Goblet - Romans Used Nanotechnology

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


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


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.

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


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.

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. 


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