More clues to Maya blue


mayan blue

Mayan blue is a very stable, long lasting colour, but can vary in shade from bright blue to almost green

Maya art is full of shades of blue, from a bright vivid blue to almost green. What's more, the early Maya chemists who made these colours managed to make pigments that are incredibly stable. What we see today is very similar to what those ancient Maya used on their walls, pottery and maybe even on their human sacrifices. The colour has lasted longer than the civilisation and today's modern chemists have been trying to work out why.

The pigment is essentially made from the same dye that's used on our jeans, indigo, as well palygorskite, a porous clay. Antonio Doménech's team at the University of Valencia and the Polytechnic University of Valencia, Spain, have been trying to establish how the two components are bound together in an attempt to understand its stability, including where the indigo dye sits – on the surface of the clay or in the pores.

The physicochemical questions are still not completely solved but Doménech’s team suggests that the process of pigment production was refined through the centuries, just like any chemical process. During analysis they found dehydroindigo, an oxidation product of indigo, in the pigment, as well as indigo. As dihydrogen is yellow, by changing the heating process used to make the pigment the Maya could alter the hue. The ancient Maya, it seems, are still giving up their secrets.


Related Content

Chemistry World podcast - April 2013

4 April 2013 Podcast | Monthly

news image

Geoffrey Kibby on mushroom chemistry, Paul Midgley illuminates 3D imaging and the team cover the latest news

The colourful science

19 June 2014 Feature

news image

Philip Ball traces how chemists and artists have been inspiring each other for centuries

Most Read

First pictures of hydrogen bonds unveiled

26 September 2013 Research

news image

Observation of intermolecular interactions in quinolines could help to settle the nature of this kind of bonding

Flowing rivers of mercury

7 January 2015 Feature

news image

Philip Ball investigates claims that the burial chamber of China’s first emperor contains rivers of shimmering mercury

Most Commented

SiRNA treatment cures Ebola in monkeys

23 April 2015 Research

news image

Researchers perform the first successful trial for a drug against the current strain of Ebola

Relativity behind mercury's liquidity

21 June 2013 Research

news image

First evidence that relativistic effects are indeed responsible for mercury's low melting point