Roman Glass Reveals Nature's Nanotechnology. Credit GIULIA GUIDETTI

Roman Glass Reveals Nature’s Nanotechnology

Photonic crystals, found in these age-old fragments, play vital roles in contemporary tech.


In the bustling streets of ancient Rome, a glass vessel filled with wine, water, or perhaps a rare perfume, tumbles and shatters. Over the centuries, these shards, once forgotten, undergo a stunning metamorphosis as they interact with their surroundings.

Unearthed from modern construction sites and historical excavations, these fragments surprise archaeologists with their vibrant mosaic of iridescent hues – blues, greens, oranges, and even gold reflections. Today, these captivating remnants often find homes in museum displays or are integrated into unique jewelry pieces.

The Science Behind the Shimmer

For materials science experts, Professors Fiorenzo Omenetto and Giulia Guidetti from Tufts University’s Silklab, the allure lies in understanding the transformation these shards underwent. Over time, nature rearranged the molecules within the glass, interacting with the minerals present, creating photonic crystals. These atomically-ordered structures have the unique ability to manipulate light.

Photonic crystals, found in these age-old fragments, play vital roles in contemporary tech. From waveguides to optical switches, their ability to control light’s path enhances our internet and computer speeds. By filtering or reflecting specific light wavelengths, these crystals feature in lasers, mirrors, and even stealth technology.


The journey of this study began unexpectedly at the Italian Institute of Technology’s Center for Cultural Heritage Technology. A radiant fragment, a relic from the ancient city of Aquileia, caught Omenetto’s eye. Upon closer examination, they identified it as a naturally-occurring nanophotonic component.

Decoding the Layers

Hailing from Egypt’s sands, these glass pieces bear testament to ancient global trade routes. Although their core retained the original dark green hue, a shimmering gold patina had developed on their surface. Using advanced scanning electron microscopes, Omenetto and Guidetti decoded the intricate layering in the patina, likening it to Bragg stacks—layered reflectors known for their light manipulation.

So, what was nature’s recipe for these glass fragments’ transformation? The researchers theorize a meticulous cycle of degradation and reformation. Influenced by the clay, rain, and fluctuating mineral presence, the silica within the glass underwent periodic corrosion. Simultaneously, repeated thin-layered assemblies of silica and minerals took shape, resulting in the brilliantly ordered crystalline construct observed today.

With an understanding of this natural formation process, the team believes there may be potential to replicate it faster in labs, offering a more organic approach to crafting optical materials.


The journey of these glass fragments mirrors Rome’s own history. The city, known for its durable infrastructures like roads and aqueducts, underwent transformations over the millennia. Similarly, these shards, interacting with their surroundings, tell a story of environmental changes through time.

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Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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