Ancient people were not very technologically advanced. That is what we usually think but the careful study of Han Purple proves us to be completely wrong. The ‘Han Purple’ gives us a fair idea of the place of origin of whatever this thing is, right? Yes, you guessed pretty accurately. It is a Chinese creation!
Han Purple is the name given to a synthetic pigment produced in China way back in time. Roughly, the pigment was produced 2,800 years ago. What makes this pigment is technological marvel of the ancient times is its surprising magnetic effects, not to mention the preparation method which is extremely complete and requires extreme technical precision – something that requires help of highly advanced technology to achieve in today’s context.
Complexity of Han Purple
The first step of Han Purple preparation requires grinding the raw materials in precise proportions. Even a minor error in measurements will not produce the desired end product. Once the raw materials are ready, the grinded mixture requires extreme heating at a temperature ranging between 850˚C to 1000˚C. Achieving such high temperatures back in those days required highly advanced scientific knowledge.
Let us try and explain the level of complexity involved in Han Purple production using timeline. This artificial pigment using chemicals was first produced somewhere back in 800 BCE. Back then it was not used extensively for art until the rise of the Qin Dynasty and Han Dynasty between the period 200 BCE and 220 CE. The pigment was used extensively during the Han Dynasty rule which is where the pigment gets in name from. 220 CE was the last time the pigment was used after which it simply vanished either because people didn’t know it existed or people could not replicate the production process. Finally, the Han Purple (or sometimes referred to as Chinese Purple) was rediscovered in 1990s and first successful replication took place in 1992 after the scientists eventually managed to figure out the chemical composition of the pigment.
Other manmade purple pigments
In ancient times only two other manmade purple pigments were in use. One was Egyptian Blue, which is the oldest known manmade pigment and the Maya Blue. Egyptian Blue was first synthesized roughly around 3,600 BCE and was in extensive use in areas close to Middle East, Middle East and Mediterranean. This pigment was extensively used until the very end of the Roman Empire. The Maya Blue on the other hand was first synthesized roughly around 800 CE.
The Maya Blue was produced by heating a mixture of white clay and indigo but the Egyptian Blue was slightly more complex and was produced by mixing and heating silica, copper and calcium.
Initially it was though that the Chinese people borrowed the Roman knowhow of synthesizing purple pigment but this notion was shattered with Smithsonian’s conservator, scientist Elizabeth FitzHugh identified a different chemical composition of the Han Purple. It was found that the Chinese made the pigment using silica, copper and barium (instead of calcium used by the Romans).