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Figuring out what killed crazy Caravaggio

Caravaggio's The Crucifixion of St Andrew, made in 1607 when the artist was on the run. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Caravaggio’s The Crucifixion of St Andrew, made in 1607 when the artist was on the run. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“Caravaggio’s life was even darker than his paintings.”

This is how Italian microbiologist Giuseppe Cornaglia began an account of his uphill battle to figure out what microbial pathogen may have killed the famous and violent 16th and 17th century Italian painter, who died under rather curious circumstances in 1610.

Cornaglia is part of a growing number of researchers who look into the dental pulp of skulls found in graves, in search of DNA from ancient pandemics. The field is called paleomicrobiology, and it’s been used to figure out what microbes caused the Plague of Athens, which indirectly helped Sparta topple Athens in the Peloponnesian War, and which in turn instigated the decline of classical Greece.

Paleomicrobiology has also been used to show that tuberculosis was already in the New World before Columbus showed up carrying a host of other deadly pathogens on board.

So, given that Caravaggio died under strange circumstances (more on that in a second), Cornaglia wanted to look at Caravaggio’s remains and see if he could detect the presence of a deadly pathogen in the artist’s dental pulp. Dental pulp harbors the DNA of microbes present in the person at death. The pulp tissue is covered by protective enamel so that contamination from other microbes can’t occur during the intervening centuries, before forensic researchers dig up the skeleton and crack open the tooth.

The first problem Cornaglia faced was that he didn’t know where Caravaggio’s remains could be found.

This is not entirely surprising when you learn more about the painter.

Caravaggio was an angry guy and quick to pull out his sword. During a fight in 1606, at age 35, he tried to castrate his opponent during a street brawl in Rome, Cornaglia said. The castration was successful. But it also killed Caravaggio’s foe, leaving Caravaggio with a murder charge and a life on the run. Continue reading →

Was antiquity really so tacky?

Many Greek sculptures were painted garish colors. Credit: Stiftung Archäologie, Munich

Many Greek sculptures were painted garish colors. Credit: Stiftung Archäologie, Munich

The ancient Greeks did it, and now the Phoenicians too.

Over the past few years, it’s become increasingly clear that many of the white marble statues from Greece’s golden era were originally painted in garish colors.

The discovery of pigment residues on a multitude of classical era sculpture has been a boon for lovers of kitsch and a downer for pretty much everybody else.

Yeah yeah, I know it’s good to know The Truth, and it is fascinating that they had such bad taste but, well… Sigh.

So it turns out that the Phoenicians, an ancient Semitic seafaring civilization who traveled around the Mediterranean from about 1500 BC to 300 BC, also painted and gilded their carvings.

The Phoenicians invented an alphabet later adopted by the Greeks. One wonders if the Greeks also got their predilection for painting sculptures from the Phoenicians?

This lion's face had traces of iron painted around its mouth, nose and eyebrows, but nowhere else. The iron most likely corresponds to red iron oxide pigments.

This lion’s face had traces of iron painted around its mouth, nose and eyebrows, but nowhere else. The iron most likely corresponds to red iron oxide pigments.

A team of French and German researchers analyzed the surface of several Phoenician ivory sculptures held at the Badisches Landesmuseum Karlsruhe, in Germany, and found metal traces corresponding to ancient pigments and (gold) gilding. These metal traces are invisible to the naked eye, but can be detected using a technique called X-ray fluorescence.

Ina Reich, the lead researcher of the Analytical Chemistry paper reporting the discovery, says she’s also found the same type of metal residues on Phoenician pieces at the Louvre–work which will be published elsewhere in the future. (I wrote a more science-y news article on the discovery here.)

For the lovers of nanoscience out there, here’s a teaser: Reich also mentioned that some of the traces of leftover gold from Phoenician gilding had formed curious gold nanoparticles on the surface of the ivory after spending centuries underground.

Reich is currently analyzing the gold nanoparticles, which she says would be impossible for forgers to emulate and thus may be a new cool new way to authenticate Phoenician ivory.

Two million-year-old whale fossils printed with 3D technology

These are perfect plastic replicas of 20-foot-long, two million-year-old whale fossils.

These are perfect plastic replicas of 20-foot-long, two million-year-old whale fossils found in Chile.

These may look like real fossils, but they are actually perfect plastic replicas of 2 million-year-old whale skeletons made using a 3D printer.

This printing technology, which can create 3D versions of objects as diverse as a guns or the brain of a man with no memory, was hyped last week by President Obama when he said that 3D printing “has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.”

The technology certainly saved the day for Smithsonian paleobiologist Nick Pyenson.

Pyenson had been finishing up a research trip in Chile in 2011 when he decided to check out a local highway construction site in the Atacama Desert where workers had supposedly uncovered dozens and dozens of whale skeletons.

“I didn’t really believe the rumors at first,” Pyenson says. But when he arrived, “It was unlike anything I’d ever seen.” Pyenson described the experience at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston.

Local museum officials were racing to dig out the skeletons before highway workers paved over the area, Pyenson says. Although the skeletons clearly needed to be removed, a problem with removal is that spatial information about different constellations of fossilized bones is then lost. Continue reading →

Origin Of Pottery Dates Back To The Last Ice Age

Pottery has been around 20,000 years. Credit: AAAS/Science.

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 seeds.

Making Use Of A Medical Museum’s Oddities

Inside the Mütter. Credit: Myspace Mütter.

Artful Science is back to regularly scheduled programming!

One of the quirkiest parts of my sabbatical last fall in Philadelphia was discovering the Mütter, a delightfully macabre museum packed with all manner of medical oddities carefully arranged in a 19th century parlor room style setting.

By medical oddities, I mean a wall of human skulls from around the world, slices of Albert Einstein’s brain, a cast of the conjoined twins Cheng and Eng, floating body parts exhibiting gangrene and other diseases, as well as the museum’s pièce de résistance, the cadaver of an obese woman who turned into a giant piece of soap instead of degrading like deceased bodies normally do.

This collection sounds like it could be the basis for a 19th century travelling freak show but instead the medical artifacts are respectfully displayed–and they are also being used to advance current medical research. (This latter point is perhaps not so surprising since the museum is under the purview of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the U.S.’s oldest professional medical association.)

The causative agent of cholera, Vibrio cholerae. Credit: Wikimedia commons.

For example, because the museum coffers contain diseased tissue samples dating back two centuries, the Mütter was able to provide infectious disease scientists from Canada with samples of cholera DNA from the 19th century.

“They turned one of our back rooms into a clean room,” says Anna Dhody, the Mütter Museum’s curator. Then they put on white jumpsuits and masks and extracted samples from three intestines of people who died of cholera over a hundred years ago, she says.

The researchers sequenced the old cholera DNA and compared it to the deadly pathogen’s modern day genome. By studying how cholera evolves over time, scientists may be able to predict how the pathogen will evolve in the future—and this may permit researchers to develop ways to thwart its spread.

The museum also contains a plethora of examples of human developmental disease, from birth defects to bone disorders. One compelling example is the skeleton of a man with an ailment called Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva, a rare disease in which a person’s connective tissue, muscle and ligaments turn slowly in to bone. This usually begins before the age of 10.

An FOP patient's skeleton, where connective tissue has turned to bone. Credit Mütter Myspace.

There are only about 700 people in the world with this disease and many diagnostic procedures on patients with FOP accelerate the disease’s progression.

It’s a Catch-22 that the Mütter’s FOP skeleton is helping researchers escape, says Robert Hicks, the museum’s director, during a tour in December.

The Mütter gives medical researchers and doctors access to the fragile skeleton to help them understand exactly how the soft tissue eventually turns into bone. In fact, one of these doctors is Frederick Kaplan, who works just across town at the University of Pennsylvania, and is one of the world’s experts in FOP. (His team sequenced the gene responsible for the disease.)

One of the largest displays at the Mütter is a wall of 139 skulls from people around the world who lived in the 1800s. This particularly morbid display was the personal collection of a 19th century Austrian anatomist named Josef Hyrtl.

Part of the Hyrtl skull collection. Credit Mütter Myspace.

Some of the skulls may have a dark past, Hicks says, (many early anatomists commonly bought bodies from grave robbers), but now the collection is being used for good.

For example, CT scans were taken of the skulls to get precise measurements of the variable contours of the human head. Information from the scans is stored in a large forensic anthropology database. When mass graves full of unidentified bodies are found, researchers can turn to such databases to figure out the likely geographic and/or racial origin of the victims. In fact, the Mütter’s skull collection was used to identify the origin of people from mass graves found subsequent to the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, Hicks says.

After the tour, I came back and spent nearly an hour staring at these skulls. Besides being a powerful display of human variability, each specimen had flashcard about the person who once inhabited the skull–the “antemortem” information in museum speak.

Sometimes the details were few: shoemaker, guerilla, Calvinist. Sometimes you learnt that the person had taken their own life over the suspected infidelities of a loved one, or from a disease we now cure easily.

To me it was an important reminder that every medical sample, sitting on current lab benches or on display in museums, comes from a real person, with a life history of their own.

Christians Artists Embellished Spain’s Muslim Paintings

The interior paintings of Granada's Madrasah Yusufiyya in Spain date from 1349. Credit: Carolina Cardell.

For nearly 800 years, the Islamic Moors occupied Spain, building extraordinary buildings that still draw hordes of tourists today. Case in point: the Alhambra.

Less well known is the Madrasah Yusufiyya of Granada, the only Islamic university from the Moorish era left standing in Spain. It was built in 1349 and operated for about 150 years, until the Christians conquered the region in the late 1400s.

The lovely Madrasah Yusufiyya was then used extensively by the Christians, most likely as administration buildings, says Carolina Cardell a conservation scientist at the University of Granada.

In fact the Christians liked the building so much, Cardell says, that in the last 500 years they have done a lot of touching up, repainting, restoring and embellishing of paintings covering the stucco and wooden interior walls of the Madrasah Yusufiyya.

Yet art historians haven’t really known the extent of these interventions. So over the past few years, while the Madrasah Yusufiyya has been under restoration, Cardell and her team of scientists took a closer look at the paintings with a suite of analytical technology. She’s just published a paper in Analytical Chemistry about the interventions to the Madrasah Yusufiyya over the past 500 years. Continue reading →

Oldest Paint-Making Workshop Dates Back 100,000 Years

An ancient abalone shell used for paint making and storage. Credit: Science/AAAS.

When early humans wanted to paint their bodies, cave walls and anything else for that matter, they used ochre, the red and yellow pigments found in earth and rock.

Today archeologists are reporting the discovery of a 100,000 year-old ochre-making workshop—the oldest to date–in the Blombos cave along the Cape coast of South Africa.

This pushes back the date–by nearly a factor of two—for when early humans produced and stored chemical products such as paint. The next oldest evidence of a workshop dates from 60,000 years ago.

The discovery shows that 100,000-year-old humans “had an elementary knowledge of chemistry and the ability for long-term planning,” note the authors of the Science paper (DOI: 10.1126/science.1211535), which includes Norway’s Christopher Hensilwood.

It’s pretty of amazing to think that a group of Middle Stone Age humans had a paint factory in operation.

Apparently the ancient workers first ground the ochre pigments (which are iron oxides and hydroxides) out of rock. Then they heated up animal bones to extract fat and marrow which was used as a binder for the ochre pigments. The early humans also added a bit of charcoal to the mix.

Then the paint was stored in abalone shells. Normally there’s a little air hole found in such shells but the ancient workers blocked the hole so that the paint would last longer. Pretty smart for a caveman (or cavewoman).

Location, location, location. The Blombos cave along South Africa's Cape coast. Credit: Science/AAAS.

Incidentally, up on the embargoed Science media site, where journalists can download photos of the pigment-making artifacts, there’s also sequence of amazing shots of the coastal workshop cave.

I think it’s pretty clear that this workshop discovery also reveals that ancient humans were early adopters of the real estate truism: location, location, location.

Authentic Mammoth Art… The Oldest Art In America

Mammoth on Mammoth bone. Credit: Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institute

When scientists began studying the carving of a mammoth on a 13,000-year-old mammoth bone found in Florida, they assumed it was a fake.

But according to research just published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, the animal carving is not only legit but it is also America’s earliest art.

A lot of news agencies are hopping on the story. I enjoyed the National Geographic and Discovery News articles.

I like that the bone was found by an amateur fossil hunter (and I’m highly amused that it spent some time collecting dust under his sink).

Scientists led by the Smithsonian’s Robert Jeff Speakman eventually authenticated the piece using some high tech microscopy to show that the carving wasn’t made with modern tools.

    “Forensic analysis suggests the markings on the bone are not recent. Optical microscopy results show no discontinuity in coloration between the carved grooves and the surrounding material indicating that both surfaces aged simultaneously. Scanning electron microscopy (SEM) revealed that the edges of the inscription are worn and show no signs of being incised recently or that the grooves were made with metal tools.”

The ancient artist certainly made a pretty carving. I think he/she should also get kudos for leading the way on all things meta. You know, mammoth on mammoth.