Egyptian blue: the colour of technology By Philip McCouat.
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Recent scientific research has uncovered some extraordinary properties of the ancient pigment Egyptian blue that will enable us not only to reconstruct the past, but also possibly to shape the technological future. First developed some 4, years ago, Egyptian blue — a bright blue crystalline substance Fig 1 — is believed to be the earliest artificial pigment in human history .
The pigment is a synthetic form of the rare mineral cuprorivaite , and commonly also contains quantities of glass or quartz. Because of the extreme rarity of naturally occurring cuprorivaite, the Egyptians could never have collected this pigment from nature. The fact that it was not available naturally meant that its presence indicated a work that had considerable prestige. It was often used as a substitute for lapis lazuli, an extremely expensive and rare mineral sourced in Afghanistan.
Fig 2: Hunting in the marshes fragment , tomb chapel of Nebamun BC. British Museum. Fig 3: Egyptian faience hippopotamus. Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, the use of Egyptian blue declined sharply. From about AD, it seemed that the pigment had — with some intriguing exceptions — virtually disappeared from art.
Now, after more than a thousand years in the shadows, Egyptian blue has re-emerged in ways which its ancient inventors could never have dreamed of. For art historians and conservators, the study of pigments used in artworks can be valuable in a number of ways. It can provide an indication of the age and the authenticity of the artwork, as well as of the studio practices of the painter.
As precious pigments were often traded over long distances, it may also enable trade routes to be traced.
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And it can yield information which is vital in choosing which conservation treatments for the artwork may be the most effective . In recent years, researchers at the British Museum, led by Giovanni Verri, have developed a simple yet effective method which enables them to identify traces of Egyptian blue on ancient objects that no longer have their original paint finishes intact . This emission is extraordinarily powerful and long-lived  , but cannot be seen by the naked eye, because human vision does not normally extend into the infrared range of the light spectrum.
However, the emission can be recorded using a digital camera with modified filters that enable it to detect only infrared light . Viewed in this way, the emission takes on the form of a glowing, white photo-induced luminescence. Fig 4: Marble head, Temple of Artemis, Ephesus. British Museum,. This means not only that the presence of Egyptian blue can be identified - as in the detection of the originally blue eyes of the figure in in Fig 4 - but also that decorative patterns which would otherwise have been lost may possibly be able to be detected and reconstructed.
In addition, detection of the pigment will often be a clue that traces of other, less detectible, pigments may also survive on the artwork  , . Although these sculptures have been held in the British Museum for some years, and have been intensively studied during that time, no firm evidence had previously been found to support the view that the sculptures had originally been painted .
Indeed, senior curator Ian Jenkins has subsequently commented that after years of unsuccessful searching for traces of colour, he had been beginning to doubt that these traces had ever existed. Now the infrared imaging has settled the matter once and for all — the sculptures had indeed been painted. Fig 5: Iris, messenger goddess, Parthenon. Despite the apparent absence of visible colour on the statue, the image makes it clear that her belt was originally coloured Egyptian blue .
Another striking example, this time from Roman Egypt, is provided by a statue of Horus, the sun god and divine representative of the living king in Egyptian tradition. The statue reflects its mixed cultural origin by its strange mixture of Olympian deity up to the neck morphing into a vaguely humanoid head of a falcon.
Figures 5 and 6 compare the actual statue and an attempted reconstruction of its original colouring, presenting what to many modern viewers may seem a bizarrely garish appearance . Fig 6: Horus, sun god, Roman Egypt. Fig 7: Horus, reconstruction of possible original colouring.
While these discoveries are intriguing, the exceptionally strong luminescence of Egyptian blue has implications that go far beyond issues of art history or cultural heritage. Unlikely as it may seem, those same qualities may make the substance suitable for several high-tech applications in the fields of biomedical analysis, telecommunications and lasers . For example, in the biomedical field, the near-infrared that Egyptian blue or cuprorivaite emits can typically penetrate much further into a human tissue sample than other methods, such as ultraviolet radiation.
This offers the possibility of attaining more detailed and highly resolved images, while minimizing absorption by the affected tissue . It is possible, therefore, that Egyptian blue could be used in the form of a dye for some of the applications mentioned above . Possible applications in the cooling of sunlit surfaces to reduce air conditioning requirements and luminescent solar concentrators are also being canvassed [18B].
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