Reimagining an ancient Egyptian material

Have you checked out our In the News section of this blog? Periodically, we try to update this page with some interesting articles related to our Egyptian collection, stories about projects and discoveries in Egypt, and even our own lab highlighted in the press.

One of the more recent stories that we’ve posted is about a new discovery related to Egyptian blue, one of the world’s first synthetic pigments. The ancient Egyptians made it by heating together copper, silica (sand), lime (calcium oxide) and an alkali such as natron (sodium sesquicarbonate) and it is found on objects from as early as the 4th Dynasty through to the Roman Period. We see this pigment on artifacts here in the lab, including Tawahibre’s coffin (and for more details read our blogpost on how we know this.)

A detail of Tawahibre's coffin. Based on analysis, this pigment has been determined to be Egyptian blue.

A detail of Tawahibre’s coffin. Based on analysis, this pigment has been determined to be Egyptian blue.

One thing that has been discovered about Egyptian blue is that it has luminescent properties-this luminescence cannot be seen in normal light conditions, but can be detected and recorded using a device that is sensitive to infrared light. This phenomenon is called visible-induced infrared luminescence. Using a regular (visible) light source and a modified digital camera, it is possible to not only positively identify Egyptian blue using a completely non-invasive technique, but it is also possible to discover very small traces of Egyptian blue pigment on surfaces of objects. The British Museum provides a great overview of this phenomenon on their website. It is our hope that we might be able to try this technique to examine some of the artifacts in our collection.

A painted wood uraeus on display in our Upper Egypt gallery. The paint has not been analyzed, but based on appearance the blue is most likely Egyptian blue. Examination with an IR source could confirm this.

A painted wood uraeus on display in our Upper Egypt gallery. The paint has not been analyzed, but based on appearance the blue is most likely Egyptian blue. Examination with an IR light source could confirm this.

Furthermore, it is now understood that this luminescence is produced by the nanostructure of the pigment – scientists have discovered that the calcium copper silicate in Egyptian blue can be broken into nanosheets, which produce infrared radiation similar to beams that communicate between TVs and remote controls and car door locks. It is now being envisioned that these nanosheets could be used for future near-infrared-based medical imaging techniques and security ink formulations!! Talk about a new life for such an ancient material.

You can read and hear more about this by following this link to our In the News section of this blog. Have you read or heard about something recently that you think we should share on our blog? Leave a comment here and we’ll try to incorporate these suggestions whenever possible.

 

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  • Ibrahim El-Rifai

    Dear Molly,
    Thanks for sharing your interesting work, I have a small comment on this older article, I think this article need some editing specially the part of “One thing that has been discovered about Egyptian blue is that it has luminescent properties-this luminescence cannot be seen in normal light conditions, but can be detected using infrared light. Using an infrared light source”.
    As you know this property is revealed under visible light condition not IR. the technique is well described in your recent article “Glowing in the dark: multispectral imaging and Egyptian blue”.

    Best regards,
    Ibrahim El-Rifai

    • mgleeson

      Dear Ibrahim-thank you for your comment. You’re so right! This phenomenon is called visible-induced IR luminescence, meaning that the luminescence is caused by excitation in the visible range, but it is only detected in the infrared. Thank you-I’ll be sure to edit this. best wishes,Molly