«We need to look into the past in order to understand the present and foresee the future»

The history of mirrors

The history of mirrors
About the Sarmat period bronze mirrors from the collection of the Museum of Archeology of the «Gylym Ordasy» RSE. Mirror was not only a luxury good, it was considered to be an object with magical powe

According to the data of archeological researches, the history of mirrors counts eight thousand years. The earliest pieces appeared in Mesopotamia, Egypt and Greece. In IV — III millennium B.C. mirrors were made of black marble, obsidian and glitter pyrite. The first owners of golden, silver and bronze smoothed mirrors set in ivory frame and inlaid mother-of-pearl and lapis lazuli was Pharaohs. The first collapsible pocket bronze mirror was invented in Greece in V — IV centuries B. C. The downside of such mirrors adorned with precious stones or drawing depicting figures of ancient heroes.

Archeological Museum of the «Gylym Ordasy» RSE, by right, can be proud of a small collection of bronze mirrors, which were discovered in recent archaeological excavations of ancient monuments of Sack and Sarmat period on the territory of Kazakhstan. The oldest museum collections date IV — II centuries B. C. They were found in the female Kyzyl — Espe burial (Semirechye). The mirrors have a circular shape; some of them are with handle, through hole (shackle) or loop-handle from the reverse side. Typically, all of them are made of bronze and have a high hardness, good polishing and do not pale on the air. Discoid bronze mirrors were widely spread in the early nomadic culture. They are often found by archaeologists in ancient tombs in the Southern, Northern and Central Kazakhstan, along with various golden and silver jewelries. The collections of Archeological Museum have rare bronze mirrors of period of the Han empire blooming, made approximately in VI–VII centuries. These round mirrors are with loop-knobs in the center, and geometrical ornaments. Detection of this type of finds during archeological excavations is an evidence of the existence of trade routes from China through South Kazakhstan.

Mirror was not only a luxury good, it was considered to be an object with magical power. Their shape almost always was round as it is identified with the Sun which is a scared symbol of all religions. Since ancient times people have been tried to find more widely use of mirrors. Thus, for example, in ancient Greece mirrors were set into lighthouse to strengthen the light of signal fire. Ancient tribes inhabited the territory of Southern America also used mirrors in the capacity of device which could help to transmit signals. Made of carefully smoothed metal such as gold, silver or copper, they looked like a deep ellipsoidal dish which diameter was up to half a meter, edgewise impaled on a stand with a height of a man. Sunlight reflected from this mirror was visible at a distance of several kilometers.

Bronze mirrors were widespread while production was a very hard work. Composition of the alloy which was used as a material for them on the territory from the Mediterranean to India, China, and Japan was various, but all of them had one common feature — the high tin content, which provided high strength and hardness of the metal. Bronze mirror allowed very dim and unclear image and their surface quickly darkened. In order to make out a reflection, mirror disks required constant polishing.

The first bronze mirrors appeared in China not later than in the XI century B. C. They were very popular in the period of Fighting Kingdoms (475–221 years B.C.) and in the era of Han dynasty (around 200 B.C. — 220 A.D.). During manufacturing the so-called «white bronze», the secret of which is still unknown, was used. Made of bright bronze ancient Chinese mirrors were polished that they shone and covered with mercurial amalgam. An underside was traditionally decorated with geometrical ornament or complicated pattern, painted animals, flowers, leaves, which turned a mirror into an art object.

In ancient Japan the mirrors were «carriers» of the truth, as they reflected the fact that they «saw». As in many cultures around the world, a mirror in Japan combined with mysticism, and was treated with reverence. Bronze mirrors appeared in Japan thanks to the ties with China in the times of the Yayoi period (300 B.C. — 300 A.D.). Drawing, covering the surface of the back side of mirrors, usually symbolized the luck and prosperity. One of the most popular motifs to decorate mirrors in the Kamakura period (1185–1333) became the image of Khoray Mountain (Horaydzan) — Immortals Islands, the mythical island of Taoist saints. The shape of Japanese bronze mirrors resembled a turtle shell, they had a handle, and the downside was decorated with hieroglyphs, symbolizing good luck.

For a long time bronze mirror existed in everyday life of many nations of the world. Concave glass mirrors, the invention of which relate to 1279, appeared instead of them. The first producers of glass mirrors were Venetians; they invented the complicated technology of mirror manufacture. Mirror-makers kept the manufacturing method in the strictest secrecy, as a result, during three centuries a glass mirror remained incredibly rare and extremely expensive commodity.

In the time of Louis XIV in France mirror-makers of famous «Saint-Gobain» company unraveled the secret of Venetian production. Glass mirrors began to appear in large numbers. They were placed in frames of different shapes and sizes; they adorned the walls of houses and palaces.

Mirror production process had remained immutable till 1835 when Germany scientist Justus von Liebig discovered a new way of preparing of solution with a touch of silver for mirrors manufacture. This fact allowed receiving a much clearer picture.

In contemporary world mirror is a necessary object decorating every house. Meanwhile, not every owner of mirror knows its history.

Tatyana Balashova

Scientific fellow of the Archeological Museum of the «Gylym Ordasy» RSE