↓ Expand ↓

Category → sculpture

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.

Fake crystal Aztec skulls

A fake crystal Aztec skull

A fake crystal Aztec skull

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. Continue reading →

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

This pottery sherd was part of an ancient strainer used by prehistoric humans to separate cheese curds from whey. Credit: Nature.

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 →

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.

Dear eBay, I Love You. Sincerely, Conservation Science

Measuring Barbie headspace: Namely, the smells coming off their PVC plastic bodies. ©M. Strlic

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.” Continue reading →

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

The 2012 ESOF conference in Dublin takes place on the other side of the wonderful Samuel Beckett bridge. Credit: Sarah Everts

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: Continue reading →

Origin Of Pottery Dates Back To The Last Ice Age

Pottery has been around 20,000 years. Credit: AAAS/Science.

Pottery found in a Chinese cave near Xianrendong, about 100 kilometers south of the Yangtze River, is 20,000 years old, say Chinese and American researchers.

The announcement pushes back the invention of this craft by 2,000 years, to smack dab in the middle of the last ice age–a time when humans were probably looking for ways to diversify their food supply. (And keep it warm.)

Access to pottery allowed hunter-gathers to do more sophisticated cooking, such as grind grains, ferment alcohol and extract marrow from animal bones, explains Harvard anthropologist Ofer Bar-Yosef, who led the research just published in the journal Science.

“Pottery making introduces a fundamental shift in human dietary history, and Xianrendong demonstrates that hunter-gatherers in East Asia used pottery for some 10,000 years before they became sedentary or began cultivating plants,” they note.

That’s right, folks: we’ve been creating pottery for twice as long as we’ve been sowing seeds.

Traces Of Tobacco In Mayan Pottery

This 1000-year-old-plus Mayan pot has tobacco leaf residues inside. Credit: Library of Congress.

Conservation scientists went spelunking in to this Mayan pot from 700 A.D. and found traces of nicotine, the first physical evidence of tobacco use by the ancient civilization.

Staff at the Library of Congress, where the pot is housed, might have been tempted to guess that tobacco was indeed inside, since the Mayan script on the container says so.

But they were wiser than that. There have been many cases where the inscription outside a vessel does not match what’s inside-sometimes intentionally so, as is the case with certain Mayan rituals, the researchers note in their article, which will be imminently published in the journal Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry.

In fact this is only the second case to-date (with Mayan artifacts) where the packaging information has accurately matched the goods. The other example dates back to 1989 when scientists found traces of cacao in a correctly-marked Mayan container from Guatemala.

Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the University of Albany used a technique called mass spectrometry to identify the traces of nicotine at the bottom of the pot.

There's blood in the coating of this animal sculpture from the Mali Empire. Credit: C2RMF

They were lucky that the residues had not been degraded over the past thousand years and that the pot hadn’t been stuffed with iron oxide, a commonly used burial material that would have drowned out the nicotine signal.

The analytical technique they used is also helping to identify all sorts of other day-to-day products and ingredients used by ancient civilizations.

Researchers at the Louvre have used mass spectrometry to help identify pink powders in ancient Greek and Roman cosmetics, as well as blood in the coating of animal artifacts from Mali–to name only two of many examples.