the first synthetic pigment in history

The blue color has been throughout the history of humanity one of the most sought after, identified for this reason with royalty and divinity, due to the difficulty of obtaining it.

Blue pigments have been used since ancient times, but later than others such as red, black, brown or ochre, which are easier to find in nature and already used in Paeolithic art.

Thus, in Europe it was obtained from isatide (also known as pastel weed), which provided an indigo tint. In Asia and Africa indigo (indigofera tinctoria), a shrub whose name also alludes to the variety of blue it provides.

But the most valued blue pigment came from minerals such as lapis lazuli, scarce and rare, and therefore very expensive. The largest deposits of lapis lazuli are located in the Hindukush of Afghanistan, where they are still mined with procedures very similar to those used more than 3,000 years ago. From there it was exported throughout the ancient world, being used in jewelry and vessels in Mesopotamia and throughout the Middle East.

The Egyptians imported large quantities of lapis lazuli from those mines to obtain azurite, the powder that provided the blue pigment with which they adorned their artistic works. Its price was so high that even in medieval times it was still four times that of gold.

That’s why around 3000 BC they looked for a way 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 heating it to a temperature of 800-900 degrees Celsius. The result obtained is considered the first synthetic pigment in history.

Egyptian Blue / photo Public Domain on Wikimedia Commons

For this reason it is called Egyptian Bluea name that began to be used from the beginning of the 19th century to distinguish it from the rest of the bluish pigments.

The Egyptians used it to paint wood, papyrus and canvas, to color enamels, inlays and vessels. But especially in the funerary field in masks, statuettes and tomb paintings, since they believed that the blue color protected the dead from evil in the afterlife. They even colored the cloths in which the mummies were wrapped with it.

The first evidence of its use was identified by Lorelei H. Corcoran in an alabaster container, dated to the Naqada III culture of the pre-dynastic period (circa 3200-3000 BC), found in 1898 in the excavations of Hierakonpolis in Upper Egypt, which it also bears an inscription with the name of the Scorpion King. Today it is in the Museum of Fine Arts from Boston.

There in Hierakonpolis, one of the first antecedent nuclei of Egyptian civilization, they also found the oldest known Egyptian tomb with parietal painting, and the first zoological collection in history.

The pigment continued to be manufactured and used throughout Antiquity, being extended by the Greeks (including in the Parthenon sculptures) and Romans, at least until the last years of the Western Roman Empire (c. 395 AD), when the technique fell into oblivion and the secret of the formula seemed to be lost forever. However, infrared analysis of some pictorial works from the 16th century show signs of its use at the time.

No ancient Egyptian text makes reference to the method of production. The first testimony we have comes from the Roman architect Vitruvius, who lived in the first century BC and described it in his work of architecture calling the pigment obtained as coeruleum (cerulean). According to Vitruvio it was produced by mixing sand, copper and natron.

In the 1930s, the archaeologist Mahmud Hamza found objects related to the production of the pigment in the excavations of Qantir, the archaeological zone in the northeast of the Nile delta identified as the ancient biblical Rameses.

And more recently, ceramic crucibles with traces of egyptian blue in the context of a large copper smelting, glass-making, and earthenware industry, suggesting that Qantir may have been an important pigment-producing center.

The ancient Egyptians not only managed to industrially produce a color that was one of the most difficult and expensive to obtain, but the technology used to do so preceded glass manufacturing by at least 1,500 years.


Colourlex / Pigments through the ages / Egyptian blue — Cuprorivaite a window to ancient Egyptian technology (H. Jaksch et al.) / Egyptian Blue: the color of technology (Philip McCouat) / Wikipedia