7 Scintillating Facts About the Earliest Known Use of Nanotechnology: The Lycurgus Cup

The Lycurgus Cup is one of the earliest examples of nanotechnology in use in human history. It truly is an amazing piece of work, dating 4th century AD.
Christopher McFadden

The famous "Lycurgus Cup" is one of the earliest known uses of nanotechnology in human history. While it is unclear that the cup's creators knew the reason for the cup's amazing optical properties, modern science has shown just how sophisticated the techniques behind its creation were.

Here then are some interesting facts about this amazing piece of human history.


What are some interesting facts about the "Lycurgus Cup"?

So, without further ado, here are some interesting facts about the famous Roman "Lycurgus Cup". This list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order.

1. The cup is dedicated to the death of King Lycurgus

The cup gets its name from the fact that it features scenes representing the death of King Lycurgus. In at least one version of the Greek and Roman mythological tale, King Lycurgus attempted to kill Ambrosia -- a follower of the god Dionysus (Bacchus for the Romans).

According to this version of the legend, Ambrosia was turned into wine (fittingly) by the gods that twined around the king and constricted him to death. Dionysus is also shown on the cup relief with two followers taunting the doomed king. 

Though it should be noted that other versions describe King Lycurgus being turned mad by Dionysus for attempting to cut down grapevines. 

2. The cup is made from various precious materials including silver and gold

The "Lycurgus Cup" is not only an incredibly beautiful thing, but it is also priceless. While it is made of precious materials including silver and gold, the cup is simply irreplaceable as a human artifact. 

The cup's rim is mounted with a silver-gilt band of leaf ornament, and it also has a silver-gilt foot with open-work vine leaves. It is thought to date from around the 4th Century AD.

3. The "Lycurgus Cup" is one of the earliest examples of the use of nanomaterials

Perhaps the most notable thing about the "Lycurgus Cup" is its nano-materialistic properties. When observed under direct light, the cup appears to be green in color.

However, when backlit or from within the cup, it's main reliefs magically change color to red. The image of the king himself actually becomes a subtle purple too. 

While it is unclear if the Romans understood why this was, it would take until the 1990s for scientists to find out why exactly. 

Most Popular

"It was found that the dichroism (two colors) is observed due to the presence of nanoparticles, silver 66.2%, 31.2% gold, and 2.6% copper, up to 100 nm in size, dispersed in a glass matrix.

The red color observed is a result of the absorption of light (∼520 nm) by the gold particles. The purple color results due to the absorption by the larger particles while the green color is attributed to the light scattering by colloidal dispersions of silver particles with size >40 nm.

The "Lycurgus Cup" is recognized as one of the oldest synthetic nanocomposites." - Marcio Loos et al 2015

4. It appears the cup's amazing properties were no accident

Following the research explained above, it was found that the glass' nanoparticle inclusions were purposefully added rather than by accident. The creators of this amazing chalice certainly appeared to know exactly what they were doing. 

The gold and silver inclusions had been purposefully ground down to their very small size (50 to 100 nm) before being added to the glass. 

5. It is hoped that further study of the cup could yield important scientific treatments

While it can't be tested on the precious object itself, researchers believe that the cup's colors may change more depending on the type of liquid poured into it. This could, they believe help yield some interesting diagnostic techniques for scientists.

In fact, home pregnancy tests work using a similar phenomenon, albeit with different nano-sized ingredients. 

They created a sheet of a plastic plate with billions of tiny wells about the size of a postage stamp. These were sprayed with gold or silver nanoparticles which, in a way, created countless miniature "Lycurgus Cups" in one place.

When water, oil, sugar and salt solutions were poured into these wells, each displayed an easy-to-distinguish color. For example, water produced a light-green color, oil red. 

This, according to research, proved to be around 100 times more sensitive to altered levels of salt in solution than commercially available sensors. 

6. Some researchers have managed to recreate the glass using 3D printing techniques

Lycurgus cup reproduction
Comparison between the original Lycurgus cup and the 3D printed Ag/[email protected] nanocomposite cup presented in this research using the flashlight LED as the light source, Source: Lars Kool et al 2020/Beilstein Journal of Nanotechnology

Researchers from The Netherlands have recently been able to reproduce the green/red dichroic properties of the "Lycurgus Cup" using 3D printing techniques. They were able to introduce silver and gold nanoparticles, of the right size and shape, and embed them inside a 3D printable form. 

7. The cup was probably kept above ground either in a church treasury or robbed from a grave

Lycurgus Cup Rothschild
Baron Lionel Nathan von Rothschild, Source: Allanson/Wikimedia Commons

Given the fantastic condition of the object, it is widely thought that the "Lycurgus Cup" spent the vast majority of the intervening years above ground. This would either mean it, like many other pristine Roman objects, was kept in a church's treasury, or was stolen out of a grave early on in its history. 

While we may never find out the object's history in full, it is known that the cup came into the possession of one Baron Lionel Nathan de Rothschild in the mid-1800s. Thereafter it was donated to the British Museum in 1958, who has kept it for safe keeping ever since.

The cup is, from time to time, displayed to the public. It was last on display according to the British Museum, between 2012-2013.  

message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron