Ancient Romans’ Color-Changing Goblet Was Feat of Nanotechnology

By Lisa Raffensperger | August 29, 2013 2:40 pm

lycurgus cup

Anyone who lived through the 90s knows color-change technology—from T-shirts to free cereal spoons to doll hair—is nothing new. But it turns out even the ancient Romans had mastered the art of color-change, and to do so they relied on some pretty advanced feats of engineering.

The Lycurgus Cup is a 1,600-year-old glass chalice housed at the British Museum. Under normal light it’s a washed-out green color—but magically transforms to a blood-red vessel when lit from behind.

This color-change puzzled scientists for decades after the museum acquired the cup in the 1950s, explains Smithsonian Magazine:

The mystery wasn’t solved until 1990, when researchers in England scrutinized broken fragments under a microscope and discovered that the Roman artisans were nanotechnology pioneers: They’d impregnated the glass with particles of silver and gold, ground down until they were as small as 50 nanometers in diameter, less than one-thousandth the size of a grain of table salt. The exact mixture of the precious metals suggests the Romans knew what they were doing—“an amazing feat,” says one of the researchers, archaeologist Ian Freestone of University College London.

More recently, some researchers speculated that in everyday usage this may have meant that the cup changed color depending on what was put in it. Since the museum probably wouldn’t like you pouring your cereal in the goblet, the researchers instead re-created the cup’s material on a chip.
When they poured solutions of water, oil, sugar and salt onto the surface the colors indeed changed markedly—light green for water and red for oil, for instance—according to research published earlier this year.

A color-changing goblet: You have to admit, that’s a lot cooler than, well, really anything that came out of the 1990s.

Image by via Flickr

  • Stephan Brun

    Thought: How does it react to ancient poisons?

    • Michael Lederman

      Very interesting question and I now wonder if that may have been the purpose of this goblet.

      I also wonder if we could use this tech. to make drinking devices that can change color when bacteria or other hazardous material is in the water supply it would sure save a lot of lives in third world countries.

      • Artor

        Someone has developed straws and cups that change color in the presence of roofies and several other club/rape drugs.

        • Michael Lederman

          Thank you , That person should receive a prize or medal for their work.

      • Judy Zeeb

        or drugs into a woman’s bar drink?

        • Michael Lederman

          I do not understand your question but I was pleased to hear from Artor, later also confirmed by email that a company has developed cups and straws that change color in the presence of what are commonly called “date rape” drugs. Through the use of these cups and straws a woman can ensure her drink is not tampered with thus removing one of the scourges of our generation.

    • Artor

      I was thinking of that, but I doubt poison would affect the refraction of whatever liquid it’s in enough to see. It would be a relatively tiny amount in an alcohol/water/hydrocarbon mix.

    • Michael Ha

      The silver might also impart an anti-bacterial quality to the goblet.

  • Norma Connelly

    Fascinating! Ancient Romans created beautiful glass goblets that changed colors depending on the liquid the goblets held.

  • bingo

    This is awesome, and has been in nearly every general science talk on plasmonics for the past decade. If you can find a video or some dynamic pic file, you’ll really fall in love.

  • Heidi Morgan

    Whoa, me thinks he’s discovered an ancient poison administrator?

  • KateGladstone

    Why not pour wine into it?

    • Stephan Brun

      Old, and priceless?

  • Ryan

    this article says it was published on 8/29/13 while the Smithsonian article says it was published September 2013. How could this article quote the Smithsonian article when it was apparently published first? Any ideas?

    • Lisa Raffensperger

      Ryan I think the Smithsonian article appeared in their Sept issue, but it was published online in late August.

  • David Pinto

    Nescio quid sed placet…


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