📸 The sahara desert, home to libyan desert glass.
📸 A piece of libyan desert glass.
Scattered among the Sahara’s billowing dunes, hidden amongst the grains of sand, lie small glassy formations known as Libyan Desert glass. The ancient Egyptians referred to these formations as the Rock of God. Today we know this material is not divine, but still heavenly, created from the intense power of an asteroid event.
The stones are usually accepted as a tektite, a type of rock created from the impact of a meteorite. When the intense heat and pressure of an impact event occurs, it can fuse the surrounding sediments into a new material. In the case of Libyan Desert glass, the sand particles of the Sahara were instantly melted into this beautiful yellow-green glass.
📸 Kebira crater, one possible source of the glass.
Locating the impact site for the Libyan Desert glass event has proved frustrating. In 2006, researchers out of Boston University discovered the Kebira Crater, a formation in the Sahara and a possible candidate for the glass’s origins. This hypothesis is contentious, with some debate over whether the crater is an impact site at all, and not simply a geologic formation. Regardless of Kebira, whatever made Libyan Desert glass would have had to be massive and ancient. The dating of the material places it around 28,500,000 years ago and the amount of pieces still found today tells us it was quite the explosion.
The power of this impact not only created the glass, it scattered it as well. The strewn field for Libyan Desert glass is hundreds of miles long, as the material was launched at extreme speeds across the planet's surface during its creation. It was likely still molten in the air during this journey, cooling during its descent into glassy droplets. This is not the only theory behind its large distribution though, as it's possible that even multiple distinct explosions could have increased the field.
📸 Trinitite, a similar glass formed during the Trinity test.
Although tying Libyan Desert glass to a specific meteorite impact has been difficult, there is other evidence supporting the material’s extraterrestrial origins. The glass contains high levels of iridium, an extremely rare metal on Earth but one found in large concentrations in meteors. Reidite, a crystallized variation of zircon that can only form under high pressure and temperatures (like those found during a meteorite impact) is also present. Along with other chemical signatures, Libyan Desert glass bears all the hallmarks of originating from a meteor, a harmony of material from our world and beyond.
A meteor would not have even needed to make contact with the Earth for the glass to form — it's possible it may have been melted during an airburst event. Even from the sky, the intense heat could fuse the grains of sand together. One hypothesis suggests it originated from radioactive material during such an event, similar to glass found around the Trinity test site where the first nuclear weapon was tested. This model is attractive since it can account for the lack of an impact site, but it remains a hypothetical.
📸 Tutankhamun's pectoral, partly made of libyan desert glass.
While the dunes of the Great Sand Sea may seem timeless, during the Early to Middle Paleolithic Era the region was often home to a wetter climate capable of supporting playa wetlands. Further to the south, permanent lakes and savanna grasslands had an even greater abundance of life. Throughout the region, there is evidence of multiple periods of early human settlement and their own discovery of Libyan Desert glass. Like flint or obsidian, our ancestors shaped the glass into tools and decorative items.
Paleolithic cultures were not the only ones to use the glass either. In 1997, a mineralogist named Vincenzo de Michele identified the material used in jewelry pieces from King Tutankhamun's tomb as Libyan Desert glass. The glass was shaped into the body of a scarab centerpiece of a pectoral. This 18th Dynasty find is unique among the gems of ancient Egypt, as it is the only known use of Libyan glass. The scarab is part of a twofold representation of the sun-god, which in Egyptian mythology could be represented by both scarab and falcon.
To King Tutankhamun, this stone was a gift from the gods, a symbol of his connection to the divine. Now we know that he was not entirely wrong–these glass beads are not entirely of this Earth, the traces left behind from a massive meteorite, one that either crashed into Earth or broke up in our atmosphere. Such formations are rare, only formed during destructive impacts, but they are so widespread that thousands of years from now, we will still be finding them.
Where to Get Libyan Desert Glass
Pieces of the Libyan Desert glass are highly sought after by collectors and now you know why! If you're looking to find a piece of this incredible material for yourself, check out our collection below.
Our Libyan Desert glass comes from the Great Sand Sea, where it was originally formed. Each piece comes with an informational card about the 28,500,000 year old glass which also serves as certificate of authenticity.
Berdik, C. (2006, March 13). Sahara's Largest Crater Revealed: BU Today. Boston University. Retrieved March 30, 2023, from https://www.bu.edu/articles/2006/saharas-largest-crater-revealed/
Fröhlich, F., et al. "Libyan Desert Glass: New field and Fourier Transform Infrared Data." Meteoritics & Planetary Science 48.12 (2013): 2517-2530.
Kleinmann, B., Horn, P., and Langenhorst, F.. "Evidence for Shock Metamorphism in Sandstones from the Libyan Desert Glass Strewn Field." Meteoritics & Planetary Science 36.9 (2001): 1277-1282.
Svetsov, Vladimir, et al. “Formation of Libyan Desert Glass: Numerical Simulations of Melting of Silica Due to Radiation from Near‐surface Airbursts.” Meteoritics & Planetary Science, vol. 55, no. 4, 2020, pp. 895–910, https://doi.org/10.1111/maps.13470.
Welland, Michael. Sand: The Never-Ending Story. Univ of California Press, 2009.