Nanotechnology is Ancient History_Featured_, Archaeology, Technology Wednesday, April 25th, 2012 (The Guardian) The ancient empires of the world are remembered for their impressive large-scale feats of engineering: Macchu Picchu in Peru; the pyramids in Egypt; and the Parthenon in Greece to name a few. But the craftsmen of those eras were also skilled at engineering at the opposite end of the spectrum at the nanoscale.
The manipulation of material at the atomic and molecular scale to create new functions and properties sounds like it should be a profoundly modern concept. But artisans from the past also controlled matter at the tiniest scales. By modern-day standards, they were working in a branch of nanotechnology called nanocomposites. These are bulk materials in which nanoscale particles are mixed to improve the properties of the overall or composite material.
There are a number of relatively famous examples of ancient artefacts which were created using nanocomposites. The Lycurgus cup, for example, is a stunning decorative Roman treasure from about AD400; it is made of a glass that changes colour when light is shone through it. The glass contains gold-silver alloyed nanoparticles, which are distributed in such a way to make the glass look green in reflected light but, when light passes through the cup, it reveals a brilliant red.
A corrosion resistant azure pigment known as Maya Blue, first produced in AD800, was discovered in the pre-columbian Mayan city of Chichen Itza. It is complex material containing clay with nanopores into which indigo dye was combined chemically to create an environmentally-stable pigment.
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Photo: British Museum Images