glass sample. He felt that it most closely resembles Malkata material rather than glass excavated from the other 18th Dynasty glass factory site at Amarna; per correspondence 11/26/1990.
13. Crystals of silica (?) appear to be growing out the fissure structure in this central location. In fact, there is a marked contrast in the fissures on this surface with those on the finished surfaces. Here the crystalline growth is colorless or opaque to translucent white. On the finished surfaces the material is stained with a brown resinous-looking matter. It is the same material which gives the characteristic color to the overall surface. It is tempting to suggest that the growth of this crystalline pattern may have caused the piece to fracture rather than a blow from the excavator's tool. If not the cause for the fracture, perhaps these internal "fault lines" determined the paths of least resistance.
14. Length, 5.8cm; height, 3.3cm; thickness, ca. 0.5cm
15. The author has not examined this object in person but had discussed its condition with Dr. Brill in 1976. He had examined many glass objects exhibited in the "Treasures of Tutankhamun" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
16. The head is difficult to measure in its present unrestored state. The preserved height is 16.8cm.; the width across the flat back is 16.2cm; the depth is 10.5 cm
17. The chips along the sides of the back channel make the measurements of this element difficult. The preserved length is 14cm with a distinct taper apparent from the middle to the base of the element. At midpoint, the channel is 2.7cm wide tapering at the base to 2.4cm. The channel is about 1.5cm deep and is cut as a dovetail to receive a tenon. Long triangular strips of glass have snapped away from the upper sections of the groove as if extreme pressure on the tenon sheared these elements. The rectangular surface below the channel on the flat back and at the base of the fragment is scored with five parallel grooves. Why these purposeful grooves are cut here in unclear.
18. Preserved height 17cm; preserved width 13.8cm; roughly 4.5cm thick. An oval shaped fragment has spalled from the cheek; height, 5.8cm; width 3.3cm; thickness 5cm
19. Height from bottom of lip to top edge, 4.8cm; width along front surface, 4.6cm; depth from front to back, ca. 11cm
20. Preserved height, 7.4cm; width, 7cm; thickness 4cm: approximate measurements taken from drawings for this fragment only.
21. Greatest dimension, 4cm; width, 1.6 cm; thickness, 0.85cm
22. Goldstein JGS 1979 p. 11 especially footnotes.
23. Goldstein 1979, p. 33.
24. Goldstein JGS 1979, p. 11.
25. This technique reminds the author of the way in which Greek stone craftsmen prepared large blocks for architecture. Only the outer edge was carefully ground and polished to receive the adjoining block. The central area was cut lower and remained rough in order to eliminate the extensive final finishing of the entire surface.
26. The hole was not large or deep enough as there were two smaller channels drilled into the surface 1.7cm. Deeper than the original floor. The floors of these smaller holes are quite different. One is rough and uneven while the other is almost smooth at the base. Both have a circumscribed groove at the base suggesting that a hollow core drill was used. In raking light concentric grooves can be seen on the walls reinforcing this suggestion.
27. Less likely, the rod may represent a segment of tree root that grew into the hole.
28. See above, footnote 2.
29. American Research Center in Egypt 1979, no. 104, p.80, fig. 60-61, this seated figure with clenched fist has characteristic pursed lips with a light groove carved around the outside to form a highlight.
30. Ibid, p. 127, no. 183, figs. 99-100.