Teaching an old dye new tricks

I love Egyptian art. Even though it’s stylized, repetitive, and has a bit of a “color by numbers” look to it, it’s also neat and orderly. The people or gods depicted may seem out of proportion to each other, but there’s a purpose in that, as the size of the character usually says something about his or her perceived importance or relationships.

And I like the colors: ruddy reds, bright blues, and shades of gold and green, mostly, outlined with black. It’s not subtle.

One of the most electric colors, sometimes well preserved, is an artificlal pigment called “Egyptian blue.” It’s often called the world’s oldest artificial pigment, as samples have been found going back 4,500 years. The pigment’s special properties have been used to help distinguish forgeries from fakes: real Egyptian blue contains a compound called calcium copper tetrasilicate, which produces infrared radiation under certain circumstances.

Chemists at the University of Georgia have discovered that the compound breaks into “nanosheets” a thousand times thinner than a human hair, while still retaining its luminescent qualities (for more, see “Nanoscience of an Ancient Pigment,” at the Journal of the American Chemical Society website).

The chemical’s properties have scientists imagining modern applications ranging from incorporating it into a dye used in medical imaging to finding uses in light-emitting diodes, optical fibers, or remote controls that employ infrared light.

For the artists of antiquity, it was enough that the color was both pretty and durable: it helped to depict the Egyptian people’s hope and elaborate preparation for life beyond the tomb.

As elements of Egyptian blue enter the world of modern technology, the ancient Egyptians may have found their way into the future, after all.

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