University of Memphis Egyptologist Identifies Earliest Known Example of Egyptian Blue

March 18, 2016 - Lorelei H. Corcoran, professor and director of the Institute of Egyptian Art & Archaeology at the University of Memphis, has identified the earliest known example of the oldest synthetic pigment in the world, Egyptian blue, on a bowl that is dated to 3250 BCE. The small, alabaster bowl, in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) Boston, was excavated at the predynastic site of Hierakonpolis in 1898 by J. E. Quibell working for the Egyptian Research Account.

"Corcoran's discovery of the use of Egyptian blue at such an early period reminds us of the sophistication of Egypt prior to Dynasty 1," said Rita E. Freed, the John F. Cogan Jr. and Mary L. Cornille Chair of Art of the Ancient World at the MFA. "It also makes us wonder how many other techniques and concepts central to dynastic Egypt were developed earlier. I commend her for her meticulous scholarship."

Corcoran has researched the use of color in Ancient Egyptian art for more than three decades, having first become interested in the subject while writing her dissertation on the red shrouds of Roman portrait mummies. She came across the bowl while studying the symbolic use of color and immediately recognized its potential significance. "Although conservators have found evidence from as early as late Dynasty 1, Egyptologists have traditionally dated the use of Egyptian blue much later, to Dynasty 4 (2543-2436 BCE). I knew that if the blue pigment on the bowl could be confirmed as Egyptian blue, and be shown to have been applied to the bowl at the time of its manufacture, that this would definitively push back our dating of the technology to produce Egyptian blue to the dawn of pharaonic history."

Incised early hieroglyphs on the bowl are filled with a blue frit that was analyzed and confirmed to be Egyptian blue by the MFA's Scientific Research Laboratory under the direction of Richard Newman.

Not only was Corcoran able to identify the significance of the bowl because of the appearance on it of Egyptian blue, she was also able to date it 150 years earlier than it had been previously dated. The bowl had been attributed to King Scorpion, Dynasty 0, 3100 BCE, an early ruler who preceded King Narmer, the acknowledged unifier of Ancient Egypt. The hieroglyphs on the bowl, however, are more similar in form to those associated with earlier rulers (such as an earlier Scorpion) identified at Abydos by Günter Dreyer and those found in rock drawings discovered by John and Deborah Darnell at a remote desert site called Gebel Tjauti. Dreyer and Darnell date these signs to 3250 BCE. John Darnell, professor of Egyptology at Yale University, found the combination of the addition of these inscriptions to the corpus of early writing with the identification of Egyptian blue exciting.

"The fact that Corcoran has shown that Egyptian blue appears at the dawn of Dynasty 0 reveals that the period is even more profoundly important for the development of pharaonic culture than we may have suspected," said Darnell. "The same period saw the development of true hieroglyphic writing, and now appears as a time of profound technological advancement. Pharaonic Egypt is not something that springs forth fully developed at the beginning of the First Dynasty, but it is the outcome of a period of great inventiveness in Upper Egypt more than a century earlier. Thanks to Corcoran, we now know that this inventiveness extended beyond the realms of writing, administration and ideology, and extended to great strides in chemistry and industry."

That such ancient technology has modern implications within nanotechnology has recently been noted by chemists who foresee a use for Egyptian blue for biomedical imagery and as an ingredient in security ink due to its luminescent quality.

Corcoran has worked closely in cooperation with conservators on earlier projects including the publication with Marie Svoboda, associate conservator at the J. Paul Getty Museum, of Herakleides, the only mummy in the Getty collection, and appreciates the value of interdisciplinary research. As a member of the international collaborative study project Ancient Panel Paintings: Examination, Analysis and Research (APPEAR), initiated by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Corcoran is also in communication with a former Getty conservator, Marc Walton, now senior scientist at Northwestern University/ Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts, whose interest in the color blue has led him to look for evidence of the material on Roman mummy portraits that date to the very end of Egyptian history.

"This new evidence of Egyptian blue pigment on an alabaster bowl from such an early date is remarkable from a materials point of view," said Walton. "I believe this finding now constitutes the earliest example of a man-made pigment. The date of the bowl coincides with the first appearance in Egypt of lapis lazuli that was thought to be the antecedent and inspiration for the creation of synthetic Egyptian blue pigment. Now we must rethink the nature and sequence of this invention and how early Egyptians conceived of the color blue."

Corcoran's in-depth article "The Color Blue as an Animator in Ancient Egyptian Art," will appear in Rachael B. Goldman ed., Essays in Global Color History: Interpreting the Ancient Spectrum (Gorgias Press, NJ, 2016). In it, she will discuss everything from the linguistic problems of the use of the color term for blue – which she calls "the most controversial color in the ancient Egyptian palette" – to the Egyptian preoccupation with its scintillating effects. One of the latest discoveries of Egyptian blue has been on the pupils of the eyes of a Greek sculpture in the British Museum that parallels the much earlier use of gold on the eyes of a cat in a New Kingdom wall painting in the British Museum. The use, Corcoran quipped, captures the animating phenomenon of "eyeshine," familiar to every pet owner.

Contact: Gabrielle Maxey