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Secrets Of An Ancient Warship’s Ram

This ram was involved in important Roman naval battles some 2300 years ago. Credit: Francesco Caruso

Some people think it looks like a beak but this bronze and wooden artifact is actually a weapon formerly located on the front of a warship that sunk some 2300 years ago.

The ram, also called a rostrum, was found back in 2008, sitting in about six meters of water off the coast of Sicily, in the awesomely-named “Bay of the Pirates” (or Acqualadrone).

Shortly thereafter, scientists carbon-dated the weapon and announced that it must have come from a warship that sunk around 260 B.C.E.

This means the boat likely met its destiny during the First Punic War, which Wikipedia tells me was one of three wars fought between the Romans and the Ancient Carthage of North Africa.

You can nerd out on the history at www.historyofwar.org: “Prior to the Punic Wars, Rome was not seen as a major power in the Mediterranean…” But the point is, this boat and its ram went down in a rather significant series of watery altercations.
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Radioactive Artifacts

One of the first devices to measure radioactivity built by Pierre Curie. Credit: Mütter Museum

How do museums deal with radioactive artifacts?

The question first popped in to my head when I was standing at the entrance of the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, looking at a device built by Pierre Curie in the 1880s to measure radioactivity.

Given that the device—a piezoelectric quartz electrometer—had spent decades measuring radioactivity, I guessed it probably was or had been radioactive itself.

Then it occured to me that the devices used by Pierre and Marie Curie aren’t the only kind of radioactive artifacts found in museum collections.

German chemist Martin Heinrich Klaproth discovered uranium in 1789, and by 1830 the radioactive element was being used heavily as a yellow-green colorant in all sorts of glassware (before people even knew what radioactivity was).

By the early 20th century, uranium oxide was used to color the incredibly popular orange-red ceramic Fiesta tableware favored by Andy Warhol and many others. And radium-226 was used to paint watches, aircraft gauges, door knobs, religious icons, light switches and even chamber pots so that they glowed in the dark.

Two uranium glasses from the blogger's personal collection.

Radioactivity also became a health fad. Look no further than the “Lifetime Radium-Vitalizer Water Jar,” from the 1920s, which added radiation to water by means of a chunk of uranium ore at the bottom of the vessel.

In addition to quack health products, radioactive artifacts are sometimes natural history museum minerals as well as relics and equipment from the Manhattan project and all subsequent nuclear testing.

Since we are all exposed to low-levels of radiation daily–heck, our own bones emit radiation to those around us–the issue is whether a particular artifact emits enough radiation to present a health hazard to museum staff and the public.
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Figuring Out Copper Corrosion To Fight Artifact Forgery

An ancient copper ingot from Crete, Greece. Credit: Wikipedia Commons.

The green corrosion on copper artifacts, sculptures and buildings is so aesthetically pleasing that countless recipes exist in books and online so that do-it-yourselfers can create the same look on anything made from the metal.

But depending on the recipe or the environmental conditions, that pretty green color could be any one of a handful of different corroded copper chemicals, such as nantokite (CuCl) or paratacamite (Cu2(OH)3Cl).

Or, in the case of the Statue of Liberty, the green patina is a copper sulfate.

Copper can also corrode into other colors besides green, such as browny-red cuprite or black tenorite.

Scientists don’t actually know precisely which conditions produce the different corrosion chemicals—but they should, especially when the authenticity of an artifact is in question.

For example, museum researchers need to know if the corrosion chemicals on a possibly fake copper artifact came from natural aging processes or are the result of a quick-aging forged process. Continue reading →

100-Year-Old Sacred Congolese Statues Have Digestive Tracts

This statue has legitimate plumbing. From the Indy Star's Robert Scheer. indy.st/IovdDI

The headline pretty much says it all.

If you aren’t a regular reader of the Indianapolis Star

, you may have missed this awesome article about how sacred statues sculpted by the Songye people contain carefully dug out digestive tracts.

The Songye people, who live in the Democratic Republic of Congo, use the statues in fertility and war ceremonies.

Experts had long known that the priests inserted materials in to the statues’ mouths and other orifices “to enhance the figures’ magico-religious powers,” said Richard McCoy, a conservator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, to the Indy Star


For example, McCoy said the statues had food, dirt struck by lightning and the teeth of albino men stuffed in their orifices.

But nobody expected a fully carved digestive tract inside the figures, McCoy told the Indy Star.  ”We were blown away.”

McCoy made the discovery when he put a 100-year-old Songye figure in an X-ray machine. After the initial discovery in 2006, he started visiting other museums to see if these digestive tracts are common.

And indeed they are: He discovered that some 42 Songye statues have carved out digestive tracts.

McCoy has now graduated from studying the digestive tracts in two-dimensions (using X-ray images) to studying the figures in three-dimensions (using computer tomography, or CT scans).

It’s not the first time conservation scientists have used CT to look at artifacts. They’ve used the technique for years to investigate cultural heritage objects ranging from ancient Egyptian cat mummies to 17th century globes of the world.

Finding The Culprit For Van Gogh’s Darkening Yellows

Van Gogh's Vase with Sunflowers is getting a pigment check-up this week. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Sunflower still-life series is possibly Vincent van Gogh’s most famous work. Unfortunately the warm yellow hues that make the paintings memorable come from pigments that don’t have a long life-expectancy.

During the 19th century, chrome yellow pigments came in to fashion among painters and then quickly went out again, as artists realized that the vibrant yellow color was unstable and would lose its vibrancy when exposed to light.

For example, Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir both steered clear of the chrome yellow pigments. But van Gogh threw caution to the wind and continued to use chrome yellow until his suicide in 1890—a tragic hint, perhaps, of his own instability and imminent breakdown.

This week, conservation scientists at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam have been taking a closer look at chrome yellow pigments in Vase with Sunflower, and a few other paintings, to learn more about the degradation problem.
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Stinky, Degrading Film And How To Stop It

Moldy Movies. Credit: Analytical Methods

Like humans, fungi have a taste for old movies. The problem is that they like to eat the film rather than watch it.

Adding insult to injury, fungi produce copious amounts of stinky odors from their consumption of classic flicks.

In fact, this fungi flatulence can cause headaches, nausea and irritated eyes in humans. (In particular, one airborne fungal molecule called 1-octen-3-ol.)

For this reason film archive staff fear any sort of mold on film reels: It means their precious collections are being destroyed by fungi.

Furthermore the fungal digestion produces smells that can make conservators sick.

That’s why the UK’s North West Film Archive approached researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) to ask if there was any way to build a machine to detect the problematic odors.

Last week, MMU’s Craig Banks and his collaborator Gavin Bingley reported a handy new mold flatulence detection device.

With such a machine, conservators can test film reels donated from attics and basements. Sometimes these donations are so thick with dust it is hard to distinguish from mold—unless conservators take a sample and try growing it in a lab, Banks says. (Which then means the conservators may be exposed to the stinky molecules they’d much rather avoid.)

Another benefit of the device: If invasive fungi manage to sneak into storage areas, the detector can forewarn conservators about the moldy intruders before the growth gets out of hand—or is visible to the naked eye.

It’s worth pointing out that even if mold is kept at bay, old degrading film produces its own special brand of harmful flatulence. Continue reading →

Drilling Holes In To One Painting To Look For Another. Hmm…

Drilling into a Vasari painting to look for a da Vinci. Credit: National Geographic.

This blog devotes a lot of digital real-estate to cool experiments on art and artifacts that are non-invasive, or at least minimally so.

So I’ve got to admit that I was not particularly overwhelmed by the breathless reports last week in a myriad of media about a project to drill 14 holes into a Vasari painting in order to search for a possibly hidden da Vinci below.

The articles were subsequent to a press release by National Geographic on March 12, which was presumably trying to raise interest in a documentary about the project airing a few days later (March 18).

Yesterday the well-respected Art-Info published an interesting take-down of the drilling project, entitled “The Search for the Lost Da Vinci Fresco: Serious Science or Irresponsible Hype?”

The piece pointed to a protest-petition against the project signed by 530 members of the museum community, including high-profile curators at the Met and the Louvre.

According to the Art-Info article, none of these critical folks got face-time in the National Geographic Channel documentary. This is how the writer Kate Deimling put it:

“”Finding the Lost Da Vinci,” which aired on the National Geographic Channel on March 18, certainly looked like an infomercial for the project. The program’s narrator describes opposition to the drilling as a “media feeding frenzy” and an “attack from the press,” but none of the experts opposed to it is interviewed or even mentioned by name. Instead, scientists in lab coats decry the opposition to their work and are then seen boring holes into the painting while dramatic music plays.”

The Art-Info piece also voices criticism from the conservation science community, namely that the pigments detected by the drilling project might be from brick instead of paint.

Another criticism is that non-invasive analytical equipment (such as newer radar technologies) should be used instead of destructive drilling.

Rare Aztec Document Gets A Check-Up

The first page of the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, a rare Aztec document painted on deer-skin prior to Cortez's conquest. Credit: Liverpool World Museum.

In 1521, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan fell to the Spanish invaders, who burned libraries and destroyed most of the manuscripts pertaining to Aztec history, religious rituals and economy.

The Codex Fejérváry-Mayer is one of just two dozen or so Aztec texts to survive the Spanish invasion.

It’s also just one of just six screenfold books that were penned before Cortez started his conquest of Mexico’s indigenous people.

So suffice to say that it’s a pretty exceptional record of the pre-Spanish Mesoamerican world.

This codex is called a screenfold book because Aztec scholars would literally twist and fold the 22-page, double-sided document to cross-reference a particular date to two calendar cycles: the yearly cycle of 365 days and the sacred cycle of 260 days (called tonalpohualli).

Joanna Ostapkowicz, a curator at the World Museum in Liverpool, which hosts Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, explains it in this way:

“In the hands of ritual practitioners and other high-ranking individuals, the codex became a guide for people’s actions. The screenfold’s internal reading structure is right to left and is determined by the number-and-sign sets of the calendar: how the images and symbols cross-referenced each other was then interpreted by the reader, who was well versed in the significance of the various icons. Although an object of great respect, the codex was also a tactile, malleable reference tool: a user could consult both sides simultaneously by folding parts of the codex onto itself. Reading it offered guidance on appropriate days to travel, to celebrate a deity’s beneficence with sacrifices, to plant crops or to name a child.”

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Oldest Cave Art In The Americas

The oldest cave art in the Americas. Credit: PLOS ONE.

Brazilian researchers say they have discovered the oldest cave art in the Americas.

The 10,000-year-old figure was engraved into bedrock in Central Brazil and is most definitely a “he”, as suggested by the oversized phallus.

The figure also has a C-shaped head and three fingers on each hand.

He was discovered during the last days of a seven-year excavation of ancient human shelters in Brazil’s Lapa do Santo region. Archeologists also found bone tools, 27 human burial sites and evidence that the inhabitants probably nourished themselves with small game and fruit. Continue reading →

Sweat-Stained Artifacts

These green sweat stains on a WW2 wedding dress appeared after sweat corroded the copper threads in the fabric. Credit: Australian War Museum

We all sweat.

Some of us do it rather profusely, particularly when life suddenly gets a tad more exciting or stressful than usual. Such as on your wedding day. Or during military combat. Or on your coronation day—if you happen to be royalty.

Clothing worn during historically important events often finds its way to museums, and that’s when a textile conservator will take a good look—and possibly a deep sniff—in an outfit’s armpit region.

According to four textile conservators who humored my—as it turns out—not so absurd sweat stain inquiry, armpit areas can be colored yellow (no surprise there), but also green, orange, brown and red. The quirkiest sweat stain reported was “a grey-green tide-line stain… with a pinkish interior.”

Staining can depend on a myriad of factors, such as the individual wearer’s sweat chemistry, the fabric, the dye, and whether the person was wearing deodorant or antiperspirant.

Consider the case of a World War II wedding dress that crossed Jessie Firth’s conservation table at the Australian War Memorial. Worn by five different women in the 1940s, the pretty beige dress had green armpits. Continue reading →

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