lycurgus cup

Ancient Roman Nanotechnology — The Lycurgus Cup

In the 1950’s the British Museum acquired one of the most amazing archaeological finds from Ancient Rome.  The Lycurgus Cup is a beautiful 1,600 year old goblet crafted from glass by the Ancient Romans.  The cup depicts the punishment of Lycurgus, a mythical king who was ensnared in vines for committing evil acts against the Greek god Dionysus.  The craftsmanship and artwork of the cup are certainly amazing on their own. During the age of the Roman Empire the Romans were master glassmakers, producing some of the finest pieces of glassware in history.   However the Lycurgus cup has one incredible property that goes far beyond traditional glassmaking.  When exposed to light, the cup turns from jade green into a bright, glowing red color.  For decades historians, archaeologists, and scientists had no idea why this occurred or how the Romans made the cup with such light changing properties.  Then in 1990 a small fragment of the cup was examined by scientists under a microscope.  What they discovered is truly amazing.

The Lycurgus cup is not only made of glass, but is impregnated with thousands of small particles of gold and silver.  Each of the gold and silver particles are less than 50 nano-meters in diameter, less than one-one thousandth the size of a grain of table salt.  When the cup is hit with light, electrons belonging to the metal flecks vibrate in ways that alter the color depending on the observer’s position.  What is even more amazing is that the addition of the particles to the glass was no accident or coincidence.  The Romans would have had to have known the exact mixture and density of particles needed to give the cup light changing properties.  This would have been done without the aid of a microscope, without the knowledge of atomic theory, and 1,300 years before Newton’s Theory of Colors.

Today the Lycurgus Cup has profound affects on modern nanotechnology.  After studying the cup, researchers and engineers are looking to adapt the technology for modern purposes.  A researcher from the University of Illinois named Gong Gang Liu is currently working on a device which uses the same technology to diagnose disease.  Another application of the technology is a possible device which can detect dangerous materials being smuggled onto airplanes by terrorists.  

The legacy of Ancient Rome continues.  Arena’s, baths, arches, and  nanotechnology. 

The Lycurgus Cup
The Lycurgus Cup is a Roman glass cage cup now in the British Museum, but until August 2013 on loan to the Art Institute of Chicago, made of a dichroic glass, which shows a different colour depending on whether or not light is passing through it; red when lit from behind and green when lit from in front. It is the only complete Roman glass object made from this type of glass, and the one exhibiting the most impressive change in colour; it has been described as “the most spectacular glass of the period, fittingly decorated, which we know to have existed”.

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The Lycurgus Cup is made out of a special type of glass, known as dichroic, which changes color when held up to the light. It was built in Rome in the 4th century. 

The Lycurgus Cup is an Ancient Roman goblet kicking around at the Smithsonian. You might wonder what could possibly be so technologically advanced about a cup (does it shimmy over to the fridge and fill itself with beer?). Scientists didn’t notice anything special about it either, until they held it up to the light. You see, it looks green when lit from the front. But when lit from behind, it turns a demonic red.

In 1990, British researchers tried to unlock the mystery of the devil’s beer stein. What they found was that the glass was full of gold and silver flecks 1,000 times thinner than a human hair. Basically, the Romans discovered nanotechnology – the science of manipulating incredibly small particles – and used it to make a bitchin’ pimp cup.

To make the cup, they would have had to grind up gold and silver into grains many times smaller than sand and fuse it to the glass in specific proportions to produce subatomic effects that we’re only just beginning to understand in recent decades.

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Roman Lycurgus Cup is a 1,600-year-old jade green Roman chalice. 

When you put a source of the light inside it it magically changes colour. It appears jade green when lit from the front but blood-red when lit from behind or inside. Now we know that romans dissolve silver and gold particles into the glass. These particles are 50 nanometers wide, less than one-thousandth the size of a grain of table salt.

Behold: the dawn of Hypercolor.

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#5. The Magical Roman Technicolor Cup

The Lycurgus Cup looks green when lit from the front. But when lit from behind, it turns a demonic red. In 1990, British researchers tried to unlock the mystery of the devil’s beer stein. What they found was that the glass was full of gold and silver flecks 1,000 times thinner than a human hair. Basically, the Romans discovered nanotechnology – the science of manipulating incredibly small particles – and used it to make a bitchin’ pimp cup.

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