Treasure in Nigeria: A history of glass

Crystal clear: A modern-day glassmaker in Italy bends the molten glass into the shape of a horse.

A recent discovery could mean we need to rewrite the history books. Glass making materials have been found along with thousands of glass beads in Nigeria. What can this teach us about past civilisations?

What’s happening

Since the beginning of time the intense heat of volcanos has been creating a natural glass, called obsidian. It was not until 3500BC that humans in Egypt also got the hang of it. Other countries developed the technology needed to make glass, and the beads, bowls and vases were traded across the globe. But before now historians had not included West African countries in the list.

Find out more

Researchers in Igbo-Olokun carried out an archaeological dig recently to find a glittering hoard of 13,000 coloured glass beads. Some assumed they had been traded thousands of years ago, brought in from other countries.

Abidemi Babalola, a researcher from Harvard University, suggests a different story. Alongside the beads, he found materials which suggest the beads were made in West Africa.

“The abundance of glass-production debris indicates these areas were in, or very near, a zone of glass workshops,” he said.

The find suggests that this part of the world was far more productive and technologically advanced than history would have us believe.

What can we learn from this?

Some say…

“We can learn so much from this!” say some. Used in ceremonies or to show wealth, beads and jewellery can tell a story about the societies that existed thousands of years ago. To make glass, you need an understanding of the materials, the tools and the technology. So we can learn a lot about the technology of that time too.

Others think…

“Yes, but it does not change anything,” say others. Yes, we can learn from the past. But there are thousands of reasons why these materials were found near the treasure trove. It is too far-fetched to suggest we can learn so much about the past, when we cannot be sure there is a link between the beads and this community.

You Decide

  1. Do you think the past can teach us about the present day?

Activities

  1. Watch this short film about how window glass is made. Draw a poster to illustrate the glassmaking process.

Some People Say...

“We spend a great deal of time studying history, which, let’s face it, is mostly the history of stupidity.”

Stephen Hawking

What do you think?

Word Watch

Obsidian
A black glass formed naturally in volcanoes. This was used by some of the first humans on the planet who used the material to make tools and weapons.
Igbo-Olokun
A state in South West Nigeria.
Archaeological dig
Digging into the ground to find materials or objects and learn more about the past.
Technologically advanced
Having a good understanding of machinery and devices developed from scientific knowledge.

Subjects

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