Figuring out what killed crazy Caravaggio
Jun24

Figuring out what killed crazy Caravaggio

“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. The experience didn’t reign in Caravaggio’s predilection for violent fights. According to Cornaglia: “The artist’s last years were spent desperately running from one city to another. After stopping by Naples, he travelled to Malta, only to get into trouble after yet another brawl. Caravaggio was imprisoned by the Knights in August 1608 and later expelled from the Order “as a foul and rotten member.”… After some time spent in Sicily, unknown assailants attempted to murder Caravaggio in Naples, succeeding in disfiguring his face… Contemporaries described the artist as a madman during this time, exhibiting increasingly strange behavior and exploding into a violent rage at the slightest provocation.” Digression: some researchers have wondered if Caravaggio’s inherent aggression was being exacerbated by lead poisoning, as the dude actually ATE off of...

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How long should conservators protect David Beckham’s football?
May26

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. Last Thursday, De Priest and other cultural heritage researchers met in London to discuss the development of new ways to realistically assess and predict the lifetime of art and artifacts. This new field of conservation science is called collections demography and it aims to make quantitative predictions about the possible and probable lifetimes of cultural heritage objects under different storage and display conditions. The idea is to use mathematical risk algorithms to model the possible lifetimes of museum and archive collections, explained the University College London’s Matija Strlič, a collections demography researcher and the workshop’s host. As energy costs rise and cultural heritage budgets tighten, these mathematical models will hopefully allow museum and archive staff to make informed, evidence-based decisions about how best to divvy up resources or what conservation strategies will keep a collection in good condition for a particular amount of time. Strlič’s team is developing Excel-based spreadsheets that would allow museum staff to predict the possible lifetimes of museum or archive collections under various future scenarios. For example, the lifetime of a paper document will depend on the relative humidity and temperature of storage, how much light, pollution and handling the paper is subjected to, and what the paper’s pH is. If you input specific storage and display conditions of a paper collection, the software predicts what...

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Two million-year-old whale fossils printed with 3D technology
Feb17

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

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. This information is essential for answering all sorts of interesting research questions, such as why so many whales died and were buried together two million years ago. For example, the whales could have swum into a bloom of toxic algae and died or they might have fallen victim to a landslide. Pyenson went home to DC and immediately recruited the Smithsonian’s in-house 3D imaging and printing team (aka the Laser Cowboys), who came back with him to Chile and spent a week imaging the whale fossils with a high resolution laser scanner. The team then went home and began analyzing the fossil images. They also also began printing out awesome replicas like the one you see above, which is many times smaller that the original. (The whale fossils span between 20-30 feet in real life.) Pyenson says the Smithsonian has industrial partners who will soon print out a full sized version pro bono, which would have otherwise cost the museum $1 million. It seems Pyenson’s team has already figured out why all these whales died but he’s staying mum about it, while the scientific paper winds its way through the peer-review process—so stay tuned. Once the discovery is published, Pyenson says they’ll put the data online so others around the globe can access and analyze it. Although this laser scanning and 3D printing could give researchers around the world the ability to study skeletons without physically handling them, old-school...

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Nuclear Waste Signage Must Last 100,000 Years: Will the Messages Be On Sapphire Disks With Platinum Print Or Pieces Of Broken Pottery?
Jul13

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

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: For example, Patrick Charton from the French National Radioactive Waste Management Agency showed the ESOF audience a 25,000 € sapphire disk which could hold warning messages in platinum script. The disk satisfies the longevity criterion: It has a lifetime of at least a million years, he said. Since 40,000 pages of information can be deposited in platinum on the disk, warnings and technological specs could also be inscribed in a potpourri of languages, he added. But the sapphire-platinum solution costs a lot of money. And this is a serious down side, notes geologist Marcos Buser, who has worked with the Swiss Federal Nuclear Safety Commission in this Spiegel article. (It’s in German.) “The material cannot be valuable, otherwise it will be stolen,” said Buser. He favors putting warning messages on pottery sherds instead, since pottery has a long lifetime and broken pieces are less likely to be stolen. I can’t think of two more disparate solutions. I’m guessing something midway between the two will eventually be chosen. For example, Charton mentioned that researchers are trying to replace the expensive sapphire with cheaper, long-lasting glass. Whatever is eventually chosen, I’ll bet archeologists of the future scrutinizing the artifact-to-be will marvel about current-day humanity’s desire for energy—a desire so great that we produced waste to last 100,000...

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Come To Culture Lab: Science On Art And Artifacts, A Conference Session This Saturday In Dublin At ESOF
Jul11

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

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: Matija Strlič is a senior lecturer at the University College London’s Centre for Sustainable Heritage. He’s involved in all sorts of fascinating projects, from the AHRC/EPSRC-funded Heritage Smells!, which is about detecting the chemical makeup of gases emanating off artifacts to figure out degradation taking place inside, to the EU Joint Programming Initiative called ‘Cultural Heritage and Global Change.’ He’s developing technology to visualize damage in art and artifacts before it is visible to the naked eye. Costanza Miliani is a staff researcher at Italy’s CNR Institute for Molecular Science and Technologies. She’s also responsible  for MOLAB Transnational Access, an EU-funded, roving crew of conservation scientists that travel around Europe providing scientific support to museums and galleries around the continent. In the last couple of years, MOLAB has worked on everything from frescoes in Florence’s Santa Croce Basilica, to Van Gogh’s sunflowers in Amsterdam and rare Aztec documents in Liverpool. In her own research, Miliani develops new non-invasive analytical technologies to study dyes, pigments, binders and their breakdown products. Philippe Walter has been a long-time scientist at the Centre for Research and Restoration of the Museums of France, a research facility located underneath the Louvre in Paris. He’s now taken an academic post at the University of Pierre and Marie Curie. Walter has been involved in a potpourri of interesting projects: From researching the Mona Lisa’s complexion using non-invasive, portable technology, to recreating ancient recipes for ancient Egyptian and Grecian cosmetics. Leo...

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Uncovering the history of a St. Tammany weathervane
Nov21

Uncovering the history of a St. Tammany weathervane

Guest post by Celia Arnaud, a senior editor at Chemical & Engineering News. 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. When it was brought to Payne de Chavez by a dealer at Antiquarian Equities, the weathervane was covered with black paint. She analyzed several tiny samples from the weathervane and determined the many layers coating the underlying copper sheet metal and wire. The dealer who brought it to Payne de Chavez wanted to remove the modern paint to expose the corrosion, previous repairs, and the historic refinishing layers. Payne de Chavez discovered that the weathervane had undergone three “finishing campaigns.” The finishing campaigns were separated from one another by thin dirt layers. When the object was originally constructed, it was coated with a white ground layer, two oil layers, and gold leaf. Later refinishing campaigns included a yellow paint layer, an off-white paint layer, and the modern black paint. The dirt layers indicate weathering and are a good clue that the weathervane really dates back to the 19th century. “It’s hard to fake an actual dirt layer, because the particles are very fine,” Payne de Chavez says. “If someone were painting many layers trying to fake aging, they might not think about the dirt layer. It’s just one more indicator that the piece aged naturally.” Once she figured out that the underlying...

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