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1,600-year-old chalice reveals ancient romans used nanotechnology

The Romans knew how to make and how to use nanoparticles for artistic creations. It is not the first time that Roman technology surprises modern researchers, surpassing the current level of knowledge.

The Cup of Lycurgus
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The Cup of Lycurgus

The wonderful chalice you see in the photo has an intriguing characteristic: when illuminated by a direct source, it appears jade-green in colour, while if the light source is placed behind the object, it will appear blood-red in colour.

It is a glass chalice, known as 'The Cup of Lycurgus', as it shows a scene involving King Lycurgus of Thrace, an important character in Greek mythology.

Purchased in 1950 by the British Museum, the chalice's enigmatic properties have puzzled scientists for decades. A first answer came only in 1990, when a team of English researchers, examining some fragments of the chalice under a microscope, discovered that Roman craftsmen were pioneers in the use of nanotechnology.

The technique consisted of impregnating the glass with a mixture of silver and gold particles until they reached the size of 50 nanometers in diameter, less than a thousandth of the size of a grain of salt. The precision of the work and the exact mixture of the precious metals suggests that the Roman craftsmen knew exactly what they were doing and that it was not an accidental effect.

The ancient nanotechnology works like this: when the glass is hit with light, the electrons of the metal particles vibrate in such a way as to alter its color, depending on the position of the observer.

It is not the first time that Roman technology surprises modern researchers, surpassing the current level of knowledge. An example is given by the study on the composition of Roman concrete, which remained submerged in the waters of the Mediterranean for 2 thousand years. The researchers found that its composition is significantly superior to modern concrete, both in terms of durability and eco-friendliness.

The knowledge acquired by researchers is now used to improve the cement we use today. Isn't it ironic that scientists turn to the techniques used by our 'primitive' ancestors to develop new technologies?

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