The Origins of Mirrors
and their use in the Ancient World
By Helen Costantino Fioratti
Although ancient people in Mexico polished obsidian stones, undoubtedly to see their reflections, the documented existence of looking glasses in Europe and the Mediterranean basin begins in the Bronze Age, circa 1700 B.C. – 800 A.D. The earliest discernible mirrors were made from polished obsidian measuring approximately 3 ½” (8.5 cm.) in diameter. These have been excavated at the Neolithic settlement of Çatal Huyukin in Southwest Anatolia and date from 6000-5900 B.C.
Small copper disks, either convex, round, or oval with short or long handles served as mirrors in Mesopotamia and north-west Iran in the late fourth millennium B.C., continuing into the third millennium. A very early example was found in the Susa area of Iran. By the second millennium, mirrors were seen throughout western Asia.
Similar mirrors were also used by the Scythians, the Chinese, and the Greeks. During the eighth and seventh century B.C., mirrors had handles representing goddesses, royal, or upper class women. These circular disks had either plain handles or ones of foliate design. Some handles had figural depictions carved in stone, or included ivory reliefs, the handles could be of steatite, wood or faience and were joined to the mirror by an interior peg, or were wedged or cemented.
After several millennia, mirrors appeared in sites in southern Mesopotamia. These were polished round or oval copper discs, measuring 4 ¾”- 6 ½” (12-16 cm). From about 1000 B.C., the image of a standing or seated female holding a mirror was common, especially in what is now northern Syria. The mirrors were handled, tanged or socketed, using a different material than the reflective surface. This feature was required to hold the larger and heavier bronze discs that were then developed.
The earliest mirrors from ancient Egypt that have been dated are from the Archaic period (circa 3200-2700 B.C.) and were found near present day Cairo. In the Old Kingdom, mirrors had two dimensional representations associated with the ‘toilette’, or dressing and grooming, namely dancing figures, craftsmen at work etc.
During Egypt’s Middle Kingdom (circa 2052-1570 B.C.), small silver, copper or bronze discs were used as mirrors which were held with a wooden handle.
Finally, during the New Kingdom (circa 1450 – 1075 B.C.), the handles were formed in the image of the god Bes, with naked females, elaboratly coiffed, or with lotus flowers or papyri motifs. One side of the disk was highly polished for reflection and the other, incised and decorated. The craftsmanship could be exquisite.
The Ptolemaic period in Egypt saw small round glass mirrors, although these proved very fragile. To make them, tiny spheres of blown glass were cut. Lead, tin, or antimony, was applied to the back of the glass to provide the reflection. The sun’s shape was the universal circular format for the mirrors.