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Gold gilding, ancient amber and a mysterious hidden sculpture: A new cultural heritage journal launches!

This gold gilding at the Reales Alcazares of Sevilla was added in the 19th century.

This gold gilding at the Reales Alcazares of Sevilla was added in the 19th century.

There’s beautiful gold gilding at Reales Alcazares royal palace in Seville, Spain.

Yet it turns out that the pretty gold gilding you see in the image on the left is not precisely original.

The World Heritage Site was originally built in 914 AD, and then expanded from the 14th to the 16th century.

Recently, Spanish researchers found a layer of paint lying below the gold gilding that contains lead chromate, a pigment that wasn’t used until the 19th century. So the gold lying above must have been added afterwards.

Yellow lead chromate pigment is responsible for the bright color of many old school buses, and it was even used as a colorant for yellow candy before falling out of favor because both lead and chromate are extremely toxic.

Cross section showing gold gilding on top and yellow lead chromate paint below.

Cross section showing gold gilding on top and yellow lead chromate paint below.

Spanish researchers report that the lead chromate layer was added sometime after 1818 above a deteriorated layer gold gilding, probably as part of a 19th century restoration project.

The lead chromate may have been painted on as false gold to keep up appearances before new gold gilding could be applied.

Or it’s possible that the lead chromate was painted on just before the new gold gilding: The paint may have acted as a foundation layer to help the new gold gilding adhere.

This conundrum is reported in the inaugural issue of Heritage Science, the first peer-reviewed journal to focus entirely on cultural heritage science. (Welcome!!)

This 7th century BC amber found in an Italian tomb originally came from the Baltic area even though Italy had its own sources of amber.

This 7th century BC amber found in an Italian tomb originally came from the Baltic area even though Italy had its own sources of amber.

There’s a variety of interesting topics reported in the journal’s first edition, including a way to determine the geographical origin of amber which provides clues about early trading roots of the fossilized tree resin.

There’s also an analysis of medieval Hungarian silver coins, and several papers on the effects of pollution and humidity on cultural heritage objects, from ancient architecture to antique books.

The issue also contains a cool paper about a sculpture accidentally discovered behind a wall of St Petersburg’s Winter Palace in 2010.

The sculpture, called Fugitive Slave and made by the Russian artist Vladimir Beklemishev, was inspired by the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It was initially exhibited at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893, and then sent to Russia before being hidden in the palace wall after the sculpture suffered heavy damage during World War Two.

The sculpture was made to look like bronze, even though it is definitely not bronze.

That’s why the scientists are keen to study its make-up: The pseudo bronze involves creative use of gypsum, iron, copper and arsenic.

But perhaps the most interesting read in the inaugural issue of Heritage Science is the very pointed essay by journal editor Richard Brereton.

Brereton does not mince words about the devastating effect of 20th century progress on cultural heritage. He begins with his hometown of Bristol, where “post-war planners destroyed more of Bristol than [World War 2] bombs” and goes on to decry lost heritage in other parts of Europe, Asia and the Americas.

“Capitalists, aristocrats, democrats and communists were all at it in the twentieth century, destroying a heritage that had evolved very slowly for centuries. In the past there had been waves of localized destruction, for example in Rome, the Popes raided marble from the Coliseum in order to construct new churches, and in Latin America, the Spanish conquistadors organised a mass destruction of Inca, Aztec and many other cultural artefacts – for example there are only fragments of Aztec written texts available due to the enthusiastic destruction of material by priests. But the twentieth century appears unique for a mass international desecration of our global historic heritage. Most governments were dependent on some sort of political support, even tyrants have to feed their armies, and people wanted hot water in the homes and good food on the table and washing machines and televisions rather than fine paintings and important buildings.”

Here’s to reading more in Heritage Science about how 21st century science can inform efforts to conserve what’s not been destroyed in the 20th century.

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