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Archive → June, 2011

Artful Space Tools

Thank you, Mars, for indirectly giving art researchers a helping hand. Credit: Wikipedia Commons.

When cultural heritage scientists go on the road, one of the most useful tools they take with them is something developed for Mars exploration: a hand-held X-ray fluorescence spectrometer. The Art Institute of Chicago’s Francesca Casadio wrote a snappy little ode to the machine, which NPR awesomely calls a “science gun.”

When researchers point the admittedly weapon-like device at a painting or a sculpture, they are able to find out which elements are present in the artwork. So for example, Casadio has used the machine to discover that about 1000 years ago, Chinese artists used a red, mercury-based paint called vermillion to decorate the lips of a female sculpture.

She also discovered that sometime in the 1800s an over-enthusiastic restorer used a zinc-based paint to give the sculpture “a new coat of lipstick,” Casadio told NPR. Hear the whole NPR piece here.

Casadio launching X-rays with her science gun at the Impressionists. Credit: Art Institute of Chicago.

I heart the space connection. Astrochemists needed rugged and portable equipment to analyze the elemental make-up of the Martian landscape. The X-ray device also doesn’t harm whatever it is analyzing because researchers don’t need to remove a piece of the sample to do the analysis.

Instead, X-rays are directed on to the artwork or Martian rock and they either get scattered or absorbed in a way that reveals which elements are in the sample.

All these characteristics fit the bill for cultural heritage science. These researchers need sturdy, portable, non-invasive devices to study priceless art in caves, at archeological sites or even at a private collector’s home. And that’s why Casadio calls X-ray fluorescence spectrometers “the most exciting high-tech tools you’ve never heard of.”

Authentic Mammoth Art… The Oldest Art In America

Mammoth on Mammoth bone. Credit: Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institute

When scientists began studying the carving of a mammoth on a 13,000-year-old mammoth bone found in Florida, they assumed it was a fake.

But according to research just published in the Journal of Archaeological Science

, the animal carving is not only legit but it is also America’s earliest art.

A lot of news agencies are hopping on the story. I enjoyed the National Geographic

and Discovery News articles.

I like that the bone was found by an amateur fossil hunter (and I’m highly amused that it spent some time collecting dust under his sink).

Scientists led by the Smithsonian’s Robert Jeff Speakman eventually authenticated the piece using some high tech microscopy to show that the carving wasn’t made with modern tools.

“Forensic analysis suggests the markings on the bone are not recent. Optical microscopy results show no discontinuity in coloration between the carved grooves and the surrounding material indicating that both surfaces aged simultaneously. Scanning electron microscopy (SEM) revealed that the edges of the inscription are worn and show no signs of being incised recently or that the grooves were made with metal tools.”

The ancient artist certainly made a pretty carving. I think he/she should also get kudos for leading the way on all things meta. You know, mammoth on mammoth.

Up Some Scaffolding, En Route To Heaven

At the top of the scaffolding in Capella Maggiore. ©Sarah Everts

During most of my visits to Italy, I end up with neck cramps after craning my head backward for hours to look at faraway ceiling frescoes in churches across the country. But last week, I found myself peering directly into the eyes of fresco angels at the top of the Capella Maggiore in Florence’s famous Santa Croce Basilica.

These frescoes have been under restoration since 2005 and for the next few months small groups of people can climb the scaffolding to view the artwork up close. The frescoes were painted in the 1380s by Agnolo Gaddi, a disciple of Giotto, one of the architects of the Italian Renaissance.

I climbed up the scaffolding with Mariarosa Lanfranchi, a restorer from the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Italy’s foremost restoration laboratory. She’s been leading the fresco restoration project.

One of the first questions she asked me is whether I suffer from vertigo, because we would be going up about 30 meters to reach the very top of the cathedral. Assured that I wouldn’t suffer a panic attack, she began her awesome tour by telling me that the last restoration of part of the church’s frescoes was in the 1930 or 40s.

Angels up close. ©Sarah Everts

Since then, air pollution has coated the art with a layer of brownish grime. Meanwhile, construction around the city has covered the artwork with little chunks of gypsum dust. The frescoes are porous, and with the city’s high humidity, the gypsum penetrated into the frescoes, giving the artwork a rather speckled look, Lanfranchi explained.

To remove the grime and gypsum, the restorers used the “Florentine method,” a combination treatment of ammonium carbonate, followed by a treatment of barium hydroxide, Lanfranchi said. The first step of adding the ammonium carbonate dissolves the unwelcome dust and gypsum (calcium sulfate dihydrate) so that both can be removed from the surface and inside the fresco’s pores.
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Digital Lifetimes: Data Worth Saving

Data worth saving: layers of images from deep underwater archaeology sites enable later virtual exploration. ©VENUS archive

If you ever get a sinking feeling that all your photos and correspondence stored digitally may one day be lost in a computer crash or due to some future software incompatibility, then you might empathize with the folks who spend their professional lives thinking about ways to ensure digital forms of cultural heritage don’t disappear into the ether.

In fact, yesterday and today, people concerned with preserving digital 3D visualizations of ancient sites and other digital cultural heritage objects are meeting in London for a conference entitled Visualizations and Simulations, organized under the POCOS (Preservation of Complex Objects Symposia) banner.

I’m not there, but many of the talks piqued my interest, such as the one about the Villa of Oplontis project. This is a 3D, navigable model of a gigantic Roman era villa near Pompei. The villa was so enormous that the archeologists trying to excavate the site 20 years ago never managed to find its limits. The villa had at least 99 rooms and a 60-meter swimming pool. For comparison: An Olympic-sized swimming pool is 50 meters long. Although excavators never did find the villa’s perimeter, they did acquire an immense amount of architectural information about the place. This is being used to develop what sounds like a cool 3D digital model of the villa.
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Two-Faced Microbes: Dirty Fungi And Cleaning Bacteria

King Tut's tomb with brown spot stains. © The J. Paul Getty Trust, 2001

Microbes can be an ugly pain-in-the-butt for artifacts.

Even if the bacteria and fungi growing on heritage buildings, frescoes, space suits and archival documents can be killed, they often leave behind some rather unpleasant stains that are really hard to clean off the sensitive surfaces of artifacts. That’s the situation in King Tut’s tomb, for example, where fungi have left behind dark brown spots on the beautifully painted walls.

Today the Harvard Gazette wrote about this issue: At the request of Egyptian heritage officials, researchers at the Getty Conservation Institute swabbed the walls of King Tut’s tomb, and sent samples of the brown muck to Ralph Mitchell, a Harvard microbiologist who specializes in cultural heritage science. Getty chemists figured out that the dark spots are actually melanin–the same pigment that builds up in your skin when you get a tan–while Mitchell’s team figured out that the fungi are dead and probably won’t be producing any more browny spots. Mitchell thinks that the fungi initially grew because the tomb was sealed before the paintings inside were dry, suggesting that the teenage king was buried in a hurry. The still-wet surface thus provided tempting real-estate for melanin-producing fungi.

Cyanobacteria growing on the Luca Signorelli frescoes in Italy's St. Brizio Chapel caused a rosy discoloration. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

It turns out that melanin-producing fungi have also stained marble in Italian cathedrals after an ill-advised attempt to protect the marble using acrylic polymers. The acrylic on the marble attracted the staining microbes who found the plastic to be a tasty meal. But microbes will also grow on buildings, art and artifacts that haven’t received unwise “protection.” For example, orangey carotenoid pigments are often left behind by bacteria on stone buildings, Mitchell says, and frescoes have been stained rosy red due to the phycoerythrin pigments produced by cyanobacteria.

The question remains: How does one remove these unfortunate discolorations? Continue reading →

Visiting The Metropolitan Museum’s Science Lab

The Met's science labs. © Sarah Everts

I recently passed through New York City and had the excellent opportunity to tour the laboratories beneath the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Marco Leona, who’s been the museum’s head of scientific research since 2004. “We deal with everything under the sun, that’s been under the sun for the last 5000 years or so,” he told me.

The Met’s 20-person scientific team has a professional familiarity with New York’s real-estate squeeze. Their equipment is split among four labs in the Met’s Upper East Side neighborhood. Each lab corresponds to one of the museum’s four main artifact conservation departments: paintings, textiles, works-on-paper and “objects,” which is literally everything else–from metal sculptures to ceramic mosaics.

Islamic blue mosaics. © SE

Leona picked me up at the Fifth Avenue security desk on a Monday, when the museum is closed to the volumes of people who normally pack its halls. We walked unusually effortlessly through the European Sculpture and Decorative Arts exhibit to a special elevator that brought us down to the basement “objects” research space. Wandering around lab benches full of beautiful artifacts, Leona gave me an overview of the science team’s many projects.

They’ve worked on everything from how acetic acid wafting off degrading ancient Egyptian wood can accelerate the corrosion of nearby metals to how researchers might use biomedical tools, such as antibodies, to study cultural heritage objects.

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American Institute of Conservation Meeting + Another AIC Conference

AIC annual meeting logo. Credit: www.conservation-us.org

Wish I could have joined the crowds of conservators who spent this week in Philadelphia at the annual meeting of the American Institute of Conservation.

I’ve been sating myself here in Berlin by checking out the AIC blog launched at the meeting called Conservators Converse, as well as video posts and tweets from attendees.

This year the conference aims “to examine how ethics, logic, and perception guide conservation decisions” given that “assumptions long held in the practice of conservation are being challenged by the modern world.”

That’s a somewhat wordy way of saying that conference sessions will broach such issues as:

-How to conserve new media/digital art?

-What’s to be done about the trend of outsourcing conservation services?

-What’s the balance between conserving a piece of cultural heritage and conserving our outside environment… That is, is it OK to use a lot of energy to protect an artifact–for example, through constant air conditioning or maintaining low-humidity conditions–if that means our outside environment suffers? More on this in a future post.

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Acknowledging Madame Lavoisier

Portrait of the Lavoisiers by Jacques-Louis David. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

For years, this painting was listed simply as Portrait of M. Lavoisier in the Metropolitan Museum of Art files, neglecting the fact that the painter Jacques-Louis David placed Mme Lavoisier gloriously in the center of the canvas, staring directly at the viewer.

The omission might have been due to the fact that Antoine Lavoisier is an 18th century scientific superstar. Before getting beheaded in the French Revolution, he was the first to correctly explain the chemistry behind burning, rusting and respiration. He also studied infectious disease in urban zones, named the element oxygen and helped develop the metric system.

Meanwhile, Marie Anne Pierrette Paulze Lavoisier’s fascinating life and contributions to science have often been neglected.* This insult may be remedied (partially) by a panel discussion to be held at the Metropolitan Museum in New York this Sunday between two Nobel Laureates, Roald Hoffmann and Harold Varmus, and Kathryn Calley Galitz, a scholar of French art.
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