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The world’s first artificial pigment, Egyptian blue, may help scientists prevent forgery and even save lives.

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[♩INTRO ]The tale of the world’s first artificial pigment has all the elements of a good thriller:an ancient mystery, a dramatic rediscovery, and some cutting-edge future technology.

Today, this age-old chemical compound may help scientists prevent forgery and even save lives. But before it was doing any of that, it was adding color to the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs.

The color blue was a big deal to the ancient Egyptians. It was the color of the sky and the Nile, and people came to associate it with creation and fertility. But the earliest pigments were made from things like different minerals or charcoal, which means lots of browns, reds, and yellows.

One of the only natural sources of blue pigment was a rare, valuable mineral called lapis lazuli. It was ground up and turned into a deep blue pigment known as ultramarine. And instead of paying big bucks for that blue, the ancient Egyptians got creative with some chemistry and invented the world’s first artificial pigment.

Egyptian blue first appeared around 2600 BCE and eventually spread throughout Mesopotamiaand the Roman empire. The only information we have about how it was made in ancient times comes from a Romanwriter named Vitruvius. The ingredients were sand, which we now know was probably made of quartz, copper-containingminerals, and natron, which is a salty mix of different sodium compounds that Egyptiansused for embalming, too.

You had to mix this stuff together, shape it into balls, stick those in a clay jar,and heat them in an oven. Then, you could grind them up to get some blue pigment! This pigment was used in paint for wall art or mummy coffins, or in glazes for pottery.

But as other colors like red and yellow became all the rage in Roman art, Egyptian blue lost popularity. By around the fourth century, it began to fall out of use. And, eventually, the formula for making it was lost.

The story picks up in 1814, when archaeologists found Egyptian blue while excavating the ruins of Pompeii. They sent samples to London for analysis, where chemists tried to figure out what it was made of by mixing it with and dissolving it in other substances and seeing what happened. After a lot of experimentation, we now know that the chemical name of Egyptian blue is calcium copper tetrasilicate.

This could have been made by heating the ingredients Vitruvius mentioned — quartz sand, a copper compound, and natron — along with calcium-containing lime, which may have been hanging out in the sand the ancient Egyptians used. This mixture needs to be kept at around 900 or 1000 degrees Celsius for a couple hours to make the magic happen. We still don’t know how the ancient Egyptians originally figured this recipe out, but the chemical reaction would have required careful control of this super hot temperature and the flow of oxygen into a furnace.

Not only that, but the consistency of their results was also incredible — Egyptian blue pigment is almost exactly the same chemical in tombs built across nearly 3000 years. And, today, the pigment is still surprising us. Scientists discovered in 2009 that, when visible light is shined on them, Egyptian blue molecules emit infrared radiation — the long-wavelength light that our eyes can’t detect, but can be felt as heat or be picked up by certain cameras.

This makes the pigment easy to identify in ancient artwork. Scientists can even determine if a worn-away sculpture or other piece of art was once painted blue from traces of the chemical. But this property of Egyptian blue means it has a bunch of other potential uses as well.

Infrared can pass through human tissue more easily than some other wavelengths of light,like the visible spectrum or UV. So it could be incorporated into a dye for new medical imaging techniques. It could also be used in new types of security ink to prevent counterfeiting and forgery.

Or it could be made into a dusting powder for fingerprint detection on shiny or patterned surfaces, where normal fingerprint powder is hard to see. Ancient chemists trying to paint a blue sky on the walls of tombs could never have imagined the ways their work would be used today. But the story of Egyptian blue, it seems, is just beginning — again.

Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow! For more on the science of color, check out our video where Stefan talks about 3 colors that scientists discovered! And if you want to keep getting smarter with us, you can always go to and subscribe.[♩OUTRO ]