Today, we have the blues. The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Is it just the season? Why do I see blue
all around me? My photos keep finding blue that I hadn't realized
was there. Our black cat shimmers blue in the off-light of winter.
Then my wife and I tripped over a far more horrific blue when we
found Mel Gibson's movie Apocalypto on TV and decided to watch it.
It's about the Mayas just before the Spanish arrive -- bucolic protagonists
captured by a powerful city state and marched off to be used as human
sacrifices. But first, their bodies are painted a rich blue color. If
you saw Gibson's movie Braveheart you might wonder if he has a thing
about painting bodies blue. Well, perhaps he does; but that blue really
was part of Mayan sacrificial ritual.
The Mayas gave to blue, the color of water, a special place. It appears in
their murals and pottery, and they used it to placate their rain god Chaak.
They used it to paint the humans the sacrificed to invoke rain. For 1200
years, before the Spanish came, the Mayas farmed in their dry climates, and
rain was critical.
They created their remarkable pigment, Maya blue, by combining indigo dye with
a clay called palygorskite. The clay binds the dye and protects it in a durable
blue paint. Palygorskite, by the way, is an aluminum-magnesium-silicon compound
with medicinal properties. It makes an excellent anti-diarrhea medicine.
This blue paint turned up in a macabre setting back in 1904 when anthropologist
Edward Thompson dredged a water-filled sinkhole at Chichén Itzá. The Mayans
called these deep and inaccessible sinkholes, cenotes. And this one was sacred.
Not all blue-painted sacrifices died under the knife. Many were cast into this
Sacred Cenote along with valuable goods -- also painted blue.
The stunning part of Thompson's discovery was a fourteen-foot deep layer of blue
sediment at the bottom. That took a lot of blue paint to create. Now anthropologists
from Wheaton College and Chicago's Field Museum have been studying this paint and
what they've found adds yet a new wrinkle to an ancient practice.
They believe that the Mayas made their paint by heating three healing elements: In
addition to palygorskite and indigo, they used copal incense as a binding agent.
They're pretty certain that they made the paint on the spot as part of the ritual
But then, creating the color blue has always been a challenge worthy of ritual.
Neolithic cave painters were never able to make it. Medieval book illustrators
would grind up precious lapis lazuli to get it. When, in the 18th century, people
stumbled across potassium ferric cyanide, they began making the brilliant
Prussian Blue paints. Germany discovered aniline dyes in the mid
19th century, then built an industrial nation upon their production.
Blue, being precious, holds special, but highly inconsistent places in our many
cultures. It is the color of virtue, the color of calm, the color of water, and
lastly -- the color of sadness. (Well, sad indeed for so many hapless Mayas.)
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Maya blue has been the subject of widely reported recent work. See, e.g.,
this press release.
this online account of archaeological studies of Maya blue.
And this more detailed account of the structure of the pigment.
After this aired, I received emails reminding me that I'd neglected to
mention the last LED color to be created -- also blue.