Thousand-Year-Old Goblet Shows Ancient Romans Used Nanotechnology
A 1,600-year-old Roman chalice, called the Lycurgus Cup, changes color based on the direction at which light hits it. Scientists recently discovered that the goblet appears to be green when lit from the front and red when lit from the back as a result of 4th century nanotechnology.
English researchers found that the cup's unique properties are the result of particles of silver and gold embedded in the glass that are as tiny as 50 nanometers, which is just a little bit bigger than a rhinovirus (the common cold). This pioneering use of nanotechnology was hardly an accident; the work was so precise that it works on the electron level. When light hits the cup, the electrons of the miniscule particles vibrate in such a way that they reflect light differently depending on the position of the observer. Archaeologist Ian Freestone of University College London called this "an amazing feat," particularly for the time period.
This technology was not only visionary for the time period, but may help us advance our biohazard detection technology. In a 2013 study, researchers from a nanobionics group at the University of Illinois recreated the technology of the Lycurgus Cup. They embedded tiny gold and silver particles in a plastic plate and then applied different chemicals to the technology in order to gauge changes in color when in contact with various substances, ultimately finding that it was 100 times more sensitive to differences in salt levels in various solutions than any of our common commercial detectors. As a result, this technology may find applications in the discovery of pathogens in bodily fluids or the detection of biological weapons.
Watch the Lycurgus Cup in action at the British Museum.
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