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5,000 Years Ago, The Ancient Egyptians Invented The First Synthetic Pigment In History

Ancient History

5,000 Years Ago, The Ancient Egyptians Invented The First Synthetic Pigment In History

The Ancient Egyptian Civilization made sure to leave their mark in history.

In addition to building some of the most impressive and mind-bending structures on the surface of the Earth, and being pioneers in astronomy, medicine, architecture, and engineering, the ancient Egyptians invented their blue color: the first synthetic pigment in history, around five thousand years ago.

The blue color has been throughout the history of humanity one of the most sought-after colors, identified with royalty and divinity, mostly because it was a ‘precious color,’ due to the difficulty of obtaining it.

Hieroglyphic carvings and paintings on the interior walls of an ancient Egyptian temple in Dendera. Image Credit: Shutterstock

The ancient Egyptians weren’t’ the only ancient culture to use the color blue.

The blue pigments were used since ancient times, but later than others such as red, black, brown or ocher, which are easier to obtain in nature and which were already used in Paleolithic art across the globe.

If we take a look at history well find that in Europe the color was obtained from isatide (also known as pastel grass), which provided an indigo dye.

In Asia and Africa (Indigofera tinctoria), a shrub whose name also refers to the variety of blue it provides.

However, the most sought-after blue pigment came from minerals such as lapis lazuli— a deep blue metamorphic rock used as a semi-precious stone that has been prized since antiquity for its intense color, scarce and rare, and therefore very expensive.

The largest deposits of lapis lazuli are located in the Hindukush of Afghanistan, where it is still obtained with procedures very similar to those used more than 3,000 years ago.

From there it was exported to the whole ancient world, being used in jewelry and vessels in Mesopotamia and throughout the Middle East.

The Egyptians imported large amounts of lapis lazuli from those mines to obtain the azurite, the powder that provided the blue pigment with which they adorned their temples, weapons, household artifacts, and jewelry.

As noted by the Royal Society of Chemistry, “Whether its discovery came about by design or chance, the synthesis of Egyptian blue was a seriously impressive accomplishment. Achieving the necessary temperature control for a successful reaction would have been a major challenge, as indeed would the correct addition of oxygen.”

Blue faience saucer and stand, New Kingdom (1400-1325 BC). Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Its price was so high that even in medieval times it still quadrupled that of gold.

Mostly because of the lack of lapis lazuli, and its incredibly high cost, around 3000 BC the ancient Egyptians looked for ways to make their own blue pigment.

Little by little, they perfected the technique, which consisted of grinding silica, lime, copper and an alkaline base, and then heating it to 800-900 degrees Celsius.

The result: the first synthetic pigment in history, referred to as Egyptian Blue, a name that was used from the beginning of the 19th century to distinguish it from the rest of blue pigments.

As pioneers in the field, the ancient Egyptians used it to paint wood, papyri, and canvases, color enamels, inlays, and vessels.

But they also used their synthetic blue in funeral masks, statuettes and paintings of various tombs, as they believed that the color protected the dead from evil in the afterlife.

They even colored the cloths in which the mummies were wrapped in.

According to scholars, the first evidences of the use of the Egyptian blue were identified by Lorelei H. Corcoran in an alabaster vessel, dated in the Naqada III culture of the Predynastic period (around 3200-3000 BC), found in 1898 in the excavations of Hierakonpolis in Upper Egypt, which also carries an inscription with the name of the Scorpion King.

The pigment continued to be manufactured and used throughout Antiquity, even by the Greeks (in the sculptures of the Parthenon) and the ancient Romans, at least until the last years of the Western Roman Empire (AD 395), when the technique fell into oblivion, and the secret of the formula seemed to be lost forever.

No ancient Egyptian text makes reference to the method of production.

The first testimony we have comes from the ancient Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, who lived in the first century BC., and he described it in his work De Architectura.

According to Vitruvio, it was produced by mixing sand, copper and natron.

Ivan

Ivan is editor-in-chief at ancient-code.com, he also writes for Universe Explorers.
You may have seen him appear on the Discovery and History Channel.

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