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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 →

How long should conservators protect David Beckham’s football?

It’s a hypothetical question, really, because Beckham has certainly owned a lot of footballs.

But let’s just consider the ball that he famously kicked in 1996 from the halfway line, the one that landed spectacularly in Wimbledon’s net and helped make him famous in both the UK and abroad.

So you could argue that this ball should end up in a British museum, given Beckham’s huge impact on sports culture in the UK at the turn of the 21st century. Kept under the right temperature, humidity, and light conditions, a leather object like his football could potentially last thousands of years before degrading into a mess of gelatinized protein.

But really, should a museum pay the energy bills to keep his ball under optimal relative humidity, light levels and temperature so that it lasts for a millennium or two to come? Will people care about David Beckham’s ball in 50, 100, or even 500 years?

What about other cultural heritage objects, such as Albert Einstein’s papers? Or a Van Gogh painting? Or an Ansel Adams photograph? In other words, long should museum or archive collections be expected to last?

In principle “we’ve been working on the premise of forever. But that’s actually not realistic. Nothing lasts forever,” said Paula De Priest, deputy director of the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute. Continue reading →

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 →

Nuclear Waste Signage Must Last 100,000 Years: Will the Messages Be On Sapphire Disks With Platinum Print Or Pieces Of Broken Pottery?

Sapphire disks with platinum script or pottery sherds: Which material will tell future generations of about nuclear waste repositories? Credit: Sarah Everts/Wikimedia Commons.

Humans have been around for 50,000 years and the nuclear waste we’re producing today is going to be harmful for 100,000 years. So how do we create signs that alert our descendents about enormous underground nuclear waste repositories when we don’t know what language they will speak?

“A vast underground space with all sorts of curious objects inside… This sounds exactly like where future archeologists are going to want to go digging,” said Cornelius Holtorf, an archeologist at the Linnaeus University in Sweden, who spoke at a Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) session. The session focused on how one formulates a warning message with a 100,000-year lifetime when humans have never built anything that has lasted one-tenth of that time. If we say ‘don’t dig here,’ you can bet that it will only make the site more enticing, Holtorf said.

Linguists, archeologists, scientists, engineers and historians have been tackling the issue for decades. Some potential solutions sound a tad wacky: Namely the idea to create an atomic priesthood that carries on an oral tradition about the waste. Other solutions sound temptingly techie, but perhaps a tad expensive: Continue reading →

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

The 2012 ESOF conference in Dublin takes place on the other side of the wonderful Samuel Beckett bridge. Credit: Sarah Everts

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: Continue reading →

Uncovering the history of a St. Tammany weathervane

Guest post by Celia Arnaud, a senior editor at Chemical & Engineering News.

Before conservation, this St. Tammany weathervane was coated with an unwanted layer of black paint. Credit: Matt Hamilton/Williamstown Art Conservation Center.

Many pieces that started out as functional objects have crossed over into the realm of art. This is especially true for that genre known as folk art. Metal weathervanes are a prime example of such art. Because these pieces actually had a job, they weren’t carefully housed indoors. They were exposed to the elements—and the local gunslingers.

At last week’s Eastern Analytical Symposium, Kate Payne de Chavez, a conservator at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center, in Massachusetts, described the steps she took to characterize and repair a St. Tammany weathervane that had seen some tough times.

The St. Tammany motif features an Indian chief holding a bow and arrow and standing on the shaft of another arrow. He’s believed to represent a 17th century chief in the Lenni-Lenape tribe in the Delaware Valley, known alternatively as Tammany, Tamanend, or Tammamend. Because of his role in establishing peace between Native Americans and the English settlers in the Pennsylvania colony, he achieved near-mythic status, and his name was co-opted by various Societies of St. Tammany, the most famous of which grew into the Tammany Hall political machine.

The largest and most famous St. Tammany weathervane—standing more than eight feet tall—is at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City. The one that Payne de Chavez repaired is only one-third the size, nearly three feet tall.

Continue reading →

Art conservation in an unexpected place

Guest post from Celia Arnaud, a senior editor with C&EN

Today and tomorrow, I’m in Somerset, N.J., home of the Garden State Exhibition Center and the Eastern Analytical Symposium. Not a place that you’d expect to read about on a blog about conservation science. What people might not realize is that EAS hosts New York Conservation Foundation’s Conservation
Science Annual, a symposium–as the name might suggest–on the science of art and cultural heritage conservation. If the conference that Sarah attended in Lisbon in September is the largest art conservation conference, then this is surely one of the smallest.

The symposium has been a fixture of the EAS conference program since 1994, but I attended my first one in 2006, when I got the chance to report one of my favorite stories, a look at how electrochemical and spectroscopic methods are being used to save shipwrecks. In my years of attending the symposium, I’ve found that no matter how interesting the talks the audience tends to be me, the speakers, and maybe a handful of other folks.

This year’s lineup is a bit scattershot, with everything grouped together under the general heading of “Analysis for Cultural Heritage.” Rather
than try to shoehorn very different talks into one post, I’m going to share in separate posts over the next few weeks the ones that pique my interest.

Conserving Contemporary Art… And Your Favorite Mix-Tape

This light artwork involves a lot of electronic toy dogs suspended from plastic bags. This complex installation was made by Francisco Rocha.

I spent most of today learning about what museum scientists and conservators are doing to keep contemporary art in tip-top shape. (This whole week I’m at ICOM-CC, the huge art conservation science conference currently taking place in Lisbon.)

These folks who are developing life-extension treatments for some pretty quirky art and artifacts. I’m talking about gigantic chandeliers made from hundreds of illuminated plastic bags suspended from the ceiling, each bag containing a little electronic toy dog that barks and moves its legs. Gotta love it.

Or they’re working on sculptures made from random objects covered in aluminum paint that are now degrading beneath the metal veneer. Or Nazi typewriters found at bombed Gestapo headquarters. Continue reading →

In Lisbon, Cultural Heritage Science’s Biggest Conference Gets Going

It's not San Francisco folks, it's lovely Lisbon... Credit: Wikimedia commons.

I’ve just arrived in Lisbon, Portugal, along with 900 other delegates interested in the conservation of art and artifacts, for the International Council of Museum’s Committee for Conservation (ICOM-CC) conference.

The mega meeting happens every three years and this time it’s taking place at a conference center in the shadow of the Ponte 25 de Abril, a bridge so reminiscent of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge that I almost got a craving for sour dough. (That’s before I renewed my love affair with pastel de nata, Portugal’s joyous custard pastries.)

The menu for this year’s conference looks so good, I’m not sure whether it is physically possible to take in all the great talks that are scheduled.

Just this afternoon I’m going to learn about conserving wall paintings from Guatemala to India. There’s also a session about the trend among natural history museums to transfer animals (such as sharks) that are currently preserved in formaldehyde or ethanol in to other preservation solutions.

(The problem with formaldehyde is that it’s carcinogenic for museum staff, and DNA in the samples is compromised, thus thwarting the new trend of sequencing the genome of such artifact animals. The problem with ethanol is that long term storage in the alcohol can bleach color from animal samples and mess with their skin texture.)

I don’t want to miss out on the talks about analytical technologies used for auntheticating the origin of ancient photographs, nor how to detect microbial contamination in paper-based cultural heritage–even before any damage is done. And there’s also a whole section on environmentally sustainable conservation, which I touched upon in a previous post.

Stay tuned this week for more conference goodies from Lisbon. Até logo!

Conservation Scientists Get Into The Vibe

Raman was used to identify the arsenic-based pigment on this Egyptian mask. Credit: Peter Vandenabeele

This week some 120 conservation researchers are facing the tragic hardship that comes from spending a week in Parma, Italy, where there is a conference called “Raman in art and archeology.”

This is not a conference about art made from tasty Japanese noodles. (That’s Ramen, silly!)

But if you caught the gratuitous pun in my headline, then you probably already know that Raman spectroscopy is an analytical technology that helps scientists study the vibrations and rotations that occur within molecules. Conservation scientists get giddy about Raman for a bunch or reasons, Peter Vandenabeele, an organizer of the conference, told me:

First: Raman is not picky about art. Which is to say that the technique can be used to study the chemical make-up of jewelry, oil paintings, Egyptian burial masks, glass, Mayan wall paintings… you get the picture.

Second: Portable Raman spectroscopy equipment is non-invasive, so it doesn’t hurt artwork. Scientists head to a museum, and shine low frequency laser light at a painting or sculpture which has mysterious molecular components that they want to know more about—such as a pigment that gives artwork brilliant color, or a pigment that is fading with time.
Continue reading →