A Roman goblet could be an 1,600-year-old example of nanotechnology, according to experts. The mysterious Lycurgus Cup is made of dichroic glass and appears green when lit from the front and turns bright red when a light is shone on it from behind.
The chalice, which is on display at The British Museum, London, uses similar techniques to modern nanotechnology – the manipulation of materials on an atomic and molecular scale – which scientists believe could be used for everything from diagnosing diseases to identifying bioharzards at airports.
Scientists only solved the mystery of the color-changing chalice in 1990, after being baffled by its behavior for decades, Smithsonian Magazine reported.
After putting broken fragments of glass under a microscope, scientists found the Romans had impregnated it with particles of sliver and gold, which they ground down to tiny proportions – around 50 nanometres in diameter – a thousand times smaller than a grain of salt.
The precise amount of metals has lead experts to hail the Romans as ‘nanotechnology pioneers’ who really knew what they were doing. Archaeologist Ian Freestone, of University College London, who researched the cup and its unusual optical properties, called its construction an ‘amazing feat’.
The cup appears to change color as when light hits it as the flecks of metals’ electrons vibrate in ways that seem to change the color, depending on where the observer is looking at it. The chalice was used to hold drink on special occasions and experts believe that when it was filled, the behavior of the vibrating electrons changed, as well as it’s color.
Gang Logan Liu, an engineer and nanotechnology expert at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign told the publication: ‘The Romans knew how to make and use nano-particles for beautiful art.’
Of course scientists could not investigate the effects of the one-of-a-kind cup by filling it with liquid. Instead, they reportedly imprinted billions of little wells onto a piece of plastic the size of a postage stamp and sprayed them with gold and silver nano-particles to essentially re-create the special configuration of the cup.
The scientists then poured different liquids into the wells to note the effect they had. When they filled a well with water it turned the surface light blue, while pouring oil inside turned it bright red.
Lycurgus Cup Facts:
– The Lycurgus Cup dates from the 4th Century AD and was probably made in Rome.
– It shows a scene from a Greek story, where bad tempered king Lycurgus is being trapped by vines as a punishment for his latest outburst of anger.
– The cup is the only complete example of ‘dichroic’ glass, which changes color from green to red when light shines through it.
– It is also one of the best examples of a ‘cage-cup’ from the time that is made from a solid block of glass that has been carefully carved away until the cup and the figures standing out on it are left. Sections of the figures are almost standing free and connected only by ‘bridges’ to the surface of the vessel. [1 Source: Daily Mail]
Is this an out-of-place artifact?
Definition: An “out-of-place artifact” (OOPArt) is an object of historical, archaeological, or paleontological interest found in a very unusual or seemingly impossible context, that could challenge conventional historical chronology by being “too advanced” for the level of civilization that existed at the time. 
In my opinion, the Lycurgus Cup is definitely an OOPArt. Nanotechnology is the manipulation of matter on an atomic and molecular scale , and it’s so advanced that we have only recently started to use it.
Click here for other examples of out-of-place artifacts.
By Alexander Light, HumansAreFree.com; Additional Sources: Smithsonian, British Museum;