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Solid Sunlight
December 8, 2011 9:01 PM   Subscribe

Libyan Desert Glass is strewn over an area of hundreds of square kilometers in the Great Sand Sea, a region desolate even by the high standards of the Sahara. As one account of a recent trip to acquire Libyan Desert Glass puts it: "Out there, death sits on your shoulder like a vulture." While some would have you believe that Libyan Desert Glass is evidence of ancient atomic warfare, it is probably evidence of a massive meteorite or comet explosion nearly thirty million years ago, similar to Tunguska, but much bigger. The stone age Aterian peoples made tools from it, but the remoteness and inhospitality of the Great Sand Sea has ensured that until recent times it has mostly been undisturbed. However, a breast ornament buried in Tutankhamen's tomb has a scarab made from Libyan Desert Glass, the only piece made of the material to have been found by Egyptologists, and how Tutankhamen's jewelers acquired it has remained a mystery. Until now. [Previously]
posted by Kattullus (38 comments total) 67 users marked this as a favorite

 
When I read about this in The Sandman books I assumed it was made up but here we are.
posted by The Whelk at 9:08 PM on December 8, 2011 [6 favorites]


Archaeology investigating ancient archaeology. Very cool.
posted by Roman Graves at 9:09 PM on December 8, 2011


For Sale
posted by edgeways at 9:16 PM on December 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


The photos in the last link are really amazing. I want to go to there!
posted by vidur at 9:18 PM on December 8, 2011


I like the empty-desert-to-the-casual-observer pictures labeled as factories.
posted by flaterik at 9:21 PM on December 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


Also, the tidbit that ancient egyptians did not have camels. I did not know that!
posted by flaterik at 9:21 PM on December 8, 2011 [5 favorites]


I'd never heard of that glass Tut piece! Awesome links!
posted by darkstar at 9:43 PM on December 8, 2011


Somehow there's something really eerie about this photo of potshards with a couple ATVs in the background.

What strange vehicles will be parked next to the pile of CRT televisions sticking out of the sand in the year 5000?
posted by dunkadunc at 9:45 PM on December 8, 2011 [10 favorites]


In my head, I read that final Until now in my best apocalyptic movie-trailer-"In a world..." inner voice.
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:55 PM on December 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


I saw that pectoral in a traveling exhibit here about 2 or 3 years ago, and there's nothing remarkable about the scarab stone to the modern eye. It just looks like translucent yellowish glass, and if the exhibit hadn't included a video about the scarab I wouldn't have given it a second thought. Apparently archeologists didn't either until fairly recently, because glass is so commonplace in our world.

The Ancient Egyptians made glass too but I have the impression their glass was opaque, looking more like ceramics than our modern idea of glass. Maybe the translucency of the Libyan Desert Glass is what Ancient Egyptians prized, since it was so unusual to them? There are a few translucent minerals, like agate and chalcedony (which they used a lot of), but on the whole it's pretty rare in natural materials.
posted by Quietgal at 9:59 PM on December 8, 2011


Glass was precious for most of the ancient and modern world, the look of a lot of English buildings are directed related to glass prices and tax - the shape of window panes, the bubble-dip look of old pub windows cause only flat glass counted as a window - the practice of removing glass panes when a house was not in use. Versailles' Hall Of Mirrors is doubly impressive cause it contains two super-expensive impossible luxuries of the era, large clear mirrors and big expanses of flat window glass.

There's even a good story about the expense and rarity of roman crystal glass about Augustus' friend Vedius Pollio

Nevertheless he retained, at least for a while, the friendship of Augustus, in whose honour he built a shrine or monument at Beneventum.[2] On one occasion, Augustus was dining at Vedius' home when a cup-bearer broke a crystal glass. Vedius ordered him thrown to the lampreys, but the slave fell to his knees before Augustus and pleaded to be executed in some more humane way. Horrified, the emperor had all of Vedius's expensive glasses smashed and the pool filled in. According to Seneca, Augustus also had the slave freed; Dio merely remarks that Vedius "could not punish his servant for what Augustus also had done".[12]
posted by The Whelk at 10:14 PM on December 8, 2011 [11 favorites]


Now I want to know the story behind the Cave of the Headless Beast.
posted by arcticseal at 10:16 PM on December 8, 2011


Excellent post, thanks for this.
posted by Daddy-O at 10:52 PM on December 8, 2011


Hot damn, 'ordered him thrown to the lampreys' is one of the most spectacularly villainous moments ever. "The fool! He made his last blunder!"
posted by FatherDagon at 11:18 PM on December 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


This is really an interesting post. I had no idea there was desert glass.
and what a history it has. Hangin' out on Mefi is a great way to learn something new.
posted by quazichimp at 11:43 PM on December 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


A big Roman Status symbol was dining tables right at your fisheries so you could see the fish caught and hen prepared. They practically invented sushi.
posted by The Whelk at 11:45 PM on December 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: Learning something new everyday.
posted by infini at 11:48 PM on December 8, 2011 [7 favorites]


The British figured out how to make cheap plate glass windows around 1848 and showcased it in the Crystal Palace in 1851, the scale of which had never existed on Earth and totally blew people away to see all that glass in one place. The building was half a kilometer long, 13 stories tall, built of glass and iron lattice like a greenhouse for dinosaurs. It burned down in 1936 but a section of London is still named Crystal Palace.
posted by stbalbach at 11:52 PM on December 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


This is all very interesting, but the real mystery is why that guy is walking around a desert in just socks.
posted by msbrauer at 6:16 AM on December 9, 2011


This is all very interesting, but the real mystery is why that guy is walking around a desert in just socks.

Not just any desert, but a desert where you're hoping to find shards of glass lying on the ground.
posted by jedicus at 6:38 AM on December 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


mmmm desert
posted by infini at 6:43 AM on December 9, 2011


The REAL mystery is why anyone thinks that digging for ancient artifacts at the "Cave of the Headless Beast" is a good idea. Seriously, they might as well have red shirts on.
posted by shothotbot at 6:49 AM on December 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


I love deep history like this... I sometimes wonder if there are the remnants of entire civilizations beneath the dunes, seeing how habitable the Sahara was during the same time when the Vinca and the Gobekli Tepe cultures were in full bloom, right up to the rise of the megalithic and Egyptian civilizations. Stories like this one fuel my lost-city daydreams...
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:55 AM on December 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


Previous descriptions of this I'd read had described the entire surface of the desert being glass. I was interested to go there until I saw the pictures of the above expedition. I've got plenty of that style of desert here in Utah to wander around, plus real atomic bomb ranges close by in Nevada if I needed some radioactive thrills. Thanks!
posted by pashdown at 7:15 AM on December 9, 2011


> I sometimes wonder if there are the remnants of entire civilizations beneath the dunes, seeing how habitable the Sahara was during the same time when the Vinca and the Gobekli Tepe cultures were in full bloom

There are actually (but not that early as far as anybody knows): The Garamantes
posted by nangar at 8:01 AM on December 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


I sometimes wonder if there are the remnants of entire civilizations beneath the dunes, seeing how habitable the Sahara was during the same time when the Vinca and the Gobekli Tepe cultures were in full bloom, right up to the rise of the megalithic and Egyptian civilizations. Stories like this one fuel my lost-city daydreams...

Working my way north along the eastern coast...
posted by infini at 8:01 AM on December 9, 2011


Yeah, I was pretty curious about that, too: Wadi Sura II, headless beasts. Hey, there's video!
posted by steef at 8:06 AM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


I am frustrated with the summary of the lecture in the final link. "[A]n expedition that bore its ultimate fruit only when it became stranded without fuel or water during a solar eclipse, allowing the team one last opportunity to prospect for an archaeological site that might provide the missing link, while hoping for rescue." Really? That's all we're going to get of that story? Maybe this is one of the perils of having grown up with Indiana Jones, but I'm every bit as interested in the adventure of the discovery as the fact that it was made.
posted by EvaDestruction at 8:12 AM on December 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


Desert glass is related to tektites. You can purchase Libyan desert glass. Moldavite tektites make nice jewelry. Tektites come in bizarre shapes including the classic, highly desirable flanged button.
posted by kinnakeet at 9:52 AM on December 9, 2011


You know you've been playing too many RPGs when you read about "prehistoric tool factories... on such an industrialized scale... that they had to be exporting their products" and you speculate that maybe they didn't bother exporting the tools because they were just grinding up their Smithing skill.
posted by hilker at 10:26 AM on December 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


More pot shards, in a 360-degree panorama.
posted by Goofyy at 12:20 PM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wow that's crazy... the idea of these sites just sitting out there in the sun, in the middle of an inhospitable desert completely undisturbed for thousands of years kind of mindblowing.
posted by delmoi at 5:27 PM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


I just went to Google Earth, to look at that desert. Strangest looking place I've seen, on Google Earth. But there are some panoramas out there in the sand. Blew my mind to see what appear to be the same pot shards.

To me, what is mind blowing, is that these shards aren't buried under a sand dune. Or, how many vastly more fascinating sites would be found, if we could see under the sand? Just when it seems the world is getting way too small, you find something like this.
posted by Goofyy at 11:23 PM on December 9, 2011 [3 favorites]


I haven't been to southeast Libya, where this is found, though I've been to the Fezzan, the southeastern province of Libya, which is now covered by a couple of sand seas, which seem to be a relatively recent development. There's a fair amount of rock art there (some of my photos are here, though I haven't gotten around to labeling most of them yet) depicting non-desert animals - elephants, giraffes, crocodiles. Dating is very unclear, but it seems like the Sahara only became the desert it presently is around 5000 years ago? The argument's made that the arrival of the desert was human-caused, though I don't know how supported that is.
posted by with hidden noise at 9:12 AM on December 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


(oops, typo: Fezzan is the southwest.)
posted by with hidden noise at 9:19 AM on December 12, 2011


...the bubble-dip look of old pub windows cause only flat glass counted as a window...

The Whelk, anytime you hear a story that includes tax laws as an excuse for architectural details, say to yourself, "It's almost certainly a myth...".

Like this one. The pub windows, like so many other windows, have bubble-dips because that was a "waste" part of the window-pane-making process, before float glass made truly flat glass cost-effective.

Window glass was blown as a simple bubble, then swung back-and-forth until centrifugal force lengthened them into nearly-cylindrical ellipsoids. They were then cut at both ends, and along their length (while still very hot, using wet cord to shock the glass into straight break lines), and the cylinder-portion was flattened out. The remaining (far) end could be flattened, and sold as a cheaper pane piece. Thus, it appears in thrifty applications (like pub windows), but not in the pricier windows of public buildings of the same age.

BTW, since the length of the cylinder resulting from the swinging blowpipes was a cost facter (the waste ends and diameter were constant, but the length could vary), these were made on 2nd-story rooms with slots cut in the floor for the glassblowers to swing their "bubbles" out. There's a film from the very early 20th-c of the view from the first floor of a glass window factory; the unsynchronized glowing bubbles swinging and growing, back and forth, from the ceiling is something beautiful and awesome.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:14 AM on December 12, 2011 [5 favorites]


I AM LEARNING.
posted by The Whelk at 10:26 AM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


BTW, since the length of the cylinder resulting from the swinging blowpipes was a cost factOr
posted by IAmBroom at 11:45 AM on December 13, 2011


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