Marvels of Materials: Authored by Doug Braun, Binghamton University


The pigment used to color this jar is cobalt blue, a synthetic pigment made from cobalt, aluminum, and phosphate. Sourced from the oases in Egypt’s western desert, cobalt blue was used to paint pottery. The Eighteenth (1550-1292 BCE) and Nineteenth Dynasties (1292-1189 BCE) were a significant time period for cobalt. Archaeological evidence demonstrates that this color had its heyday for a much more restricted time period, ca. 1390-1213 BCE, and was particularly found at sites associated with Egyptian royalty, such as Amarna and Malkata.
Recent examination of this object has shown that the pigment used to paint this vessel is, indeed, cobalt blue. X-Ray Fluorescence scans, which are used to detect the elemental makeup of an object, were conducted on this jar by Professor Jeffrey Pietras (Geology Department, Binghamton University). The scans of the blue pigment show an elemental makeup with the same chemical makeup to cobalt blue. In addition to helping to determine the elemental makeup of this pigment, XRF analysis has the potential to reveal more about any object’s history (provenance). Though the history of this object is unknown, the use of cobalt blue on this vessel, since this color was only used for a short time, provides a narrow date range during which the object was created. The scientific analysis of an artifact without provenience is also important, because if the analysis had indicated that this pot was painted with a historically inaccurate pigment, we would have been left to speculate as to whether this object had been restored poorly, or even worse, was a fraud.


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