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Invisible Blue: The Color That Ancient People Could Not See

We have all been told to be ‘careful what we wish for’ or that we ‘only see what we look for’ and maybe some of you have had past partners who claimed that you ‘took them for granted and made them invisible’. The most conservative of us might deem these types of phrases as subjective and belonging to self-help books, but when we look back in to history evidence confirms that humans are fully capable of making physical appearances invisible if we do not concentrate on them, even something as fundamental to reality as a color. The color blue in particular

Different Views See Different Hues

The human visual system allows us to see a range of around one million colors, yet we really can’t determine how differently we all perceive these colors. Blue is the color of the sky, bodies of water, probably a wall in your office ,and a T-shirt, but a recent research paper discussed in Science Alert explained that until relatively recently in human history nobody saw the color “blue.”

Until relatively recently in human history nobody saw the color “blue.” ( Светлана Фарафонова / Adobe Stock)

That is to say “blue” didn’t exist, at least not in the way we think of it today. This is not some smart play on words either; Kevin Loria reported for Business Insider back in 2015 that “the evidence for people not seeing blue dates all the way back to the 1800s.”

We’re NOT Talking About “The Dress”

Before we move on, many of you will be drifting to the 2015 internet sensation “the dress.” Let’s get that out of the way. Hundreds of millions of viewers disagreed over whether the colored bands on the following dress were black and blue, or white and gold. This phenomenon revealed differences in human color perception and it is NOT the same thing as the claim that the color blue “never existed” in history.

The Dress photograph that made millions of internet users argue about the colors present. (Fair Use)

The Dress photograph that made millions of i nternet users argue about the colors present. ( Fair Use )

An Ancient Absence of the Color Blue

The story of “blue being invisible in history” begins in 1858 when William Gladstone, who later became Chancellor of the Exchequer then Prime Minister of Great Britain, read Homer’s The Odyssey . Gladstone noticed that Homer described the sea color as “wine-dark” – leading him to ask the question; why not “deep blue?” Gladstone investigated this curiosity and counted the color references in The Odyssey finding that while black was mentioned almost 200 times, and white about 100, blue did not appear once. Broadening his research he then determined that “blue” didn’t exist anywhere in Greek writing. Nowhere.

German Jewish philosopher and philologist Lazarus Geiger passionately followed up on Gladstone’s observations and analyzed ancient Icelandic sagas, the Koran, Hindu, Chinese folklore, Arabic, and an ancient Hebrew version of the Bible. His studies discovered that ‘blue’ was never mentioned once in any of these cultures and he wrote:

“These hymns, of more than ten thousand lines, are brimming with descriptions of the heavens. Scarcely any subject is evoked more frequently. The sun and reddening dawn’s play of color, day and night, cloud and lightning, the air and ether, all these are unfolded before us, again and again … but there is one thing no one would ever learn from these ancient songs … and that is that the sky is blue.”

Was the Color Blue Really Invisible to the Ancients?

Not having words for blue, scientists had to consider that maybe ancient people didn’t see the color, thus not having descriptors for it. Were ancient people’s eyes different from ours? Why didn’t people see blue?

It is not known exactly what was going through Homer’s mind when he described the “wine-dark” sea, but ancient people definitely had the same optical biology and capability to see blue that we do today. But do we really ‘not see’ things if we don’t have words for them? The answer is no. Because there was no ‘blue’ as a category of color in the way that we define it, the color wasn’t distinguished from green.

The Blur of Blue and Green

Searching to discover when “blue” started to appear in language as a color in its own right, Geiger discovered a pattern repeated all over the world; every language first had words for black and white, representing darkness and light and soon after people used a word for red, the color of blood and wine. The next colors to appear in language were yellow then green and the last color to appear in every language across the globe was blue.

In 2006, Jules Davidoff, a psychologist from Goldsmiths University of London, conducted a research project with members of the Himba tribe from Namibia, whose language neither has a word for blue nor distinguishes between green and blue. According to a BBC documentary (which has since been accused of over-dramatizing the results) members of the tribe were tested to find out if they could actually see blue or not by showing them a special pattern; a circle with 11 green squares and one blue square.

Left: Namibian tribal herders who participated in the Himba color experiment. (CC BY-SA 3.0) Right: Dustin Stevenson color test titled "The last color term", 4/25/2013).

Left: Namibian trib al herders who participated in the Himba color experiment. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 ) Right: Dustin Stevenson color test titled “The last color term”, 4/25/2013).

While it is very obvious to us, most of the Himba tribe members had more difficulty in telling Davidoff which of the squares was a different color. And those participants who noticed a difference took “much longer and made more mistakes” than you or I who can clearly and quickly spot the blue square. Not only did the experiment seem to confirm that language did affect what we perceive, it also revealed that the Himba language had many more descriptive words, terms and concepts for types of green than in English.

Without a word for a particular color, there is no way of identifying it as different to the others close to it; and it is perceived as a shade of another color. So before blue became defined with a word, humans saw blue things as being shades of green.

You can discover more about how language shapes our ability to detect color in Kevin  Loria’s article  at Business Insider, and in this fascinating  RadioLab episode , which inspired his feature.

What About the Creation of the Color Blue?

Ancient Egyptian society was the first to adopt a word for the color blue because they were the first culture to produce blue dyes. The famous color “ Egyptian blue ” appears in artwork such as the tombs of Mereruka from the Old Kingdom (2600-2100 BC) and it is almost exactly the same blue as was found in a coffin dating from the Greco-Roman period (330 BC-AD 400), confirming well developed and standardized production systems being passed over two thousand years.

Cup containing Egyptian Blue pigment from Pompeii. Egyptian blue, also known as  calcium copper silicate, or CaCuSi 4O10, or cuprorivaite, is considered to be the first synthetic pigment ever developed. (Dan Diffendale /CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )

Blue came to represent the river Nile, the sky, and later the universe, creation, and fertility. The only natural source of blue was the rare and expensive mineral lapis lazuli which was mined in what is now Afghanistan. Vitruvius, the 1st century Roman architect and writer said that “sand, copper (from a mineral such as azurite or malachite) and natron (a naturally occurring mixture of sodium compounds, including sodium carbonate) were the ingredients.”

What Else are We Blind To?

To think that we didn’t see blue because we didn’t have a word for it makes one ask, what might we be looking at every day and night, right under our noses, that we can’t see because we don’t have a word for it? Well, ironically, one answer to this question is…more blue!

In 2017, Oregon State University (OSU) chemist Mas Subramanian discovered “YInMn blue” named after the elements Yttrium, Indium, and Manganese, during experimentation “with materials for electronics applications.” According to the OSU press release , the beautiful blue was discovered through a chemistry lab accident back in 2009 and is now going into the marketplace. “It was serendipity, actually; a happy, accidental discovery,” Subramanian said in the paper .

Photograph of “YInMn Blue” as synthesized in 2017 by the (OSU) chemist Mas Subramanian and his team in the laboratory. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Photograph of “YInMn Blue” as synthesized in 2017 by the (OSU) chemist Mas Subramanian and his team in the laboratory. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

While this new blue looks similar to “L’accord bleu” (shown earlier), and “cobalt blue,” its properties “are stronger and more durable” according to Subramanian. Formed by a unique crystal structure that allows the manganese ions to absorb red and green wavelengths of light, the pigment only reflects blue.

This deep, vibrant blue is so durable “and its compounds are so stable even in oil and water” that the new pigment’s versatility has a variety of commercial applications in paints. For example, “to keep buildings cool by reflecting infrared light…[and] keeping with our requirements for sustainability, none of the new blue pigment’s ingredients are toxic,” according to the OSU press release.

Piece of Ancient Fabric Revealed True Source of Biblical Blue Dye Lost for 1,300 Years

An ancient blue dye, known as tekhelet, once adorned the precious robes of kings, priests, and high-ranking Jews. But around two millennia ago, this highly-valued commodity became lost to the pages of history. That is, until a 2,000-year-old piece of fabric was found near the Dead Sea that contained traces of the ancient dye.

In the Torah, the sacred book of Judaism, it is stated that tekhelet was used to dye the tzitzit, specially knotted ritual tassels attached to the four corners of a prayer shawl, which was worn in antiquity by Israelites and still today by Orthodox Jews.

The Torah states in Numbers 15:38: “Speak to the Children of Israel, and say to them, that they shall make themselves tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and they shall put on the corner tassel a blue-violet (Tekhelet) thread. And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them.”

A tzitzit with blue dyed tassels

A tzitzit with blue dyed tassels ( public domain )

Source of the dye became lost in time

The first mention of tekhelet can be traced back approximately 3,500 years, to the Tell-el-Amarna tablets found in Upper Egypt at Amarna.

However, around the time that the Romans banished the Jews from the land of Israel, just over 2,000 years ago, knowledge of the source of the valuable dye disappeared and an age-old tradition was lost. Despite their sacred text advising to dye their tassels blue, Jews were forced to wear only plain white tassels.

Searching for the source

For years, researchers in the modern day were attempting to rediscover the origins of the ancient dye. The Tell-el-Amarna tablets, as well as archaeological evidence, suggested that the origins of the purple and blue dye industry could be traced to the island of Crete, now part of Greece, where Minoans had been manufacturing the dye known as sea purple since at least 1750 BC.

But where did it come from? Finally, a breakthrough occurred. The discovery of enormous quantities of Murex shells paved the way to learning the real source of tekhelet.

“Until now, our most important discovery had been the piles and piles of Murex trunculus (hillazon snail) shells from the area, which served as a silent testimony to the presence of an ancient dyeing industry in Israel,” said Dr. Naama Sukenik, a researcher at the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Murex trunculus is a medium-sized species of sea snail found on the north part of Israeli coastal plain near Tel Shikmona. The blue-colored flesh was used to create tekehelt.

Murex trunculus is a medium-sized species of sea snail found on the north part of Israeli coastal plain near Tel Shikmona. The blue-colored flesh was used to create tekehelt. ( CC by SA 3.0 )

Ancient dyed fabric rediscovered

In the 1950s, a small piece of fabric with tiny traces of blue was discovered at Waki Murba’at, in a cave where Jewish freedom fighters hid in the 2 nd century AD during the Bar Kokhba revolt. The fabric was stored away in a box until 2014, when Dr Sukenik, then a PhD student at Bar Ilan University, undertook an analysis of the color in the fabric.  The results confirmed it – the Murex truncular mollusc was the source of the rare blue dye.

Dr Sukenik stated that her finding was evidence of a “colored fabrics trade and strict adherence to the biblical commandment of tekhelet in ancient Israel.”

Wadi Murba’at textile (courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

Wadi Murba’at textile (courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)

The analysis of the fabric also revealed the exact color of tekhelet. Until the discovery, it was not known whether it was light blue or a darker, more purple-hued blue, but the finding revealed that tekhelet was sky blue.

Baruch Sterman, a physicist and world expert on snail dying, said of the finding: “I think this is a fascinating finding… Here we have evidence that in what is now Israel, in the second century, they had the technology to dye blue using murex, and there was an entire industry in Israel that had all this advanced technology.”

The discovery of the true origins of tekhelet may lead to the revival of a very ancient tradition. Jews may once again have in their hands the knowledge of how to produce the sacred dye, allowing them to wear a thread of tekhelet on their garments.

Top image: A Jewish prayer shawl adorned with ritual tassels that contain tekhelet-dyed threads.








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