Archaeology Magazine

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Nanotechnology and Ancient Egyptian Mummies

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

mummy-portrait-bearded-roman-egyptBOISE, IDAHO—Significant advances in nanotechnology are helping researchers analyze the type of pigments used to paint mummy portraits in ancient Egypt. Scientists at Boise State University, lead by Materials Science and Engineering professor Darryl Butt, have taken a sliver of wood smaller than a human hair and extracted five extraordinarily tiny fragments—about 20 nanometers wide—and two thin foils of purple paint from a Romano-Egyptian mummy portrait dating to between A.D. 170 and 180. "So far we've learned that the paint is a synthetic pigment," says Butt. “These are very vibrant pigments, possibly heated in a lead crucible. People thought that process had been developed in the 1800s or so. This could prove it happened a lot earlier." It’s also possible that by understanding more about the pigment, scholars may also be able to learn more about the identity of the deceased, who is currently known only as “Bearded Man.”