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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.

Annals of Quirkiness: Space Buddha Taken By Nazis.

This sculpture was carved from a meteorite that fell to Earth 10,000-20,000 years ago. Credit: Wiley

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 moon.

Secrets Of An Ancient Warship’s Ram

This ram was involved in important Roman naval battles some 2300 years ago. Credit: Francesco Caruso

Some people think it looks like a beak but this bronze and wooden artifact is actually a weapon formerly located on the front of a warship that sunk some 2300 years ago.

The ram, also called a rostrum, was found back in 2008, sitting in about six meters of water off the coast of Sicily, in the awesomely-named “Bay of the Pirates” (or Acqualadrone).

Shortly thereafter, scientists carbon-dated the weapon and announced that it must have come from a warship that sunk around 260 B.C.E.

This means the boat likely met its destiny during the First Punic War, which Wikipedia tells me was one of three wars fought between the Romans and the Ancient Carthage of North Africa.

You can nerd out on the history at www.historyofwar.org: “Prior to the Punic Wars, Rome was not seen as a major power in the Mediterranean…” But the point is, this boat and its ram went down in a rather significant series of watery altercations.
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Figuring Out Copper Corrosion To Fight Artifact Forgery

An ancient copper ingot from Crete, Greece. Credit: Wikipedia Commons.

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. 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.

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A Visit To The Opificio, Italy’s Primary Restoration Lab

An Opificio restorer working on a Vasari panel painting. © Sarah Everts.

Italy has no shortage of art, and when that art needs a face-lift, it takes a trip to the Opificio delle Pietre Dure e Laboratori di Restauro, the country’s national restoration laboratory.

Located in an elegant old stable in Florence, the Opificio is like a spa for cultural heritage artifacts, where paintings, frescoes and sculptures go for age-extending treatments.

When I visited, Cecilia Frosinini, an art historian and the Opificio’s director of mural paintings, was kind enough to give me a tour.

As we wandered through the extensive labs, dozens of restorers were working on a wide variety of pieces including Renaissance paintings sent from Budapest for anti-aging therapy, ceramic sculptures, water-damaged frescoes and a wooden statue of Christ that had been painted to look like bronze during an era when bronze was popular but too expensive for some budgets.

Looks like bronze but it's actually wood. © Sarah Everts

The Opificio has also been recently involved in everything from using ultraviolet light to bring out cool, hidden details in Giotto paintings to the restoration of Santa Croce Basilica’s famous frescoes.

Like many great things in Florence, the Opificio has its root with the city’s famous Medici family. The first half the Opificio’s Italian name translates to “workshop of semi precious stones.” And as the name suggests, the Medicis founded the Opificio in 1580s to produce furniture decorated with semi precious stones, Frosinini told me.

Time passed and the workshop began restoring their own pieces. By the 19th century, art made from other materials such ceramic, marble and jewelry, was also being restored, she added.
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Visiting The Metropolitan Museum’s Science Lab

The Met's science labs. © Sarah Everts

I recently passed through New York City and had the excellent opportunity to tour the laboratories beneath the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Marco Leona, who’s been the museum’s head of scientific research since 2004. “We deal with everything under the sun, that’s been under the sun for the last 5000 years or so,” he told me.

The Met’s 20-person scientific team has a professional familiarity with New York’s real-estate squeeze. Their equipment is split among four labs in the Met’s Upper East Side neighborhood. Each lab corresponds to one of the museum’s four main artifact conservation departments: paintings, textiles, works-on-paper and “objects,” which is literally everything else–from metal sculptures to ceramic mosaics.

Islamic blue mosaics. © SE

Leona picked me up at the Fifth Avenue security desk on a Monday, when the museum is closed to the volumes of people who normally pack its halls. We walked unusually effortlessly through the European Sculpture and Decorative Arts exhibit to a special elevator that brought us down to the basement “objects” research space. Wandering around lab benches full of beautiful artifacts, Leona gave me an overview of the science team’s many projects.

They’ve worked on everything from how acetic acid wafting off degrading ancient Egyptian wood can accelerate the corrosion of nearby metals to how researchers might use biomedical tools, such as antibodies, to study cultural heritage objects.

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Metals And Their Corrosion

Silver coins produced in the 16th century. Courtesy of Daniel Frank Sedwick, LLC.

There’s a double hit of interesting metal artifact research news this week.

The first discovery comes from researchers in Lyon, France, who wanted to answer a contentious question in European historical economics: Did an influx of silver coins from Central and South America cause a period of crazy high inflation in Europe during the years 1520-1650–an episode known as the Price Revolution?

Yeah, I hadn’t heard of it either. But according to Lyon’s Anne-Marie Desaulty, it’s a seriously controversial topic in historical circles.

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