Goblet - Romans Used Nanotechnology

1,600-Year-Old Goblet Shows that the Romans Used Nanotechnology

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The Lycurgus Cup, as it is known due to its depiction of a scene involving King Lycurgus of Thrace, is a 1,600-year-old jade green Roman chalice that changes colour depending on the direction of the light upon it. It baffled scientists ever since the glass chalice was acquired by the British Museum in the 1950s. They could not work out why the cup appeared jade green when lit from the front but blood red when lit from behind.

The mystery was solved in 1990, when researchers in England scrutinized broken fragments under a microscope and discovered that the Roman artisans were nanotechnology pioneers: They had impregnated the glass with particles of silver and gold, ground down until they were as small as 50 nanometres in diameter, less than one-thousandth the size of a grain of table salt.

The work was so precise that there is no way that the resulting effect was an accident. In fact, the exact mixture of the previous metals suggests that the Romans had perfected the use of nanoparticles – “an amazing feat,” according to archaeologist Ian Freestone of University College London. When hit with light, electrons belonging to the metal flecks vibrate in ways that alter the colour depending on the observer’s position.

Now it seems that this technology, once used by the Romans to produce beautiful art, may have many more applications - the super-sensitive technology used by the Romans might help diagnose human disease or pinpoint biohazards at security checkpoints. Gang Logan Liu, an engineer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who has long focused on using nanotechnology to diagnose disease, and his colleagues, realized that this effect offered untapped potential. 

They conducted a study last year in which they created a plastic plate filled with gold or silver nanoparticles, essentially creating an array that was equivalent to the Lycurgus Cup. When they applied different solutions to the plate, such as water, oil, sugar and salt, the colours changed. The proto­type was 100 times more sensitive to altered levels of salt in solution than current commercial sensors using similar techniques. It may one day make its way into handheld devices for detecting pathogens in samples of saliva or urine, or for thwarting terrorists trying to carry dangerous liquids onto airplanes.

This is not the first time that Roman technology has exceeded that of our modern day.  Scientists studying the composition of Roman concrete , submerged under the Mediterranean Sea for the last 2,000 years, discovered that it was superior to modern-day concrete in terms of durability and being less environmentally damaging. The knowledge gained is now being used to improve the concrete we use today. Isn’t it ironic that scientists now turn to the works of our so-called ‘primitive’ ancestors for help in developing new technologies?

By April Holloway


I've said it before and I'll say it again: we think we're smarter than we are, and we think our ancestors were dumber than they were.

We are actually getting pretty fed up of you saying this. Have you nothing more relevant to say, and just the once only?

Seems pretty important to me, actually. Though I'm glad you live up to your namesake, if only figuratively speaking :oP

Offensive comments in this posting have been deleted.


Okay so some scientists say this 1,600-year-old Roman cup is so precise in its technological construction that the resulting chameleon effect (my description not theirs) could not have occurred by accident. And yet, some scientists claim the universe, the human body, and life itself, despite the precision inherent in the existence of each, came about by some series of random accidents?! Seems to me that scientists exhibit their own chameleon effect when depicting their hypotheses as fact.

You're on a website pedaling "ancient wisdom". Everything it says is going to be talking about how brilliant the ancients were. This is not an example of nano technology. This is grinding metal into a very fine dust. I could do this in my garage.

The universe is not precise at all, or fine tuned, at all. Think about the volume wherein you are capable of living, and then the volume with conditions that would kill you. Think about the waste that takes place in embryo development: growing gills and then losing them, growing a tail and then losing it, growing fur and then losing it.

This sounds an awful lot like contemporary glass fuming techniques, where precious metals such as gold and silver are "fumed" onto glass creating a composition that changes color in sunlight, at relatively higher or lower temperatures, and when viewed from different angles. This was "discovered" by accident in the 1980's by Bob Snodgrass, a pioneer of the glass pipe industry. Look it up.

They did not have "nano-technology." They were not aware of the microscopic world as we are now so that statement is inherently flawed. What they did have was centuries of glass making, trial and error, very smart and dedicated people, and most of all, luck.

Thank you for not being an idiot obsessed with "ancient wisdom".

Kremer, I don't want to poke you in any sensitive areas but you've come to a website about ancient origins in which science and alternative viewpoints are the topics. One of the most commonly scripted ideas here are that ancient people were more advanced than we perhaps give them credit for - not Gods or anything. Just a heck of a lot smarter than at first look. If you read people's comments on this website, not many of us are obsessed with ancient wisdom. 


If you think ancient wisdom is idiotic, what are you doing at this site?

Calling it wisdom, and not trial and error knowledge of chemistry, is what makes it idiotic.

And yet you made an account for this website just so that you could post small little sentences about the difference between what you think is wisdom and trial and error knowledge? I don't see any difference between pioneering science nowadays being trial and error and what others call wisdom anyway. The whole idea of science is to systematically study something with the intention of gaining more knowledge - don't you think? Contemporary scientists only discover new things by complete trial and error. My Dad worked in a lab testing the causes of srabismus, or, slightly lazy eyes. He and his colleagues had an idea of how they could begin testing it by going down the neurological format, mapping children's development to see how a lazy eye might be formed over a long period of time or a shorter one. In fact, they began to see that it was starting at birth. This was not what they had anticipated and they changed their testing accordingly. No, I realise it's not a startling experiment but to me that demonstrates quite clearly that scientists are very clever, very well-learned and methodical in their experimentations but they often have no idea what they're doing and are taking measured stabs into the fire until the popcorn pops. I think it's always  been that way and it always will. Wisdom in terms of 'the ancients' developed in a similar manner firstly out of necessity and survival, then with more time to not have to spend all day hunting because of tools that worked efficiently, they learned new skills, explored new avenues of expression, and they, too, like us, learned a lot through trial and error and when they discovered something worthwhile, they honed it and honed it until they became proficient. In many cases of art and design, they may have been more skilled than us. That's all I think. But if you still disagree, that's fine. I just wonder what you're doing here. 

Actually, no account is required. I post via google.

You claim that scientists just use trial and error, and then you go on to explain how your father didn't use trial and error, but tests to examine well educated guesses. Science has only existed for ~400 years mind you, as a logical evolution of Natural Philosophy (indeed, it was still called natural philosophy until the 1800s, when it was rechristened "science" [Latin for "Knowledge"] as a declaration of victory of sorts over scholasticism).

I'm here because this story was linked in my news feed.

angieblackmon's picture

i wonder where they got the idea? who had the idea to try it this way...had they tried similar or different materials until they discovered what worked best?

love, light and blessings


This article is more than a bit disingenuous. The ability to create dust is not nano technology. The Romans knew how to grind metal into a fine powder and mix it with glass. So? I could do that in my garage. Lets be realistic. The gold smiths doing this were likely trying to make a material that was as aesthetically pleasing as gold, but cheaper to make. This was discovered by accident.

Roman concrete is another awful example. The reason Roman concrete is more durable is because it uses less water, and thus is less porous and susceptible to erosion when it dries. There is a reason we don't use that concrete in our roads though. Our roads require steel rebar to support the weight of modern vehicles. In order to construct our roads in reasonable time, our concrete must be poured. You couldn't pour Roman concrete; you had to apply it like a paste.

Were the ancients clever? Just as clever as people are today. Were they advanced? Definitely not. Keep in mind human life expectancy did not begin to improve until after the Enlightenment. From the Romans and Greeks to the tribes in Africa, people's lives were equally short lived.

That's irrelevant. The ancients were not advanced; their young died en masse.

curious how you arrived at that conclusion for a reason to be ruling out advanced knowledge of technology that in no way relates to the subject of child mortality rates? seems like you may be grasping at straws it's like an advanced artistic technique and medical sciences correlate to the same thing. kind of like saying, if i can work indoor plumbing i should be able to manufacture antibiotics right?

Gold dust != nano technology.

Indoor plumbing has been around for thousands of years. It's more like saying "If I can develop carbon nano tubes, then the society which I live in must also be able to create artificial diamonds." The fields are related.

You expect me to believe that a society which lacked a base-n number system, which lacked germ theory, which lacked any semblance of a periodic table of elements, which hadn't yet developed algebra (let alone calculus), and whose "chemistry" consisted of guess work developed nano technology? Utter nonsense. In order to develop nano technology, you need an advanced knowledge of chemistry (including a periodic table, and modern atomic theory) and calculus.

i'm not saying it's nanotech i'm responding to your comment. the article is click baiting for sure in calling it nanotech but the comment you posted "The ancients were not advanced; their young died en masse" is absurdly oversimplified.
also germ theory did exist at the time of aristotle who unlike others such as heron of alexandria who believed that they existed aristotle was a realist and his sentiment although wrong was we shouldn't point to invisible things that we can't prove as real as causing things like disease.

So you want to put the claim that an advanced society would be able to keep infant mortality low into question?

Let me argue it thus then. If we suddenly lost that ability, we would immediately move huge resources to resolving that problem, sacrificing modern amenities if need be. What mother would fail to give up TV, or air conditioning, if it meant saving their child's life (obviously there would be examples, but we're talking about the society overall)? Therefore, among the first uses any new technology will be put to then, if possible, is to reducing infant mortality rates (and mortality in general). An advanced society, given the same resources as an unadanced one, will always have a lower mortality rate.

Almost without variation, ancient civilizations had a greater access to resources than we do today (by virtue of non-renewables having been less spent - exceptions come from ancient societies which experienced ecological catastrophe), yet they had higher infant mortality rates, therefore they were less advanced.

less advanced than our own civilization does not mean they were not advanced. true we would not willingly trade our advances in one field for another but, to say such a thing is a false argument. societies advance over time and one innovation does not often lead to a much broader understanding of science as a whole. the civilizations of tomorrow will find many things we do today to be primitive and backwards we simply have not advanced enough to know it yet. that will not detract from our civilizations level of advancement in our time. the greeks and romans were advanced compared to others from their time it doesn't mean they knew more about everything than we do today.

At this point, you're arguing about the subjective nature of the word "advanced". The point has always been: the Romans were not advanced enough to develop or use nano technology.

just amazing they could do something like this

Could this cup have been used to see if an assassin was trying to mix poison into the drink in the cup?


In the case of this cup, the change of color is relates to the light direction. If you put wine into it, with or without poison the light won't notice, i think :)

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