What is Egyptian faience?
Egyptian faience hippo illustrated by Henry Wallis
Egyptian faience (also known as Egyptian paste) is the oldest known type of glazed ceramic. It was first developed more than 6,000 years ago in Egypt, Mesopotamia and elsewhere in the ancient world. It is known for its bright colors, especially shades of turquoise, blue and green, and it can vary widely in appearance, from glossy and translucent to matt and opaque. Because it is composed mainly of silica (sand or crushed quartz), along with small amounts of sodium and calcium, faience is considered a non-clay ceramic. It is a precursor to glazed clay-based ceramics, such as earthenware and stoneware, and also to glass, which was invented around 2500 BC.
Egyptian faience is a self-glazing ceramic: sodium in the wet paste comes to the surface as it dries and forms a glaze when it is fired in the kiln. This is called efflorescence glazing. Metal oxides in the paste color the glaze. Two common colorants are copper (turquoise) and cobalt (blue). Faience can also be created by placing small items such as beads in a container full of glazing powder (cementation glazing) or by painting on a glaze (application glazing). More than one glazing method may be used on a single piece. I make my own faience bodies and glazes, and I fire my faience pieces one or more times, usually using the efflorescence and application glazing techniques.
The word faience comes from the Italian town of Faenza which is famous for its pottery. This pottery is a red earthenware covered in a white glaze and decorated with colorful designs. (Majolica, Maiolica and Delftware are similar to the pottery of Faenza.) It's not known for certain how the ancient ceramic came to be called Egyptian faience, but there are some leading theories. One is that when Europeans came to Egypt in the 19th century, they thought the brightly colored scarabs and other small faience items looked like the pottery of Faenza and so they called these items faience. It is also true that at that time the term faience was sometimes used as a generic word for any kind of glazed pottery. Whatever the origin, the word faience has caused much discussion for more than a century and there still is not full agreement on its use. Because Egyptian faience is very different from earthenware pottery, some potters prefer to call it Egyptian paste. Archaeologists and other related professionals refer to it as Egyptian faience or ancient faience or even just faience.
Here is a small faience pot that has dried in the air but has not yet been fired in the kiln (on the edge of the pot at the bottom of the photo there is a fuzzy white layer visible; this is the effloresced sodium that will become a layer of glaze when the pot is fired):
Here are some faience pendants that have been fired once (the turquoise glaze is a result of efflorescence):
And here's a small faience pot after it has been fired a second time with two layers of applied glaze on top of the effloresced glaze (the applied glazes are colored by cobalt and copper):
Archaeological research and replication experiments have shown that there were many recipes for Egyptian faience. These recipes varied by location and also over time. Here are some examples of different Egyptian faience recipes (these have all been fired just once and are glazed with the self-glazing efflorescence technique; the turquoise color is created by copper in the paste):
Interested in making Egyptian faience? Here's a video showing how to make an Egyptian faience pendant:
Over on the Clay Club blog I answered a couple questions about this video and shared the Egyptian faience recipe I used in this demo.
Museums all over the world have Egyptian faience in their collections. Here are just a few:
Egyptian faience at the British Museum
Egyptian faience at the Brooklyn Museum
Egyptian faience at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Egyptian faience at the Smithsonian Institution
The online UCLA Encylopedia of Egyptology has an excellent article on ancient Egyptian faience by Paul T. Nicholson. For more suggested references, see my selected Egyptian faience readings.