Boffins unravel secret of ancient Mayan dye’s longevity

July 31st, 2010 - 5:15 pm ICT by ANI  

Washington, July 31 (ANI): Taking a cue from a Mayan pigment - a brilliant blue colour that still adorns the walls of their ancient temples - scientists have developed a new dye that can last a thousand years.

“This pigment has been stable for centuries in the hostile conditions of the jungle. We’re trying to mimic it to make new materials,” Fox News quoted Eric Dooryhee at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, NY, as saying.

Dooryhee and a team of French physicists have spent years studying historical objects using X-rays. They shoot finely-tuned beams of X-rays from a synchrotron machine - much stronger than a dental X-ray - at these materials and analyse the pattern of scattered X-rays coming out to determine the structure of the atoms inside.

The researchers have used this technology to examine Egyptian cosmetics, Roman pottery, and Renaissance paintings. They have recreated some of these ancient materials and are just beginning to learn how to borrow their strengths to make new modern “archeomimetic” materials that can stand the test of time.

While most organic pigments tend to break down over time, the pigment Maya Blue is remarkably resistant - not only to natural weathering, heat, and light, but also to strong acids and solvents in the laboratory.

Pre-Columbian Mesoamericans, living in Central America before the first Spaniards arrived, created the pigment some 1700 years ago. Archaeologists rediscovered it in 1931 at the site of the ancient Mayan capitol Chichen Itza.

The Mayans used the pigment in art and in rituals to bring the rains. According to recent evidence, they painted sacrificial objects and human victims blue and threw them down a deep natural well called the Sacred Cenote, thought to be the home of the rain god Chaak.

The pigment was made by burning incense made from tree resin and using the heat to cook a mixture of indigo plants and a type of clay called palygorskite. A bowl retrieved from the Sacred Cenote revealed traces of all of these materials, each of which was considered to be a healing substance by the Mayans.

“By offering incense to Chaak, they were combining two healing components. This was ritually significant because the rain healed their land,” said Dean Arnold, an anthropologist at Wheaton College in Ill. who examined the bowl.

Now the physicists’ X-ray beams and other measurements have revealed the secrets behind this recipe’s remarkable longevity and durability. As the mixture was heated, indigo molecules filled a network of tiny channels inside the clay. Some of these bits of indigo plugged the pores on the surface, preventing the colour from escaping over time.

The clay, in turn, protects the indigo from the environment. Harsh chemicals can destroy a sensitive bond within indigo molecules — changing the colour from blue to yellow. Like the double-parked car that prevents you from opening the driver-side door to your own car, the clay channels take up the space around the bond, blocking these chemicals.

After looking for other kinds of clay-like materials with similar structures, Dooryhee and colleague successfully combined indigo with a porous substance called zeolite - widely used in commercial products as diverse as cement, laundry detergents, nutritional supplements, and cat litter - to make a new kind of long-lasting blue pigment.

The team hopes to use this new material to restore paintings and is considering other applications such as coloured cement, said Dooryhee. (ANI)

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