Libyan Desert Glass

July 24, 2020

Some 28 million years ago, a gigantic extra-terrestrial body collided with earth at great velocity and landed in the dessert in Libya. The heat from the impact melted the sandstone onto which it fell and so the Libyan Desert Glass was created… or so the story goes. Libyan Desert Glass was generated intense interest in scientific communities due to the uncertainty surrounding its origins and has sparked many evolving theories.

Located in the great sand sea on the Egyptian Libyan border, there is an enormous desert that stretches around 300km east to west and 650km from north to south. The terrain is so inaccessible and inhospitable it’s remarkable to have been discovered at all. The mysterious, vitreous substance overlies bedrock of the Nubian Sandstone deposited during the early Cretaceous epoch some 100 million years ago. Known as the stone for leadership and task completion the glass was used for tools by Pleistocene man (11 thousand to 2 million years ago) and may have been discovered in modern times as early as 1846. However, it wasn’t until 1934 that modern science had a closer look and the scientific debate on the mystery of its creation began to unfold. 

The story goes that an expedition led by P. Clayton was sent to explore the Sand Sea and Gilf Kebir in 1932 to find the legendary oasis of Zerzura. Whilst driving across the sand dunes towards the red rocks of the Saad plateau they heard one of the tires crunch. Once out of the car, they saw large pieces of glass and thus Libyan desert was found.

Libyan Desert Glass is known to be the most purest natural silica glass to be on earth and many researchers consider Libyan Desert glass to be a variety of tektite although there are many reasons why this may not be true. Both glassy substances comprised mostly of silica (silicon dioxide) with tektite having a varying percentage of 60% - 80% and Libyan Desert glass with a uniformly higher content hovering at 98%. They are both characterized by etched, pitted surfaces, although the shapes that they are found in vary significantly. Tektites are found in distinctive dumbbells, rods, spheres, discs and teardrops as a result of aerodynamic sculpturing from the process of an impact. They are distinctively different colours, tektite being a darker brown-black and Libyan Desert Glass having a pale yellow- green to colourless complexion and a lighter heft than a piece of tektite of the same size.

The discovery in tektites of rare minerals, which can only be produced by extremely high pressures, has led scientists to believe that they are a product of a meteoric impact. The presence of small spheres of iron-nickel substance has also supported this idea, as these minerals are the main constituents of meteorites. Libyan Desert Glass has not been found to contain iron-nickel spherules although this could suggest that it was formed by the impact of a stony meteorite, which has far less of an iron-nickel composition, or perhaps the glass was produced by a heat wave of a passing comet or the intense heat generated by an exploding comet.

As the glass lies on a bed of Nubian Sandstone with high silica content, this suggests that it was in fact the sandstone that melted to produce the high silica glass rather than the material arriving from celestial origins. Having two such materials that are so closely resemble each other chemically, it would be highly unusual for them to not be related. The heat required to melt the Nubian Sandstone would be upward of 1600 degrees Celsius and therefore declares that only a meteoric impact could be suffice to produce such conditions. Although there is an absence of an extremely large impact crater in the vicinity of the Libyan Desert Glass it is possible that it may have eroded over 28 million years from when the glass was dated by weathering and climatic changes.

As for the application for this mysterious glass in jewellery, it has in fact been used for centuries. The centrepiece of one of Tutankhamun’s necklaces is a scarab beetle carved out of the lustrous yellowy-green glass. Made In Earth has introduced this mysterious glass into its already expansive collection as something for the collector of rare gemstones. Bunny Bedi, owner and creative director, talks about the responses to one of his newest (and oldest) additions.

“Libyan Desert Glass has always been something I’ve longed to have as part of my range, but finding someone who is crazy enough to go and find it has been the biggest hurdle. Visually, the materials is not the most jaw dropping, but it’s the mystery that surrounds this stone that entices people. Since the Tutankhamun exhibition at the Melbourne Museum last year we’ve had an increase in appreciation of the stone as it has adorned the young pharaoh himself. Unlike the usual diamonds, sapphires and rubies that have long been associated with royal jewels, this glass has only one limited source so we know the pieces we sell are from the exact location as those worn by Tutankhamun himself. This is definitely one of the reasons why it’s so cool!”

“Although the origins of the Libyan Desert glass may not yet be certain, its beauty is. The glass does look magnificent carved and polished, however we’ve kept the original characteristic surface texture of each piece, as this is what we have found to be the most popular amongst our retailers. Cutting and faceting a piece would be truly magnificent, however the sharp facet edges wouldn’t last the test of time as well as the original organic formations. Sometimes it’s best to trust nature’s design.”

Although we may not know the true story of how Libyan desert glass came to our earth, we do know that its beauty is incredibly captivating and will be a statement piece just like Tutankhamun necklace for many years to come!

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