Was antiquity really so tacky?
May20

Was antiquity really so tacky?

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? 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...

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Fake crystal Aztec skulls
Jan30

Fake crystal Aztec skulls

There’s a great report out about how the British Museum and the Smithsonian teamed up to prove that two crystal skulls, one at each museum, are actually fakes. Both skulls were purportedly made by Aztecs in Mexico prior to Columbus’ arrival. The British Museum bought its skull from Tiffany and Co. in 1897 while the Smithsonian received its skull in 1960 from an anonymous donor. Although skulls are common motifs in Aztec art, museum curators at both institutions were suspicious of the skulls for a couple of reasons. For one, neither skull comes from well-documented official archaeological excavations. Also something was weird with the teeth. To quote the report:  “The rigid linearity of features representing teeth contrasts with the more precise execution of teeth on pre-Columbian artefacts.” It sounds like whoever faked the crystal skulls was a little too fond of idealized, modern dentistry. To prove the two skulls were fakes, the researchers assembled some legitimate crystal Aztec artifacts. Then they used scanning electron microscopy to study the surface of both real and suspect crystal objects. Turns out that the surface of the real artifacts have irregular etch marks, a sign that the pieces were carved with hand-held tools. The suspect skulls have a patterned surface, a sign they were made with rotary wheel tools and hard abrasives. “Rotary cutting wheels were not introduced to stone workshops in Mexico until after the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1521. The skulls therefore cannot be of Aztec manufacture.” Awesomely, the museum researchers noticed a small deposit of something unknown in the Smithsonian’s skull. Using x-ray diffraction they discovered that the deposit was silicon carbide, a synthetic abrasive only used in stone carving workshops starting from the mid 20th century onward. The Smithsonian artifact had probably been made shortly before it was sent anonymously to the museum. The researchers also had a closer look at the British Museum’s fake skull and discovered  green, worm-like inclusions in the rock. “Using Raman spectroscopy, the green inclusions were shown to be an iron-rich chlorite. These minerals are found in mesothermal metamorphic greenstone environments. Sources of this type are not found in Mexico or within the ancient Mexican trade network.” In fact, they are typical in rock crystal from Brazil or Madagascar. Wham bam. Interestingly, the report alludes to the fact that there are other crystal skulls around: “An increasing number of large and small quartz skulls have become known, particularly in recent decades.” Perhaps the owners should take a closer look at the surface etching of these...

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Dirty Dishes: Fatty residues on pottery fragments point to 6000 B.C. cheese-making
Dec12

Dirty Dishes: Fatty residues on pottery fragments point to 6000 B.C. cheese-making

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. First, because cheese-making permitted humans to gain protein nutrients from domesticated livestock year-round, and without killing the valuable animals. Second, cheese has less lactose than straight milk. So the development of cheese-making may have been a way for lactose-intolerant prehistoric humans in Northern Europe to gain nutrients from something that would otherwise make them extremely sick. Finally, “the production of cheese is a technically complex process,” note the authors. Thus the knowhow shows some advanced food science skills. To make cheese you first have to coagulate milk with acid or enzymes, so that you get semi-solid cheese curds. Then you have to separate the curds for the liquid whey. The pottery fragments analyzed in this study were pierced with holes, and were liked used as a sieve to separate the curds from whey. Other research by the same scientists on vessels from Anatolia, in Turkey, have pointed to cheese-making as far back as the seventh millennium, older than the Northern Europeans. This not the only time that researchers have discovered interesting residues on ancient vessels. In January, scientists at the Library of Congress found traces of nicotine at the bottom of a 700 A.D. Mayan pot, the first physical evidence of tobacco use by this civilization. And in 2010, traces of body paint pigments were found in 50,000-year-old shells on the Iberian Peninsula, evidence that even Neanderthals liked to pretty themselves up before a night out on the...

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Annals of Quirkiness: Space Buddha Taken By Nazis.
Sep27

Annals of Quirkiness: Space Buddha Taken By Nazis.

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...

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Dear eBay, I Love You. Sincerely, Conservation Science
Sep11

Dear eBay, I Love You. Sincerely, Conservation Science

Dear eBay, I love you. Yours Sincerely, Conservation Science 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.” Plastics: So that awesome photo of the Barbies in the sample holder? Several of the PVC dolls were purchased by Matija Strlic on eBay for the Heritage Smells! project. He’s part of a team of researchers trying to find a way to diagnose the health of plastic and paper artifacts in museums and archives by sniffing the gases that percolate off the objects. When a plastic (or paper) artifact begins to degrade it produces breakdown gases. But before Strlic can build a hand-held electronic nose that museum staff can then use to assess the health of their collections, his team needs to develop the analytical tool on old, non-valuable plastic objects. And that’s how he started buying Barbies on eBay. Picasso and friends: Between 1900-1950 many contemporary artists (Picasso, Miró, Kandinsky) began experimenting with using the newly invented industrial wall paint called Ripolin for their artwork instead of hoity-toity artist paint. According to Francesca Casadio, this was for a couple of reasons: First: It dried faster than the professional artist paint—a useful feature for procrastinating painters working on deadline. Second: Using industrial paint was a snub to the stodgy art world who wouldn’t dream of using anything but traditional oil paints. Third: Some artists liked the glossy finish of industrial paint. In trying to find a way to identify a painting produced with industrial paint, Casadio needed examples of Ripolin paint from the early 20th century to practice on. And so she turned to eBay… Digital art: Since the advent of computers and other forms of electrical recording technology (such as audio cassettes or video), artists have been using this media to produce artworks. But how do you watch art stored on an old floppy disk, or on a Commodore 64’s hard-drive, or on a now obsolete form of Bulgarian video? You need the hard-ware and you need cables to connect that hard-ware to a compatible screen. Leo Konstantelos told me it’s the esoteric cables that are sometimes the hardest to find. But he’s been successful on—you guessed...

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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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