There was a flurry of activity related to the research on the classical collection during last week of August. Normally, the objects under observation are removed from the galleries so that we can study them in either the conservation lab (Corey) or the Scholars Room (the visiting consultant and I). However, it was the Roman mosaic that was the subject of the study session… and it could not be moved! So mosaic specialist Debra Foran, objects conservator Corey Riley and I worked in the galleries.
The study took place on Monday because the museum is closed to the public. We could work quietly and also study every single little tessera (tile) that makes up the lovely floral and geometric design of the mosaic. We all felt a little weird kneeling or sitting on blankets on the edge of the mosaic so that we could look at the middle of it closely! Tiles were counted, no loose ones were found, we looked at the colour of the glass and stone tesserae with the Munsell chart… every little detail was studied.
Last week, the study of the classical collection continued when Laurel Taylor came to the Museum to look at the other Roman artefacts (not the Roman marble statues that have already been studied). Corey Riley was there as well, taking care of the conservation assessment. The collection of Roman ceramics is rather small and not of good quality compared to other ceramics we have from elsewhere in the ancient Mediterranean.
Two of the objects were not even Roman and two others were probably forgeries! The rest were cute if not spectacular. Although we had fun, I guess our Roman study session was more like VENI, VIDI, SED NON VICI.
My ARCHAEO-crush for the summer–June, July and August (blame this on the fact that my schedule has been unbelievably busy)–is a wonderful Sudanese Venus.
VENUS OF MEROE
Type: artefact (sculpture) Civilisation: Ancient Sudan, Kingdom of Kush, Meroitic Period Date: 2nd-3rd century ARCHAEO-Crush: The Venus of Meroe is called Venus because of because she was found in the so-called ‘royal baths’ at Meroe and the position of her body that reminds us of Hellenistic and Roman statues of Venus… but not so much because of her proportions. Indeed, the Meroitic Venus is not as svelte as those from the ancient Mediterranean with their mathematically calculated proportions. This lovely Venus represents the Meroitic ideals of beauty normally found in Meroitic art, with ample forms synonymous with fertility and wealth.
Also, unlike Greece or Italy, there is no marble in Sudan. This statue is made of sandstone covered with painted stucco to make it smoother and lustrous in appearance, perhaps to resemble painted marble. (Sandstone is rather rough and granular.)
It is interesting that the Kingdom of Kush, which was never controlled by the Romans, held some interest in Hellenistic and Roman art. Except for a few skirmishes when Egypt became part of the Empire and the Romans got their butts kicked by a Meroitic queen (but they later signed a peace treaty), Kush had little to do with Rome. Yet we find we find in Sudan some objects influenced by or from the ancient Mediterranean… and these are often luxury goods. Bucket list status: I have seen this charming Venus a number of times when visiting the Staatliche Museum Ägyptischer Kunst in Munich. She is wonderfully displayed in the Nubia gallery. Additional information: The statue was discovered along with others during John Garstang’s 1912-13 excavation season. Take a look at the photos in this article and near the bottom, you’ll find an image of Garstang and his wife Marie at the bottom of the bassin of the baths, surrounded by sculptures and several fragments that once stood on the steps surrounding it. Garstang is actually holding the Venus in his arms.
I thought I would start my series of posts about the scientific methods we used for the study of the marbles with Ultraviolet Fluorescence Imaging (UVF imaging). Works of art are regularly examined under ultraviolet light because it reveals restorations, retouches, varnishes as well as some colour pigments, which have characteristic fluorescence under UV. (Ultraviolet light is often called ‘black light,’ something you’ll be familiar with if you’ve ever set foot in a night club.)
UVF examination and imaging needs to be done in the dark, so we worked in the small x-ray suite in the conservation lab. There are no windows there, and by closing the door, we had all the darkness we needed to look at the small marble objects (they were taken out of the galleries for the study). However, for the large sculptures (which could not be moved), we had to be in the museum galleries at night! That was a little strange…
Simple UV examination can be done with a hand-held UV lamp, which you shine on the work of art as you look at it closely (wearing protective goggles). UVF imaging necessitates a digital SLR camera equipped with UV filters set up on a tripod. The camera is controlled by a computer and photos are taken when UV light is shone on it (either with large lamps, as in the case of Hercules, or hand-held flash with a UV filter). With the photographs, you then have a record of the fluorescence of the pigments and other surface treatments and their location.
Doing UVF was like travelling back to the 80s: the ultraviolet lights, the neon colours, the bright white, and the music playing from my iPod. We had a blast! As I have had this incredible urge to watch Blade Runner since we looked at Hercules under UV on June 22, I put it on my Netflix list… and the DVD arrived today. Enjoy the post and pictures while I watch Harrison Ford and Sean Young in this 1982 sci-fi movie.
Hello Mr. DJ! Actually, it’s Dr. Mark Abbe setting up the camera for its next shot from the computer.
Mark and Elizabeth examining the Torso of an Emperor under UV.
Torso of an Emperor as Jupiter under UV light. The fluorescence here is not indicative of pigments but some residue on the surface.
The three flashes with the UV filters.
Getting ready to do UVF imaging using the flashes.
Weird picture of Mark and Noelle examining the Funerary Stela under UV.
Setting up the large UV lamps to study Hercules.
Feels like the 80s! Hercules under UV examination by Mark and Elizabeth.
Another odd picture: the exit signs creating a weird green glow behind Mark and Elizabeth as they examine the osteotheke.
Mark studying the Aphrodite of Cyrene under UV. The dark purple ‘chocker’ on her neck is actually a recent restoration (her head was once broken).
Following my ‘Searching for Colour!’ post, I got a few questions from family, friends and colleagues asking why we were actually looking for colour on our ancient marble sculptures.
We were looking for colour pigments on the marble sculptures because in ancient times most would have been coloured in some way! It seems inconceivable to us that these beautiful white marble sculptures could ever have had paint on them. But they often did. (Sounds gaudy, doesn’t it?) Sometimes, only details were painted; other times, they were completely covered by pigments or maybe part of them would have been gilded (covered in gold leaf). Or even perhaps have parts carved from coloured marble and assembled as one sculpture. This applies to Egyptian and other ancient sculpture as well (although those are not necessarily carved from marble).
Most ancient marble sculptures are now devoid of colour, the sun and rain having bleached or washed them away over the millennia. Thought to be ‘white,’ these ancient marble sculptures were the inspiration for statues carved during the Renaissance or the Neo-Classical period and those were NOT painted. That’s how we normally think of marble sculptures… white, the typical colour of marble. However, in nooks and crannies, you can occasionally find proof that coloured pigments were applied to those sculptures—in some cases visible with the naked eye.
During the two intense weeks of Classical marble study (and using various methods), Mark, Elizabeth, Noelle, Marianne and I went pigment busting…
We studied this Cypriot limestone ‘Head of a God or Priest’ (NCMA G.79.6.12), where red pigment is clearly visible on the beard, eyes, brows and hair.
We actually found traces of blue pigment on the head of Aeschylus (NMCA 70.11.1), but it was not visible with the naked eye. (Here, Aeschylus is posing with Dr. Mark Abbe.)
This week, I’m entirely focused on the Classical marbles in the NCMA’s collection and we’re doing some pretty cool stuff: we’re searching for colour on the marble sculptures! I’m working withMark Abbe, asst. prof. of ancient art at the University of Georgia, Athens—a specialist of marble statuary and ancient polychromy. I’ll keep details for later when I can actually show you photos of us in action when I post on Untitled, the NCMA blog; however, I want to let you know that I have a good excuse for being somewhat silent at present!