When researchers want to learn about the cosmetics, culinary dishes, elixirs and other concoctions created and consumed by long-lost cultures, they typically try to recreate recipes found in ancient documents and then analyze the products in a lab.
Or researchers go spelunking in museum vessels, hoping to find a residue at the bottom of a pot or on a pottery sherd that can be chemically identified with increasingly sophisticated analyzed technology. Unfortunately, tell-tale residues on dirty dishes have often been destroyed by time, weather and/or hungry microbes.
That’s why the six intact medicinal tablets found in a 2000-year-old shipwreck off the coast of Tuscany is an extraordinary find. “It has been very exciting to be in contact with a rare, original, ancient therapeutic product,” says Erika Ribechini, a scientist at the University of Pisa, who just published a paper in PNAS announcing its chemical constituents.
Here’s an article I wrote (and some others) about her team’s analysis of the 1st century BC tablets, which revealed that the ancient Roman pill was heavily laden with zinc, a metal that Ribechini believes was used to cure eye disease, possibly infection or inflammation. (Zinc is present in Neosporin, the topical antibiotic.) Also found in the pill was beeswax, plant pollen and all sorts of plant and animal fats.
One of my favorite parts of the paper was the tangential reference to other medical objects found near the pills amid the Pozzino shipwreck, including an iron probe (oh my) and a bronze cupping vessel.
“The cupping vessel had a peculiar shape that was typical of a medical tool used for bloodletting or as an instrument to apply hot air to soothe aches.” The authors think that a traveling physician was probably on board with his wares.
Given the option of an iron probe, bloodletting or a zinc tablet to cure my ailments, I think I’d pop the pill, thank you very much.
Nearly eight thousand years ago in an area that is now called Poland, a prehistoric person skipped dish-duty.
Thanks to this delinquency, researchers in Poland and the UK led by Richard Evershed have been able to analyze the dirty residues on these dishes.
Today the scientists report in Nature that the fatty acid leftovers are Northern Europe’s earliest evidence for cheese-making.
And tomorrow, teenagers everywhere will begin arguing that dirty dishes buried under beds are a gift to future archeologists.
But seriously, archeologists are interested in the onset of cheese-making for several reasons. Continue reading →
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.
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. Continue reading →
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to visit the Getty Conservation Institute with videographer Kirk Zamieroski.
This is a cool video he made about the photo conservation research that takes place in the GCI’s Los Angeles laboratories.
It features the GCI’s Art Kaplan talking about a few of the 100+ different photo-making processes (wowsers!) used since the dawn of photography.
PS: ….And if you want to know why some old photos have a brownish “sepia” look, check out this piece about the research of GCI’s Dusan Stulik and Tram Vo.
Civilian society constantly makes use of aerospace and military inventions:
Can anyone say the Internet? Or transparent braces? (These nearly invisible dental devices are made from a material called polycrystalline alumina, which was initially developed by NASA “to protect the infrared antennae of heat-seeking missile trackers,” notes Discovery.com)
Cultural heritage also borrows from NASA: Portable X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF) was developed for MARS missions, so that roaming rovers could assess the chemical make-up of rocks on that planet.
Now XRF is a must-have tool for conservation scientists, who want to analyze the chemical composition of art that cannot be transported into a lab, such as a cave painting or Renaissance fresco.
But what about reversing the direction of technology export, so that cultural heritage scientists return the favor by developing new analytical tools for art research that then get delivered to the greater world of science?
This has not happened—until now*. Continue reading →
You don’t really expect a seemingly dry painting to suddenly start oozing streaks of wet paint, seven years after its completion.
So when Otto Piene’s Harvest, which was finished in 1993, began to weep white paint in 2000, owners, conservators and the artist were all rather surprised.
Although Harvest is Piene’s only work to start weeping, the strange liquefying process has happened to dozens of other artworks from contemporary artists as varied as Jonathan Meese and Frank von Hemert, explains Jenny Schulz, a conservator in Cologne, Germany, who’s made it her business to figure out why. “It’s quite a common thing,” she says.
Taking a closer look at several of these paintings, Schulz figured out something that all the weeping paintings had in common: The tears occurred in places on the canvas where the artist has laid down a thick layer of oil paint.
Although the thickly-laid paint seems to dry, it turns out to be unstable and capable of liquefying. But why? It’s not as if applying thick layers of oil paint is a new thing among artists… Yet the weeping painting issue is relatively new, having emerged in the last two decades or so.
What’s changed, Schulz says, is formulation of oil paints. Until recently oil paint was made using linseed oil. But the problem with linseed, she says, is that it has a tendency to yellow over time.
So paint formulators began exchanging linseed oil for sunflower oil, because sunflower oil doesn’t yellow.
The problem is that sunflower oil doesn’t dry as well. That’s because the oil contains fewer reactive double bonds, which are required to form a permanently dried paint complex, Schulz says.
Thick layers of the sunflower oil paint may seem to dry, but they are unstable. Subjected to changes in temperature and humidity or even the jostling that occurs during transport, these layers can collapse, releasing component parts as a gooey tear running as fast as 2 centimeters per month. Continue reading →
I love you.
I’ve been conducting a rather unconventional poll.
It consists of a single question posed to unsuspecting conservation scientists, typically during conference coffee breaks or at the hotel bar thereafter:
“Um. So have you ever bought anything on eBay… I mean, for your scientific work?”
What’s amazing is that researchers working with cultural heritage objects as diverse as Picasso paintings, plastic sculpture & toys, and digital art have all answered “yes.” Continue reading →
Fashion trends come and go but one thing stays the same: Kids and parents often don’t see eye-to-eye on style.
Even in 17th-century Amsterdam.
Flinck was a pupil of Rembrandt, but he had more commercial success than his teacher.
Case in point: When Amsterdam’s new town hall was built in the mid 1600s, it featured several Flinck works but only one by Rembrandt, and this lone Rembrandt painting was removed after a year, van Eikema Hommes says.
Flinck’s success was probably due to his strong familial connections to Amsterdam’s wealthy Mennonite community, who became his regular patrons. And therein lies the interesting historical fashion-friction.
It turns out that Amsterdam’s Mennonite community favored solemn, dark outfits. Meanwhile 17th-century cool kids wore colorful tights. (Much as modern-day hipsters opt for brightly colored stockings…)
In fact, some members of the Mennonite congregation would strike out against members who wore less conservative, fashionable clothing—clothing that the Mennonites considered indecent, van Eikema Hommes explains.
Against this cultural backdrop, Flinck was asked to paint a portrait of his young Mennonite nephew Dirck. If you look at the final version of the portrait from 1636, the nephew looks pretty much like a conservative young Mennonite.
But looks can be deceiving. Continue reading →
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. Continue reading →
From The CENtral Science Blogs
- May 24th, 2013By Carmen Drahl
- May 23rd, 2013By Jeff Huber
- May 22nd, 2013By Melody Bomgardner
- May 20th, 2013By Jyllian Kemsley
- May 20th, 2013By Sarah Everts
- May 13th, 2013By Lisa Jarvis
- Apr 23rd, 2013By David Kroll
- Apr 18th, 2013By Glen Ernst
- Mar 11th, 2013By Rick Mullin