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Thursday, March 5, 2015

Debunkery #2: Yes, there was blue in the ancient world.

Lapis lazuli eyes in the 25th century BCE Statue of Ebih-II (eastern Syria).
Today’s misinformation comes from the same fount that gave us yesterday’s ‘four-coned woman.” It’s the idea that the ancients were somehow ignorant of the color blue, as evidenced by the fact that Homer called the ocean the “wine-dark sea.”
Fragment of a fresco from the Bronze Age Palace at Knossos. The blue is kyanos (from which comes our word cyan), a soda/copper frit paste.
Calcium copper silicate was the first synthetic pigment, dating from the Egyptian 4th Dynasty (c. 2575–2467 BCE). Although no Egyptian texts lay out its exact manufacturing process, Vitruvius gave us a formula in his De architectura (c. 15 BCE).

The Egyptians synthesized Egyptian blue because their primary blue pigment, lapis lazuli, could only be found in Afghanistan and therefore was rare and expensive. Lapis has been mined since the 7th millennium BCE, making it one of the oldest known human endeavors.

Carthaginian glass head pendant with cobalt blue hair and eyes, 5th-4th century BCE. Cobalt is another pigment used since antiquity.
By the fourth millennium BCE, the Egyptians already had an established sea and caravan trade network. The Uluburun shipwreck tells us conclusively that the Egyptians were trading blue glass ingots with the Greeks by the late 14th century BC, long before Homer lived.

Blue glass ingot from the Uluburin shipwreck. Chemical analysis indicates that the cobalt blue glass in ancient Egyptian glass vessels and in Mycenaean glass beads were from the same source. Syria in the late Bronze Age was exporting raw glass to both places.
Lapis lazuli’s name derives in part from lāžaward, which is simply the name of the mineral in Persian. From it comes the English word azure, French azur, Italian azzurro, Polish lazur, Romanian azur and azuriu, Portuguese and Spanish azul, and Hungarian azúr. It doesn’t take an etymologist to realize that all these European words come from a common root, one that meant ‘blue’ to its users.

Egyptian blue pyxis, imported to Italy from northern Syria, c 750-700 BCE.
It isn’t a Roman root. The Romans called that blue color caeruleus, deriving from caelum, meaning heaven or sky. The Greeks had a word for blue: kyanos, which comes down to us as cyan. And, yes, the ancient Israelites had a word for blue: tekhelet. This refers to a dye made from a now-unknown marine creature.

On the other hand, the word blue in English derives from a Proto-Germanic word that meant pale, pallid, wan, blue, blue-grey, yellow, discolored and light in color. That is as good a description of the northern sky as anything.

Nobody knows what the marine creature that gave the ancient Israelites tekhelet was, but a piece of wool dipped into Murex-based dye turns green in sunlight, eventually darkening to a blue-violet. This is possibly why the word refers to both blue and green.
So what was Homer—whoever he was—talking about with his references to the “wine-dark sea”? I’ve asked this question before, and my conclusion is that he is speaking of the roiled, opaque, impenetrable ocean.
King Tut’s burial mask (1346 BCE) has lapis lazuli eyelashes, imported from Afghanistan.
Some people have absolutely no poetry in their souls.

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