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Egyptian blue: the earliest manufactured pigment

Egyptian blue is thought to be the earliest synthetic pigment. It was known in Egypt, Sudan and Mesopotamia from at least 2500 BC. It gradually spread across the Mediterranean world to become the dominant blue pigment, but it had fallen out of widespread use by about AD 800.

The same coffin fragment (E.GA.2901.1943) in VIL.

The colour of Egyptian blue depends on the
precise proportion of ingredients, but also the
extent to which it is ground. These modern
examples show some of the variation possible.
The shade of blue is lighter and brighter the
finer the pigment is ground.
© The Fitzwilliam Museum.


Egyptian blue is a copper-based glass-like material (frit). It was made by combining naturally occurring copper minerals or scrap copper and bronze with quartz sand, lime and an alkali, such as potash. The mixture was heated to 850-1000oC, possibly for as long as 48 hours, to create a fused mass (frit) that could be ground up as a pigment or fashioned into shapes. These shapes could be refired and reground to make a finer grained pigment.

Identifying Egyptian Blue

A range of analytical techniques is at our disposal for the identification of Egyptian blue. Some require samples to be removed from the object, but Visible-light Induced Luminescence (VIL) photography is non-invasive. This technique, which was developed at the British Museum, takes advantage of an unusual property of Egyptian blue; when exposed to visible light, the pigment emits infrared radiation. When recorded with a modified camera, the pigment shows as bright white fluorescence on the image.

Egyptian painted wood falcon, Ptolemaic Period (332-30 BC).

Egyptian painted wood falcon, Ptolemaic Period (332-30 BC).
E.3.1981. Bequeathed by Phyllis M. Cook. © The Fitzwilliam Museum.

On the wooden falcon model above, Egyptian blue paint has been used to make a latticework across the body of the bird. The VIL image (on the bottom) clarifies the pattern and shows up the brush marks, helping us understand how the paint was applied.

Egyptian coffin fragment showing human figures, New Kingdom - Third Intermediate Period (1550-714 BC)

Egyptian coffin fragment showing human
figures, New Kingdom - Third Intermediate
Period (1550-714 BC). E.GA.2901.1943.
Bequeathed by Major R.G Gayer-Anderson.
© The Fitzwilliam Museum.

The same coffin fragment (E.GA.2901.1943) in VIL.

Detail of the same coffin fragment
(E.GA.2901.1943) in VIL.
© The Fitzwilliam Museum.

This fragment from a wooden coffin is heavily deteriorated. Much of the coloured decoration has been lost and the remaining pigment survives within the incised decoration. The female figure, which dominates this fragment, is wearing a white dress with a black wig and a collar. What is not clear, even from examination through a microscope, is that she has a blue band around her head, blue wristbands and two blue bands around each of her upper arms. The blue pigment is only fully visible using Visible-light Induced Luminescence (VIL) photography.

Discolouration of Egyptian blue

Egyptian blue can appear green due to yellow varnish over the paint, or chemical deterioration of the pigment. Blackening can be caused by accumulated dirt in the paint medium or varnish, and possibly by oxidation of the copper elements.

Egyptian cartonnage coffin fragment showing Isis, Third Intermediate Period (1070-714 BC).

Egyptian cartonnage coffin fragment showing Isis, Third
Intermediate Period (1070-714 BC).
Bequeathed by Major R.G. Gayer-Anderson
© The Fitzwilliam Museum.

This fragment of cartonnage (made from layers of glue-soaked linen and plaster) has some vivid blue pigment on damaged areas. Elsewhere, the yellow varnish (which may have discoloured over time) applied over the paint, gives a strong green tone, making it difficult to separate the blue and green pigments. VIL photography (right) distinguishes clearly between these colours.

Egyptian Blue within the Antiquities Collection

Egyptian blue is, by far, the most common blue pigment found on objects in our Antiquities collections, with examples from the Egyptian and Greek and Roman worlds. The coffin of Nespawershefyt (E.1.1822) can be seen in Gallery 19 alongside a VIL image of the outer coffin lid. Here the blue pigment is heavily obscured by ingrained dirt.