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Education and Outreach Programs

Naperville Central High School ESRP 2017

Secrets of the Pyramids: Analyzing Paint Samples of a Mummy Cartonnage to reveal Socio-Economic Status


  • Students:
    • Colin Jensen
    • Sarah Kee
    • Jee Kim
    • Rick Li
    • Yangyang Li
    • Bethany Simos
    • Shirley Wu
    • Annie Zhou
    • Jiamin Zhu
  • Teachers:
    • Katherine Seguino
  • Mentors:
    • Volker Rose (Argonne National Laboratory, Advanced Photon Source & Center for Nanoscale Materials)

Center for Nanoscale Materials

Ancient Egyptians are credited with creating the world’s first synthetic paint, Egyptian Blue Frit, which is cuprorivaite (CaCuSi4O10) based. This was a relatively inexpensive blue paint.  During that same era, one of the only natural blue pigments available was derived from Lapis Lazuli, which primarily contains the mineral Lazulite ((Na,Ca)8(AlSiO4)6(S,SO4,Cl)1-2), which resulted in a very soft and expensive paint. In Egyptian culture, blue represented fertility, the Nile River and wealth.  Due to its important symbolism, blue paint was often used in tombs for wall decorations and mummy cartonnages in order to represent the importance of the deceased.

Naperville Central High School has its own Egyptian mummy, dating from the Ptolemaic period (55-30 BCE). Its cartonnage is elaborately decorated, with traces of blue paint. Our objective was to utilize the Advanced Photon Source so that we could determine whether this blue paint was Frit or Lapis-based. We will be able to see this by examining the APS analysis for presence or absence of Copper, Sodium, Aluminum and Sulfur, elements unique to the two pigment bases. If there are high concentrations of Copper but not of the other three, then fit will be likely that Frit was the main component of the paint used to decorate the cartonnage; if we find a higher prevalence of Sodium, Aluminum, and Sulfur then it will be more likely that was Lapis-based was used for the decoration. We haven’t analyzed the results completely yet, however we observed very rich fluorescence spectra with highly localized trace element concentrations.  Based on what the results reveal we will gain better insight on the status of the mummy’s family and possibly region of origin.

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