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Egyptian Blue pigment

Egyptian Blue – The Oldest Known Artificial Pigment


Egyptian Blue, also known as calcium copper silicate, is one of the first artificial pigments known to have been used by man. The oldest known example of the exquisite pigment is said to be about 5000 years old, found in a tomb painting dated to the reign of Ka-Sen, the last pharaoh of the First Dynasty. Others, however, state that the earliest evidence of the use of Egyptian blue is from the Fourth Dynasty and the Middle Kingdom, around 4,500 years ago. Nevertheless, by the New Kingdom, Egyptian Blue was used plentifully as a pigment in painting and can be found on statues, tomb paintings and sarcophagi. In addition, Egyptian blue was used to produce a ceramic glaze known as Egyptian faience.

Blue Egyptian faience hippopotamus

Egyptian faience hippopotamus. Credit: British Museum

Its characteristic blue colour, resulting from one of its main components — copper — ranges from a light to a dark hue, depending on differential processing and composition. If the pigment is ground coarsely, it produces a rich, dark blue, while very finely-ground pigment produces a pale, ethereal blue.  It is made by heating a mixture of a calcium compound (typically calcium carbonate), a copper-containing compound (metal filings or malachite), silica sand and soda or potash as a flux, to around 850-950 C.

In Egyptian belief, blue was considered as the colour of the heavens, and hence the universe. It was also associated with water and the Nile. Thus, blue was the colour of life, fertility and rebirth. One of the naturally blue objects that the Egyptians had access to was lapis lazuli, a deep blue semi-precious stone  which could be ground up into powder, although this was a luxury item and had to be imported from Afghanistan. Therefore, it is not too surprising that the Egyptians sought to produce a synthetic pigment to use as a substitute for the blue lapis lazuli.    

Hunting in the marshes (fragment), tomb chapel of Nebamun

Hunting in the marshes (fragment), tomb chapel of Nebamun. Credit: British Museum.

The manufacture of Egyptian Blue eventually spread beyond Egypt’s borders, and can be found throughout the Mediterranean. Egyptian Blue has been found in numerous Greek and Roman objects, including statues from the Parthenon in Athens and wall paintings in Pompeii. Despite its extensive application in art, Egyptian Blue ceased to be used, and its method of production was forgotten when the Roman era came to an end.

In the 19 th century, Egyptian Blue was re-discovered. The excavations at Pompeii revealed that many wall paintings had Egyptian Blue on them, and this prompted scientists to investigate the exact composition of this pigment.  Since then, researchers have gained a much deeper understanding of its unique properties.  Experiments found that Egyptian Blue has the highly unusual quality of emitting infrared light when red light is shone onto it. 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. In addition, scientists unexpectedly discovered that Egyptian Blue will split into ‘nanosheets’ – a thousand times thinner than a human hair – if stirred in warm water for several days.  Scientists now believe that its unique properties may make Egyptian Blue suitable for a variety of modern applications.

Egyptian Blue may one day be utilized for communication purposes, as its beams are similar to those used in remote controls and telecommunication devices. Moreover, Egyptian blue could be used in advanced biomedical imaging, as its near-infrared radiation is able to penetrate through tissue better than other wavelengths. As an ink solution, Egyptian blue opens up new ways for its incorporation into modern appliances, such as the development of new types of security ink and possibly as a dye in the biomedical field.  While the use of Egyptian blue in modern high-tech applications is still in its infancy at this stage, it does seem that its future is a bright one.

Featured image: Left: Egyptian blue shown in an image of Ramses III 1170 BC. Image source. Right: Egyptian Blue pigment. Image source. 

By Ḏḥwty


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Gayle, D., 2013. Talk like an Egyptian: Ancient paint used to decorate Pharoahs' tombs is set to be the basis of telecommunication devices. [Online]
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Hill, J., 2010. Meaning of Blue in Ancient Egypt. [Online]
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McCouat, P., 2014. 'Egyptian Blue: The Colour of Technology', in Journal of Art in Society. [Online]
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Pigments through the Ages, 2014. Egyptian Blue. [Online]
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Pete Wagner's picture

“In Egyptian belief, blue was considered as the colour of the heavens, and hence the universe.”  

Might also have some basis for the ancient Greek reverence for blue-eyed, blondes, as their ‘gods’ were typically depicted.  As per Plato, Thebes would once have been quite a site to see, ...with all the ‘tall blondes’.  But oh, how things change!

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

I have noticed this kind of difference viewing images from some tombs of ancient Egyptian especially the one in Dendera and Medinet Habu temple in Luxor, both have really strange BLUE.

there was extensive research done by egyptians to come up with this invented color or paint. i believe the ancient silk road connected china to egypt and soon after india and turkey was how the formula spread.

it is most doubted a similar idea of such chemical research back at that time was developed separately,
Most likely, it was shared as result for need of trade, the silk road provided that connection. as i bet many colors were produced soon after by sharing ideas.

could also be a parallel development.


dhwty's picture


Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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