Annals of Quirkiness: Space Buddha Taken By Nazis.

Ancient Egyptians made necklaces from meteorites, the Inuit used these extra-terrestrial rocks as an iron source but this is the world’s first space Buddha. Researchers in Germany led by Elmar Buchner are reporting that a sculpture of the Buddhist god Vaiśravana was carved out of a meteorite fragment that fell to Earth near the border of Siberia and Mongolia between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago. It’s the first known example of a religious sculpture carved from a meteorite, said the researchers to the Newscientist’s Colin Barras, who wrote the best of many news stories on the discovery (IMHO). And that’s not all: The 24-centimeter tall statue “had a colourful past. It was apparently brought to Germany in 1939 by a Nazi-backed archaeological expedition to search for the roots of Aryanism. A swastika on the armoured Buddha’s breastplate may have been a motivating factor in bringing the statue to Germany,” writes Barras. Buchner and his team proved the statue was made from a meteorite by comparing the relative levels of iron, nickel, cobalt, chromium, gallium and germanium to these elements in pieces of the Chinga ataxite meteorite. (Incidentally, the Chinga meteorite’s 250 odd fragments were discovered in 1913 at Tanna-Tuva, which has gorgeous stamps and is now a quirky autonomous nation between Russia and Mongolia run by a former sports instructor named Sholban Kara-ool.¬) But I digress. The only thing that could make this Nazi-seized, space Buddha discovery better is if it becomes the basis for a sequel to Iron Sky, the awesomely terrible (and by this I mean campy great) movie about Nazis on the...

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Authenticating Pieces Of The Berlin Wall

Fifty one years ago today, communist officials in East Germany erected the Berlin Wall to stop the exodus of their citizens to capitalist West Berlin. The 155-km barricade came down 28 years later in 1989, and since then, every self-respecting tourist shop in town sells chunks of spray-painted concrete to anyone seeking a piece of 20th century history. Today’s price for a chunk of the Wall, as determined during my lunch-time walk to the local tourist shop from my office at the East-West border in Berlin: €4.95 or about $6.10. You can get a better deal if you buy these cellophane-wrapped mementos from street vendors. A few years ago, the rather ample supply of German history for sale got Ralf Milke, a geochemist at Berlin’s Free University, wondering whether he could find a way to authenticate pieces of the Wall. Since then he’s developed a technique that uses X-ray diffraction to confirm whether a supposed chunk of the Berlin Wall is indeed genuine. Milke did a series of X-ray diffraction experiments with definitely authentic pieces of the wall to get fingerprint spectra of several elements found in the Berlin Wall concrete, such as silicon from the quartz or calcium from the calcite used to make concrete. He also found that all the fingerprint spectra of Berlin Wall samples have an unusual mark. It’s probably a trace mineral found in the quarry in Rüdersdorf, near Berlin, where the calcite used in the Wall was mined, Milke explains. Exactly what that trace mineral or metal is remains a mystery, but if the unusual mark doesn’t show up in the x-ray diffraction experiment, then the chunk of concrete isn’t a piece of the Berlin Wall, Milke asserts. “It’s an easy yes or no answer,” he says. Milke has tried to get a little Berlin Wall authentication business going, but so far only a handful of people have been willing to pay the €5 he charges to verify samples. That hasn’t stopped him from testing the wares of Berlin Wall vendors around town, he says. Some of the more fraudulent vendors don’t even use concrete when they create Berlin Wall fakes. Of course if these petty crooks want to evolve into criminal masterminds, they could find a way to use calcite from the Rüdersdorf quarry to mix their own concrete, and thus produce a fake that cannot be identified by Milke’s method. But pieces of the wall—fake or real—are still pretty inexpensive. So I’d wager that it may be a while yet before it’s financially worthwhile for that level of criminal conspiracy to seep into Berlin’s tourist keepsake...

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Come To Culture Lab: Science On Art And Artifacts, A Conference Session This Saturday In Dublin At ESOF

I’m looking forward to moderating a session on art and artifact science at the Euroscience Open Forum  (ESOF) conference this Saturday morning from 10:45 am – 12:15 pm in the Liffey B room. If you’re in Dublin at ESOF, do stop by! Here’s what you’ll be in for… (the shortened version of my pitch to ESOF): When you mention art or cultural heritage science, most people think about authentication of a priceless masterpiece or identification of a pigment on a Rembrandt or a da Vinci. But cultural heritage scientists are doing this and much much more: They’re helping to conserve and restore everything from spacesuits to plastic sculptures. They’re developing tools to study artworks and artifacts without actually touching them, so that you can tell if Picasso produced a particular masterpiece with hoity toity expensive artist paint or industrial wall paint. They’re getting into the minds of ancient cultures by recreating their recipes for everything from hair dye to incense. And they’re dealing with what some call the digital art crisis: how do you preserve or conserve art that employs obsolete hardware or software, or art that is stored online in fleeting formats or impermanent platforms. Here’s who’s speaking at the Culture Lab session: Matija Strlič is a senior lecturer at the University College London’s Centre for Sustainable Heritage. He’s involved in all sorts of fascinating projects, from the AHRC/EPSRC-funded Heritage Smells!, which is about detecting the chemical makeup of gases emanating off artifacts to figure out degradation taking place inside, to the EU Joint Programming Initiative called ‘Cultural Heritage and Global Change.’ He’s developing technology to visualize damage in art and artifacts before it is visible to the naked eye. Costanza Miliani is a staff researcher at Italy’s CNR Institute for Molecular Science and Technologies. She’s also responsible  for MOLAB Transnational Access, an EU-funded, roving crew of conservation scientists that travel around Europe providing scientific support to museums and galleries around the continent. In the last couple of years, MOLAB has worked on everything from frescoes in Florence’s Santa Croce Basilica, to Van Gogh’s sunflowers in Amsterdam and rare Aztec documents in Liverpool. In her own research, Miliani develops new non-invasive analytical technologies to study dyes, pigments, binders and their breakdown products. Philippe Walter has been a long-time scientist at the Centre for Research and Restoration of the Museums of France, a research facility located underneath the Louvre in Paris. He’s now taken an academic post at the University of Pierre and Marie Curie. Walter has been involved in a potpourri of interesting projects: From researching the Mona Lisa’s complexion using non-invasive, portable technology, to recreating ancient recipes for ancient Egyptian and Grecian cosmetics. Leo...

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Origin Of Pottery Dates Back To The Last Ice Age

Pottery found in a Chinese cave near Xianrendong, about 100 kilometers south of the Yangtze River, is 20,000 years old, say Chinese and American researchers. The announcement pushes back the invention of this craft by 2,000 years, to smack dab in the middle of the last ice age–a time when humans were probably looking for ways to diversify their food supply. (And keep it warm.) Access to pottery allowed hunter-gathers to do more sophisticated cooking, such as grind grains, ferment alcohol and extract marrow from animal bones, explains Harvard anthropologist Ofer Bar-Yosef, who led the research just published in the journal Science. “Pottery making introduces a fundamental shift in human dietary history, and Xianrendong demonstrates that hunter-gatherers in East Asia used pottery for some 10,000 years before they became sedentary or began cultivating plants,” they note. That’s right, folks: we’ve been creating pottery for twice as long as we’ve been sowing...

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Did Neanderthals Produce Cave Paintings?

It may be time to stop using the word Neanderthal as an insult for people we think lack culture, intelligence and any concept of aesthetics. Or at least that’s what Spanish Neanderthal expert João Zilhão would argue. He’s just published a paper in Science that identifies Neanderthals as possible artists for three paintings in Spain’s El Castillo and Altamira caves. The work suggests stereotyping Neanderthals as “dumb” may be incorrect, Zilhão says. “From what we know of Neanderthals, there’s no reason to think they didn’t have the capacity” to be creative artists. Zilhão and his colleagues used an interesting method (more on that later) to date the cave art to between 35,600 and 40,800 years ago…  a time when both Neanderthals and early humans likely coexisted in Europe. (They also dated some 47 other cave paintings, whose younger ages finger humans as the artists.) This is not the first time Zilhão has found evidence suggesting Neanderthals in Europe were neither cognitively inferior nor less creative than their Homosapien contemporaries in Africa. In 2010, he was first author on a PNAS paper that reported a cache of painted marine shells on the Iberian Peninsula in Spain that were produced by Neanderthals.  These shells were dated to 50,000 years ago, about 10,000 years before early humans showed up in Europe. The shells contain mineral pigment makeup that required some skill and know-how to produce. (The makeup was composed of fool’s gold, aka pyrite, and ground hematite, which can be red and black, all mixed in to a base of the rust-colored mineral, lepidocrocite) Not only did this research show Neanderthals were chemists, but it also suggests they painted themselves and wore jewelry. Of course, it’ll take many more of these discoveries before the entire research community is convinced that Neanderthals weren’t as dumb as we thought. (I’m reminded that history is written by the winners—us humans.) In fact, the other cool part of the current Science paper is that Zilhão and his colleague Alex Pike in Bristol used an uncommon technique to date the cave paintings. This method could be used to accurately determine the age of many more cave paintings, which could help provide additional evidence that Neanderthals were relatively civilized—or not. Since radiocarbon dating is not reliable for determining the age of cave art, the scientists relied on a method that measures the levels of uranium and thorium found in calcite crusts that build up on top of the cave art. (Calcite is the same mineral in stalagmites and stalactites.) Trace amounts of uranium but not thorium are found in the water that deposits the calcite on top of the art. Since uranium...

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Figuring Out Copper Corrosion To Fight Artifact Forgery

The green corrosion on copper artifacts, sculptures and buildings is so aesthetically pleasing that countless recipes exist in books and online so that do-it-yourselfers can create the same look on anything made from the metal. But depending on the recipe or the environmental conditions, that pretty green color could be any one of a handful of different corroded copper chemicals, such as nantokite (CuCl) or paratacamite (Cu2(OH)3Cl). Or, in the case of the Statue of Liberty, the green patina is a copper sulfate. Copper can also corrode into other colors besides green, such as browny-red cuprite or black tenorite. Scientists don’t actually know precisely which conditions produce the different corrosion chemicals—but they should, especially when the authenticity of an artifact is in question. For example, museum researchers need to know if the corrosion chemicals on a possibly fake copper artifact came from natural aging processes or are the result of a quick-aging forged process. To help solve this problem, Mark Graeme Dowsett, a physicist at the University of Warwick teamed up with an analytical chemist at Ghent University called Annemie Adriaens. First they started reading do-it-yourself patina manuals, such as, The Colouring, Bronzing and Patination of Metals. Then the scientists used intense X-rays to spy on the formation of one of copper’s green corrosion products, nantokite, as they made the patina according to different recipes. Among their discoveries, the team found that some steps in the recipe, such as rinsing the newly produced patina in water, produced side-products such as browny red cuprite. “Most protocols for producing the green copper patina were not developed in a systematic way,” Dowsett says. We want to figure out what’s actually going on in these different processes, he adds. Next the team is working out the conditions for making other green copper patinas, beyond nantokite. Watch out copper artifact...

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