The science of the ancients and their ‘eternal’ colour
Among my treasured childhood possessions were some watercolours in a metal paint-box. Printed below each colour was its name. These were more dignified than mere ‘red’, ‘yellow’, or ‘blue’. There were allusions to faraway places such as Tuscan Red, Chinese White and Burnt Sienna. I knew through my hobby of stamp collecting that Sienna was a city in Italy, although who burnt it and why I never did find out.
One colour, however, that did not find its way into my paint-box was the magnificent colour called Egyptian Blue. I first encountered this colour in the late 1950s in a book on ancient Egypt. I often wondered how this ancient people made such a beautiful, intense colour; a colour that, unlike others, did not fade—even under the fierce Egyptian sun.
Colours were important to the Egyptians in every aspect of their lives, from religious and magical, to decorating tombs, temples, wealthy homes, ceramics and glassware. The blue colour seen in Egyptian jewellery was the prohibitively expensive lapis lazuli.1 The Egyptian artists wanted a cheap, mass-produced pigment that mimicked the beauty of this precious mineral, and production of Egyptian Blue met those requirements perfectly.
Egyptian Blue, chemically known as calcium copper tetrasilicate (CaCuSi4O10 or CaO·CuO·4SiO2)—very different from lapis lazuli—made its appearance in Egypt not long after the Babel dispersion, some 4200 years ago.2 It is believed to be the first example of synthetic pigment manufacture. Making this colour was no random tossing together of components. Various ingredients including copper compounds were mixed together in fairly precise amounts, and hand-moulded into small tablet-shaped lumps (see box). The mixture was then subjected to a constant temperature of around 900°C (1650ºF) continuously for many hours. The amount of alkali greatly affected the consistency of the pigment. The final result was a blue microcrystalline compound, with each crystal just 15 microns in length (the diameter of a fine thread from the cocoon of the silk moth), which was ground into a fine powder prior to use. This powder would later be added to a suitable bonding emulsion for application to the desired surfaces. The chemistry is precise, providing exact results time after time (see box).
Lapis lazuli, a precious gem in ancient Egypt. To imitate this rich blue colour, Egyptian craftsmen turned to synthetic chemistry.
This beautiful colour was used first by the Egyptians—then later by the Greeks and later still the Romans (who called it ‘caeruleum’). But sometime around the 9th century AD the knowledge of how to manufacture this pigment was lost. Only with the discovery of a pot containing this colour, which was found in the ruins of Pompeii in the early 19th century, was modern man able to recreate this ghost from the past.
The plaudits for resolving the age-long mystery went to the French geologist Ferdinand André Fouque (1828–1904).3 It took a modern, competent scientist to analyze and recreate Egyptian blue, yet secular historians insist, time after time, that the Egyptians simply stumbled upon the processes by trial and error.
Production of Egyptian blue in the days of the Pharaohs required many technologies to come together simultaneously, or it would never have graced the Egyptian artists’ palettes; mining and refining of ores, logistics of transport, storage and supply—as well as considerable knowledge of at least practical chemistry. All these processes were in place 4,000 years ago.
While not suggesting that they used the same theoretical understanding and classification as in modern times, this sort of production would have required an intellectual framework and rationale of some sort based on experimentation, careful observation and recording.
God made people as creative, intelligent beings from the beginning, and so no one ought to be surprised that this inbuilt creative intelligence manifests itself across the pages of history. Egyptian blue is but one example of the ancient Egyptians possessing a considerable level of technical know-how from the dawn of their civilization. This agrees with Genesis 4:20–22 where not long after creation, mankind already exhibited many technical skills—for example, in livestock husbandry, metal-working and music.4 After the Flood, and following the Babel dispersion, various descendants of Noah’s family took these same skills, and more, and spread out across the world. Some groups would have possessed more of the ‘know-how’ of the pre-Flood world than others. This explains why some civilizations such as Egypt sprang up virtually ‘overnight’, while other groups—though no less intelligent— were restricted to making do with a lesser level of technology.
The technical competence required to manufacture the blue pigment of Egypt offers no comfort to those who continue to believe that mankind gradually developed the brainpower behind such phenomenal skills via the undirected, purposeless processes of evolution. The ancient Egyptians were not lacking in other technical fields, either, as their pyramids, literature, metal-working and medicine testify. Their famous blue pigment remains as eloquent testimony to the Genesis account that people were created as highly skilful beings from the very beginning of this world’s history.
The chemistry of the ancients
Analysis of samples of Egyptian Blue* shows the proportions by weight as:
60–70% silica; 7–15% calcium oxide; 10–20% copper oxide
However, it was made from heating together a copper compound such as malachite (Cu2CO3(OH)2), lime (CaCO3) and quartz sand (SiO2) in the right proportions (so some silica is left over to make it hard and glassy).
Cu2CO3(OH)2 + 8SiO2 + 2CaCO3 → 2CaCuSi4O10 + H2O + 3CO2
*Tite. M.S., Bimson, M. & Cowell, M.R. (1987). The technology of Egyptian blue. In M. Bimson & I.C. Freestone. Early Vitreous materials. British Museum occasional paper 56.
- The intense blue comes from the radical trisulphide (thiozonide) ion S3–. Return to text.
- The Babel dispersion occurred in Peleg’s day (Genesis 10:25), See Pierce, L., In the days of Peleg, Creation 22(1):46–49, 1999; creation.com/peleg; see also creation.com/peleg2. Mizraim (Mitsrayim) was a son of Ham (Genesis 10:6), and the ancestor of the Egyptians, who even now call their country Misr. Return to text.
- His major publications were: Santorin et ses éruptions, 1879; Minéralogie micrographique, Roches éruptives françaises (2 vol., 1879); and Synthèse des minéraux et des roches (1885). Return to text.
- But not modern science, which required a Christian world-view; see Sarfati, J., Computers on the Ark? Creation 33(2):40–41, 2011; creation.com/ark-tech. Return to text.
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it gives me chills to think how smart people used to be. it's so sad that perhaps much of it is gone in the same way as a great world perished in Noah's flood. it also gives me a glimpse into understanding Rev. 5:12 'Worthy is the Lamb ... to receive ... wisdom' how smart out God is! thanks CMI
“Production of Egyptian blue in the days of the Pharaohs required many technologies to come together simultaneously, or it would never have graced the Egyptian artists’ palettes; mining and refining of ores, logistics of transport, storage and supply—as well as considerable knowledge of at least practical chemistry…”
Surely not! ;-) Egyptian Blue evolved from natural ingredients. It came together all by itself (maybe the right chemicals in the right proportions just happened to be present and get accidentally heated to just the right temperature for the right length of time to cause its formation). Then this pigment was somehow transported from its source into the tombs and palaces of ancient Egypt and there made itself into beautiful pictures without the aid of outside intelligence!
If that is a ridiculous idea, then how much crazier is it to believe that the INFINITELY MORE complex bodies and brains of those Egyptian artists came about by chance as a result of gradual increase in organised and orchestrated complexity over millions of years!
An ordering of inanimate substances requiring “many technologies to come together simultaneously” to produce a beautiful pigment is simplicity itself by comparison.
Great piece: Thank you to all at Creation.com for the year's fantastic ministry.
Brilliant. So interesting & graciously worded but very much to the point of the high level of ability of the human creature from creation