What Did the Phoenicians Discover?
from the book, "Our Fascinating Earth"

Our Fascinating Earth

What Did the Phoenicians Discover?

The use of window glass is considered by most people to be modern. Glass windows, however, have been found in the ruins of Pompeii. The rarity of such windows implies that glass must have been a luxury used only in the finer homes and buildings of that time.

Glass manufactured from silica, one of the most important and widespread elements in the earth's crust. In its mineral form silica is called quartz. A typical sandstone is usually composed of tiny grains of quartz held together by some material acting as a cement; often the cementing agent is also silica.

Sand particles are formed from the weathering and erosion of a parent rock, usually igneous (rocks formed from a molten state). Logically, then, in its early stages the sand will have particles of many other kinds of minerals mixed with the quartz grains, depending on the mineralogic content of the parent rock. Sand grains that lie along shores are usually subject to the endless wash of waves and often become remarkably pure in quartz content. The water dissolves or carries away the softer minerals, leaving behind the harder quartz grains. Sandstone made solely of quartz grains is used regularly in the manufacture of glass.

How the glass—making process originated has been lost in antiquity, but the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder stated that glass was discovered accidentally by some Phoenician merchants.

Pliny appears to have been a great admirer of the Phoenicians, crediting them with many discoveries, including the invention of trade. Doubtless he exaggerated, but scholars do recognize that they were the first traveling salesmen.

The Phoenicians traveled along the northern rim of the Mediterranean Sea, establishing colonies, trading posts, harbors for their ships, and sheds for their goods. They made many short—haul commercial trips, usually sailing by day and always within sight of land. The Phoenicians not only traded their own products but also trafficked in tin from Spain, copper ore from Cyprus, and whatever else was available and considered valuable. Their travels also included the coastal area of West Africa. Upon landing they spread their wares on the beach, whereupon they returned to their boats and raised a signal. Natives came out and laid gold beside the Phoenician goods as a barter price, after which they retired. The mutual comings and goings went on until both sides were satisfied. The Phoenicians would then sail away with the traded goods. Both Pliny and Herodotus reported that each dealer felt satisfied that he had not been cheated.

What particularly impressed the ancient world about the Phoenicians was their skill at long, daring sea trips. During the seventh century B.C., the Egyptian pharaoh Necho, searching for a viable connection between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean and having no notion of the size of Africa, sent some Phoenicians south of the Red Sea. For the next three years thy circumnavigated Africa — a feat that would not be repeated for nearly 2,000 years, until the time of Vasco da Gama.

The Phoenicians did stop each year at seed time to plant and harvest; then they continued their journey. When forced to sail at night, they navigated by a bright star in the constellation Ursa Minor. Then known as the "Phoenician Star," it is now called Polaris or, more commonly, the North Star. The intrepid explorers did not find a passage to the Mediterranean, simply because there wasn't one. A passage was created in 1869, currently called the Suez Canal.

According to Pliny, on a long—forgotten evening after landing on the coast of Palestine near the mouth of the Belus River, the Phoenicians set to the task of preparing their evening meal. Being unable to find proper rocks on which to set their pots, they obtained some cakes of saltpeter from their ship's cargo and placed their cooking vessels on them before lighting a fire. The heat from the flames caused the saltpeter and quartz sand on the shore to melt. These combined into streams of an unknown fluid, which hardened to a translucent substance later known as glass!