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Oldest glass factory in Israel dates to 4th century AD

In a new archaeological find, the oldest evidence of glassmaking in Israel has turned up, pushing estimates of the area's industrial prowess back to the fourth century AD. 

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    A worker rests under a shaded canopy on the last full day of digging on July 15, 2013, in Khirbet Qeiyafa, Israel. In a new archaeological find, the oldest evidence of glassmaking in Israel has turned up.
    Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor/File
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An ancient glass factory has turned up at an archaeological dig in Israel, pushing back dates for the area's industrial development in a land now increasingly known for the tech savvy of its people.

Archaeologists found kilns for glass-making that would have served the entire Roman Empire 1,600 years ago, demonstrating the area's rich history in this ancient art, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority. 

"We exposed fragments of floors, pieces of vitrified bricks from the walls and ceiling of the kilns, and clean raw glass chips," archaeologist Abdel Al-Salam Sa'id of the Israel Antiquities Authority told Discovery News. "We were absolutely overwhelmed with excitement when we understood the great significance of the finds."

From written sources, researchers knew that the nearby Valley of Akko held renown throughout the Roman Empire for its high-quality sand. With this latest discovery, made during a survey for a railway construction project, they now know just how early the area began producing its own glass.

"Chemical analyses conducted on glass vessels from this period which were discovered until now at sites in Europe and in shipwrecks in the Mediterranean basin have shown that the source of the glass is from our region," Yael Gorin-Rosen, head curator of the Israel Antiquities Authority Glass Department, said in a press release. "Now, for the first time, the kilns have been found where the raw material was manufactured that was used to produce this glassware."

In such kilns, artisans would have melted the fine sand and salt together at high heat for a whole week or more, until slabs of glass formed in large chunks, Discovery News reported. They would then have cooled the kilns, broken off pieces, and shipped them to workshops around the empire. They specialized in "Judean" glass known for a light green color.

"This is evidence that Israel constituted a production center on an international scale; hence its glassware was widely distributed throughout the Mediterranean and Europe," Professor Ian Freestone of the University College London, a glass specialist, told Discovery News. 

This moves the start date for glass-making back several centuries from the kilns of Apollonia, which were previously thought to be the site of the Holy Land's oldest glass makers, according to Tel Aviv University's Institute for Archaeology. Such ancient kilns are generally built away from other buildings and in two parts: one chamber for melting sand and a firing area that opened toward the coast, thus eliminating the need for bellows. The kiln was covered with fired mud bricks. 

The area has moved beyond mud bricks now. In modern times, Israel prides itself on its work in gemstones and tech, as the resource-poor country has sought to build its economy with human capital. 

In March, Israel announced the creation of an urban city in the Negev Desert designed to "rival – or complement – even Silicon Valley," as The Christian Science Monitor's Jason Thomson reported. Supported by seven years of government financial incentives and a walkable city plan, the project attracted a partnership from the British government, which wants to enhance its own cyber-security.

"The UK's world class companies and universities combined with Israel’s cutting edge technology and entrepreneurial culture is an unbeatable combination," British Minister for the Cabinet Office Matt Hancock said in a press statement at the time.

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