A blogging siesta

Hello Artful Science readers, As you’ve probably noticed, Artful Science has been on hiatus for a few months while I’ve been on a research sabbatical and then working on other projects. It will continue to be on pause until further notice but I hope to resume a new incarnation of Artful Science’s cultural heritage coverage sometime in the not-so-distant future. In the meantime, I often tweet about research on art and artifacts, should you wish to follow me in the land of Twitter. All my best from Berlin and thanks for reading,...

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A brief hiatus: Onwards to Uzbekistan

My apologies for a few weeks hiatus over here at Artful Science. Last summer I got married and we are finally off on our honeymoon to Uzbekistan (aka the honeystan) where we will explore some awesome Silk Road architecture. Given that we’ll be looking at a lot of mosaics, I thought I’d point you to this post on the conservation of tile art and the 2011 Nobel Prize in chemistry. See you at the end of...

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

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. 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!!) 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...

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Daisies, frankincense, mint, and mercury help preserve Richard the Lionheart’s heart

This is a guest blog post from Stu Borman, a C&EN senior correspondent for science, technology & education. A French-based research team recently had a rare opportunity to get to the heart—quite literally—of some 12th century European history. Using a battery of scientific equipment, they took a closer look at how the heart of English king Richard I was preserved for posterity. Also known as Richard the Lionheart because of his military prowess, Richard I was king of England from 1189 to 1199. He led a Crusade to the Holy Land in 1190, but the mission failed to take Jerusalem, its main objective. On the way back home he was imprisoned by an Austrian duke and the German emperor and then only released after payment of what was literally a king’s ransom. He died in 1199 when he was shot with a crossbow while besieging a castle in Chalûs, France. According to a then-common practice, his body was divided up for burial in multiple graves. His internal organs were buried in Chalûs, his heart was embalmed and placed in a tomb at Notre Dame de Rouen cathedral, and the rest of his body was buried at an abbey in southern France. In 1838, a lead box containing the remains of Richard’s heart was found at the cathedral. The box is engraved “HIC IACET COR RICARDI REGIS ANGLORUM”—“Here is the heart of Richard, King of England.” To learn more about how the seat of the king’s soul was preserved for posterity in medieval times, forensic medical investigator and pathologist Philippe Charlier of University Hospital Raymond Poincaré, in Garches, France, and coworkers analyzed Richard I’s mummified heart. The wide variety of techniques they used to get to the heart of the matter included everything from scanning electron microscopy to mass spectrometry. In their paper on the study, the team writes that the heart “was deposed in linen [and] associated with myrtle, daisy, mint, frankincense, creosote, mercury, and, possibly lime.” They conclude that the goal of using these materials was both to preserve the heart and keep it smelling good, insofar as possible. “This embalming method is of great importance, as we do not have any procedure or surgical treatise known for this period (end of the 12th century A.D.) describing the methodology and/or composition of the embalming material,” the researchers...

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Ancient Roman cosmetics: Skin cream from the 2nd century A.D.

Last week, while working on an article about the chemical make-up of 2000-year-old medicine tablets from a Roman shipwreck, I read that back in 2003 archeologists had unearthed a full canister of cosmetic skin cream, hidden in a Roman temple drain in Southwark, London. When a Museum of London curator opened up the 2nd century A.D. canister, she found it full of white ointment, awesomely reminiscent of modern-day Nivea cream. This rare find was then chemically analyzed by University of Bristol’s Richard Evershed, who has a quirky research niche: Figuring out the composition of ancient medical, food and cosmetic concoctions, usually by studying residues leftover on old pottery. (He made news last December by reporting that the fatty deposits on pieces of ancient Polish pottery are Northern Europe’s oldest evidence of cheese-making.) So what precisely was in the creamy white ointment? In a 2004 Nature paper, Evershed’s team announced that “the Londinium cream” was primarily made up of animal fat, probably from cattle or sheep. They also detected starch, which was likely isolated by boiling roots and grains in water. In addition, the cream contained a tin dioxide mineral called cassiterite with the chemical formula SnO2. Then came some reverse engineering. Evershed’s team mixed together a new cream based on the proportions of animal fat, starch and tin dioxide that they had measured in the ancient ointment. Here’s how they describe its aesthetic appeal: “This cream had a pleasant texture when rubbed into the skin. Although it felt greasy initially, owing to the fat melting as a result of body heat, this was quickly overtaken by the smooth, powdery texture created by the starch. Remarkably, starch is still used for this purpose in modern cosmetics. The addition of SnO2 to the starch/fat base confers a white opacity, which is consistent with the cream being a cosmetic. Fashionable Roman women aspired to a fair complexion, and the Londinium cream may have served as a foundation layer.” The researchers go on to say that employing tin to color the ointment white would have been safer than using toxic lead-based pigments, which was common in that era. “White Roman face paint typically comprised lead acetate, prepared by dissolving lead shavings in vinegar.” They write that it’s not clear whether the cream’s maker intentionally opted for tin because it is non-toxic compared to lead. During the 2nd century A.D., Roman society was slowly becoming aware of lead poisoning… But then again, the chemists of that era weren’t very adept at distinguishing lead from tin, note the authors. Another possibility is that the cosmetic-maker used tin out of convenience, because nearby Cornish mines had abundant...

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Star Trek Replicators, Dystopian Futures, And The #foodchem Carnival

Over here at C&ENtral Science, we’re celebrating Thanksgiving with a food chemistry blogging carnival. Artful Science will return to regularly scheduled programming after we manage to digest all the turkey… “Tea. Earl grey. Hot.” I never gave much thought to Jean-Luc Picard’s quintessential beverage request from the Star Trek The Next Generation replicator machine until last week. I was talking with some friends about an article I had just filed with my editor about note-by-note cuisine. It’s the new passion of Hervé This, one of the co-founders of molecular gastronomy. As I was describing This’ idea of creating food from chemical scratch, one molecule at a time, I suddenly realized that this is pretty much what Picard’s replicator machine had been doing all along on the Enterprise. I would like to point out that when a writer (that would be me) comes up with an awesome Star Trek parallel AFTER filing an article with her editor, said writer feels remarkably like she’s come up with a devastating comeback line exactly one minute too late to deliver it to her arch enemy. Luckily C&ENtral Science’s fearless leader Rachel Pepling started the #foodchem carnival this week, giving me an opportunity to slip my Star Trek analogy in to the public record. But seriously, I thought I’d use the carnival as a chance to make a few points about note-by-note cuisine that I couldn’t fit into my word count-limited print column for C&EN. If you haven’t read the piece, here’s a quick recap: 1. “Purveyors of note-by-note cuisine analyze the component chemicals of a finished dish, say a savory reduction sauce, which typically includes thousands of molecules from wine, broth, and other ingredients. Then they re-create the sauce using a subset of those molecules—namely the ones primarily responsible for our sensory experience of the sauce.” 2. Currently note-by-note cuisine can’t yet faithfully replicate your favorite foods. I tried a note-by-note orange cocktail and fish custard, and both tasted pretty awful. Or more precisely, the note-by-note dishes tasted like phantom food: recognizable but not substantial. OK, down to business: Several people have asked me why This calls the cuisine it note-by-note. The answer: He’s riffing off the idea of electronic music. Just like early electronic music producers compiled tunes note-by-note, This wants to make food chemical-by-chemical. Or chemical note-by-chemical note. Or note-by-note. Currently This is at the stage of working out the top-notes of a particular dish. Namely those big, important flavors, odors and textures that are absolutely essential if someone is to recognize fish custard as fish custard. Even though This is not yet focused on getting trace flavor compounds in to...

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