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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 →


Fashion Fights In The 1600s: Parents Just Don’t Understand Their Kids’ Clothing Styles

Flinck’s final portrait of Dirck (left) compared to the more fashionable original (right). Courtesy of van Eikema Hommes

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.

A great example of this was recently unearthed by University of Delft researcher, Margriet van Eikema Hommes, when she took a closer look at paintings by the Dutch artist Govert Flinck.

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 →


Authenticating Pieces Of The Berlin Wall

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 →


Wedding Hiatus

Marc Chagall’s Wedding. Credit: Wikimedia commons.

Artful Science is in the middle of a two week hiatus as I prepare madly for my imminent wedding. (Yay!)

In the meantime, it seems somewhat fitting to direct you to a previous post about mysterious green stains on a WW2-era wedding dress.

Also, since my silver wedding dress makes me look pretty much like a space bride (but thankfully *not* this one), I figure a post on spacesuit conservation is also a propos.

Artful Science will be back to regularly scheduled programming in early August…


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

Sapphire disks with platinum script or pottery sherds: Which material will tell future generations of about nuclear waste repositories? Credit: Sarah Everts/Wikimedia Commons.

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: 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.


Radioactive Artifacts – A Radium Reprise

This WW2 radium-painted watch sold on eBay last month for $650. Credit: eBay.

Two weeks ago I wrote a post about the wide variety of radioactive artifacts found in museums, such as uranium glassware, radioactive minerals, Pierre and Marie Curie lab memorabilia and Manhattan project relics.

I decided to give radium-containing artifacts their own post, in part because the radium isotope Ra-226 appears in such a curious variety of items from 1898 through to the 1960s. Pretty much anything that needed to glow in the dark got coated with radium paint during that era.

For example, a National Parks Service bulletin warns museum curators to keep an eye out for radium-containing chamber pot lids, light-switches, doorknobs and religious statues. (I searched long and hard, and sadly in vain, for an image of a radium glow-in-the-dark Virgin Mary or Shiva or Jesus.)

Of course glow-in-the dark-radium paint is best known for making watch and compass faces as well as cockpit gauges visible at night. Continue reading →


Dead Sea Scrolls – Scientists In Berlin Criticize Israeli Cultural Authorities For Treatment Of Sacred Documents

Dead Sea Scroll fragments from a current exhibit in Philadelphia. Credit: Darryl Moran/The Franklin Institute

Last week, a peer-reviewed journal called the Restaurator published a controversial article about the Dead Sea Scrolls written by two Berlin-based scientists who charge that these sacred documents are not receiving proper care from the Israeli cultural institutions responsible for their well-being.

The article’s abstract does not mince words:

“Examination of the properties of the scrolls proves that frequent travel, exhibitions and the associated handling induce collagen deterioration that is covered up by the absence of a proper monitoring program.”

“I want the scrolls to be protected,” says Ira Rabin, who co-authored the piece entitled “Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibitions Around The World: Reasons For Concern” with her colleague Oliver Hahn at the German Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing.

The 20-page document specifically criticizes the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, who hold responsibility for a majority of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Both defend their treatment of the scrolls (detailed below). Continue reading →


Did Neanderthals Produce Cave Paintings?

This cave art was made around 37,300 years ago, when both Neanderthals and humans inhabited Europe. Credit Pedro Saura.

It may be time to stop using the word Neanderthal as an insult for people we think lack culture, intelligence and any concept of aesthetics.

Or at least that’s what Spanish Neanderthal expert João Zilhão would argue. He’s just published a paper in Science that identifies Neanderthals as possible artists for three paintings in Spain’s El Castillo and Altamira caves.

The work suggests stereotyping Neanderthals as “dumb” may be incorrect, Zilhão says. “From what we know of Neanderthals, there’s no reason to think they didn’t have the capacity” to be creative artists.

Zilhão and his colleagues used an interesting method (more on that later) to date the cave art to between 35,600 and 40,800 years ago…  a time when both Neanderthals and early humans likely coexisted in Europe. (They also dated some 47 other cave paintings, whose younger ages finger humans as the artists.)

This is not the first time Zilhão has found evidence suggesting Neanderthals in Europe were neither cognitively inferior nor less creative than their Homosapien contemporaries in Africa. Continue reading →



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