The Pantheon dome - made entirely out of concrete.

From Chrome Plating to Nanotubes: the ‘Modern’ Chemistry First Used in Ancient Times


The ancient Babylonians were the first to use sophisticated geometry – a staggering 1,400 years before it was previously thought to have been developed. Sadly, these mathematical innovations were forgotten as the Babylonian civilisation collapsed and were only rediscovered this year as scientists took a close look at ancient clay tablets.

This surprising finding made me wonder about what other scientific methods that we put down to modern minds were actually discovered by ancient civilisations. So I decided to hunt down some of the most advanced uses of chemistry.

Qin Dynasty chrome plating

The mirrored shine of chrome-plated metal is almost a symbol of the modern era. A thin chrome layer coats metals and plastics in kitchens, bathrooms and cars. Credit for chrome-plating technology goes to George Sargent who published a method in 1920 that lead to the commercial plating that dominated the Art Deco period and beyond. In fact, other famous chemists including Robert Bunsen dabbled with chrome plating in the mid-19th century. But all of these may have been beaten to the shine by the metallurgists of the Qin dynasty in China some 2,000 years before chrome had even been identified in the West.

In the 1970s, razor sharp swords coated in a thin layer of chromium oxide were unearthed along with the famous Terracotta army . The Chinese suggest that their 1st dynasty weapon smiths coated officers' weapons to protect them from corrosion. And indeed, two millennia later the blades are untarnished. However, whether this is really the case or in fact the chromium layer slowly formed from a peculiarity of the blade’s composition and the fires that ravaged the buried terracotta army is a matter of debate .

Bronze Swords from the Qin Dynasty.

Bronze Swords from the Qin Dynasty. ( Timoth Tsui /Flickr, CC BY-ND 4.0 )

Roman concrete

Concrete is the mainstay of modern buildings, but ancient civilisations also used it to great effect. Concrete is a composite, meaning that it is made from two or more materials; cement is mixed with sand and gravel, which then sets into whatever structure is required. The most famous ancient concrete buildings are probably the Pantheon and Colosseum in Rome. Both are composed of fine volcanic ash mixed with lime (calcium hydroxide).

Colosseum in Rome.

Colosseum in Rome. ( CC BY-SA 2.5 )

Together these make cement, which sets and binds fist sized pieces of limestone together. This particular recipe produces a network of crystals that resist propagation of cracks, the bane of modern concrete. The result is an incredibly enduring material that is, in many ways, superior to today’s concrete. A testament to this is the majestic roof of the Pantheon, which, at 43 metres across, is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.

Damascene nanotubes

Carbon nanotubes are the strongest and stiffest materials known. They consist of cylinders with walls that are just one atom thick. When used within composite materials they can massively enhance the strength of an object resulting in super strong and light components, some of which you can find in wind turbines, sports gear and vehicles.

18th-century Persian-forged Damascus steel sword.

18th-century Persian-forged Damascus steel sword. ( Rahil Alipour Ata Abadi/wikimedia )

In 2006, researchers discovered that the people of Damascus were making use of nanotubes in their steel hundreds of years ago. The result was beautiful blades covered in swirling patterns. And more importantly for the soldiers of the time was the exceptional durability and the razor-sharp edges the steel held. We now know the exact composition of Damascus steel, yet modern metallurgists have failed to reproduce it so far.

Egyptian pigments

William Perkin is credited with producing the first organic dye (using chemists’ meaning of the word organic – in other words, carbon-containing chemicals) when he accidentally discovered purple mauveine while trying to make quinine in 1856.

Pyxis made out of Egyptian blue from 750-700 BC. Shown at Altes Museum in Berlin.

Pyxis made out of Egyptian blue from 750-700 BC. Shown at Altes Museum in Berlin. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

But the first synthetic pigment of any type was probably made by the Egyptians as early as 3000 BC. By heating a mixture of sand, ash, calcium carbonate (possibly from shells), and a copper containing ore to temperatures of over 800 °C they manufactured blue calcium copper silicate. This could then be used in glazes to produce a stunning range of hues.

Greek atomic theory

Democritus had it right all along.

Democritus had it right all along. ( Public Domain )

The incredible technologies devised by craftsman and artists of ancient civilisations are astounding. Much of it can’t be bettered by modern techniques. But what separates science from skilled craft is an understanding of the underlying mechanisms involved in the making of the material. Underpinning this understanding in modern chemistry is the atomic theory often credited to John Dalton in the early 19th century. But philosophers of old also had a good crack at thinking about the nature of matter. And in fact atomism has sprung up multiple times in antiquity. Most notably from the Greek philosophers Democritus and Leucippus who speculated that everything is composed of physical, indivisible, and invisible atoms back in the 5th century BC.

Featured image: The Pantheon dome - made entirely out of concrete. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

By Mark Lorch / The Conversation

The article From chrome plating to nanotubes: the ‘modern’ chemistry first used in ancient times by Mark Lorch was originally published on The Conversation and has been republished under a Creative Commons license.



How is nano Tube related to blade forging ?

Blade forging whit this design are made in 2 ways i know of,  forging whit mutiple kind of metal or by using acid on the blade after it has been forged.

I dont think Acid technique make nanotube

So, Is forging a blade whit many kind of metal make nanotube ?



People have written books and articles about the problems with radio carbon dating.

We don’t actually know the decay rate.  We know carbon levels have not remained constant, which means you can’t have some sort of steaady decay rate as a factor.

When Libby first calibrated his system, he used “known” historical dates, which modern statistical reseach shows may have an error rate of 1000 years or more.  So if you get something dates 1000 BCE, it might mean the year 0, because of the innaccurate calibration.



Tom Carberry

It's kind of hard to fuck up radiocarbon dating. We just need an isotope and we can and have done a very very good job at dating things and people. This isn't using human forms of dating but dating based on geological facts and science.

Is there really anything much new. Over the years I have noticed that many new discoveries seems to be a re-discovery from the past.

In 1975 a physicist by the name of Fritjof Capra wrote a book called 'The Tao of Physicis". I seem to recall him alluding to SHIVA. Shiva am I, creator and shatter of worlds. He also saw that the dance of Shiva represented atomic structure.

We shouldn't trust a lot of the old dates. Traditional ideas of Egyptian dating may err by 2000 years younger. A lot of "ancient" artifacts and historical characters lived much closer to our own era.

Many historians have written about major errors in traditional dating under the Gregorian calendar. Certain "ancient" historical people like Ptolemy and Tacitus may have lived in the Middle Ages. The Catholic Church committed a major historical fraud and we should not trust regular dating without strong proof. I think we should suspect anything before abut 1600. The wars of the reformation detroyed much more than history tells us, I think.

Tom Carberry

ancient-origins's picture


This is the Ancient Origins team, and here is our mission: “To inspire open-minded learning about our past for the betterment of our future through the sharing of research, education, and knowledge”.

At Ancient Origins we believe that one of... Read More

Next article