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Ancient Roman technologies could revolutionise modern techniques

Lycurgus cup, Early form of Nanotechnology

Lycurgus cup, Early form of Nanotechnology

Pic: Numiswiki

Recently, there have been two interesting engineering discoveries from Ancient Rome that have the potential to shake up some major areas of industry – discoveries that show we still have a lot to learn from our ancestors reports Alex Knapp in Forbes. The first finding is rather astonishing. As noted earlier this month by Zeeya Merali, a 1,600 year old chalice known as the Lycurgus Cup (pictured left) have proved to be more than just a stunning work of art. It’s also an example of one of the earliest forms of nanotechnology.

The cup, as Merali notes, was actually a mystery for centuries. That’s because it appears green when lit from one angle, but red when lit from a different angle. It wasn’t until the 1990s, after decades of study in the 20th century, that it was determined how it was created. As it turns out, the glass itself was infused with particles of silver and gold that were only about 50 nanometers in diameter. The particular ratio of the mixture was definitely known, as other similar cups have been discovered.

In a paper from 2007, scientists who have studied the cup noted that “[e]ven using modern powerdriven tools, this type of vessel takes a great deal of time to complete.”

The Lycurgus Cup

They describe the cup as:

The Lycurgus Cup is one of a class of Roman vessels known as cage cups or diatreta, where the decoration is in openwork which stands proud from the body of the vessel, to which it is linked by shanks or bridges Typically these openwork “cages” comprise a lattice of linked circles, but a small number have figurative designs, although none of these is as elaborate or as well preserved as the Lycurgus Cup. The figures, carved in deep relief, show the triumph of Dionysus over Lycurgus. However it is not only the cut-work design of the Cup that shows the high levels of skill involved in its production. The glass of the cup is dichroic; in direct light it resembles jade with an opaque greenish-yellow tone, but when light shines through the glass (transmitted light) it turns to a translucent ruby colour. [source]
Glorious ruby colour of the Cup

Glorious ruby colour of the Cup

Pic: Wiki Commons

In addition, a number of trace elements including silver and gold make up the final 1%. It was further suggested that the unique optical characteristics of the glass might be connected with the presence in the glass of colloidal gold. GEC, performing chemical analysis of the glass reported that :

to obtain the colouring constituents in the state necessary to give the remarkable glass its special qualities a critical combination of conditions was required during manufacture. These would be associated with the composition, including the presence of minor constituents, time and temperature of founding, chemical conditions during founding, and subsequent heat treatment. It is perhaps not altogether surprising that no other example of a glass having such unusual properties has come to light. [Chirnside R.C. (1965), ‘The Rothschild Lycurgus Cup: An analytical investigation’, qProc 7th Internat Cong. Glass, comptes rendus 2. Paper 222, pp. 1-6]

Modern technology derived from Roman techniques

Forbes continues: But more than that, this technology might turn out to revolutionize the pharmaceutical industry.

Nano cup arrays from the Nanoplasmonic Spectroscope

Nano cup arrays from the Nanoplasmonic Spectroscope

Pic: University of Illinois

That’s because researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, using the same techniques the Romans used, earlier this year developed a device that enables them detect DNA and proteins without having to chemically modify them first. That lowers the overall costs and helps resist errors that occur in the process. The team estimates that their device is about “100 times better sensitivity” than any other similar product. In their paper, published in Advanced Optical Materials, the research teams says that

We envisage extensive use of the device for DNA microarrays, therapeutic antibody screening for drug discovery and pathogen detection in resource poor setting and a low cost, higher sensitive alternative to existing SPR/LSPR instruments.

But the Ancient Romans aren’t content to only revolutionize medicine. Soon, you may be living or working on a building or road that’s built with the same materials that the Romans built their own with – materials that, when created, also produce fewer carbon emissions. That’s thanks to the work of a research team at the University of California at Berkeley, which has studied the ways that Roman concrete has managed to endure for over 2,000 years in the same conditions that cause modern concrete to degrade after about 50 years.

Read more about the introduction of Aluminum into Roman concrete as well as the full article on Forbes’ website. We originally reported on the discoveries about Roman concrete in our news article: http://celticmythpodshow.com/news/the-romans-made-better-concrete-than-we-do/


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  1. A lot of people have mistrust of all things Roman as if it was a conquest of dictatorship,, a nations of warriors, especially those who killed off the druids.

    I was even a bit disturbed by Neil Oliver’s documentary recently where he described a wealthy Roman as adopting older Celtic faith and images.

    I would have thought it was the other way around, that the person was from an ancestry where these images were passed down and that he added some Roman ways to his own and by doing so joined the Roman race.

    I tend to regard the Roman nation as being a network of cultures and nations that improved communications between each other so a kind of melting of minds managed to come up with findings like what this article covers … which no single race or clan may never have achieved alone.

    As we have discovered through the challenges of uniting Europe, uniting the state of America etc. there seems to be an equal balance of pluses or minuses for doing this uniting.

  2. Hi John,

    I think you have many valid points there. The Romans were renowned for adopting and absorbing the Gods and Cultures of those lands they conquered/invaded and settled in – much like the Borg from Star Trek, I guess! :) This is the main reason you find cognate Greek, Roman and Gallic God-names. Their armies were a conglomeration of those few from Rome, auxilia (mostly harvested from the lands they stormed through) and specialist units of mercenaries they garnered to accompany the army. The period after the departure of the Roman legions from these shores, along with the collapse of the Empire with its corrupt Emperors, is a fascinating period of mixed strata communities ranging from native Brythonic/Cumbric or Pictish tribes to what may be called the Celtic-Roman elite still pursuing the heights of Roman ‘civilisation’. I’m sure that there were those who sought to retain or gain power in the remaining ‘petty kingdoms’ by reclaiming their old traditions, just as there were those who sought to re-establish the ailing Roman culture on our shores.

    During the period of the occupation, I’m also sure that there would have been many who readily accepted ‘Romanisation’ just as there were those who didn’t (cf. Boudicca and the Iceni) – there would have also been a wide range of middle-of-the-road people just trying to survive their local Lord’s rule. As you say, the Roman nation was a network of cultures and nations, and those Roman settlers who interbred with the indigenous Celts would have come from many of those varied cultures. What a complex picture it must have been at the time!

    As far as the technology goes, we may have artefacts that originate with one race but that doesn’t mean the knowledge didn’t spread from there along with as-yet undiscovered artefacts, or indeed, that the craftsmen were not from one of these other integrated cultures! I thought it a superb article to highlight as the Celtic contemporaries of the Romans at the time would almost certainly have known of these two discoveries. Whether or not they chose to use them would have depended on their own natures, of course. The nomadic nature of most of the early Celtic tribes would have tended to keep them away from building using concrete, for example. It’s a fascinating subject for contemplation! :)

    Many blessings

    Gary xxx

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