The ancient world was full-on technicolor!

The past was indeed very colorful! Not news, per se, but a lovely update on how technology and archaeology are working together to create awesome things. Thanks to Al and Marci for linking this to me earlier! From the good people at Gizmodo:

Ultraviolet light reveals how ancient Greek statues really looked

Ultraviolet light reveals how ancient Greek statues really lookedOriginal Greek statues were brightly painted, but after thousands of years, those paints have worn away. Find out how shining a light on the statues can be that’s required to see them the way they were thousands of years ago.

Although it seems impossible to think that anything could be left to discover after thousands of years of wind, sun, sand, and art students, finding the long lost patterns on a piece of ancient Greek sculpture can be as easy as shining a lamp on it. A technique called ‘raking light’ has been used to analyze art for a long time. A lamp is positioned carefully enough that the path of the light is almost parallel to the surface of the object. When used on paintings, this makes brushstrokes, grit, and dust obvious. On statues, the effect is more subtle. Brush-strokes are impossible to see, but because different paints wear off at different rates, the stone is raised in some places – protected from erosion by its cap of paint – and lowered in others. Elaborate patterns become visible.

Ultraviolet is also used to discern patterns. UV light makes many organic compounds fluoresce. Art dealers use UV lights to check if art has been touched up, since older paints have a lot of organic compounds and modern paints have relatively little. On ancient Greek statues, tiny fragments of pigment still left on the surface glow bright, illuminating more detailed patterns.

Ultraviolet light reveals how ancient Greek statues really looked

Once the pattern is mapped, there is still the problem of figuring out which paint colors to use. A series of dark blues will create a very different effect than gold and pink. Even if enough pigment is left over so that the naked eye can make out a color, a few thousand years can really change a statue’s complexion. There’s no reason to think that color seen today would be anything like the hues the statues were originally painted.

There is a way around this dilemma. The colors may fade over time, but the original materials – plant and animal-derived pigments, crushed stones or shells – still look the same today as they did thousands of years ago. This can also be discovered using light.

Ultraviolet light reveals how ancient Greek statues really looked

Infrared and X-ray spectroscopy can help researches understand what the paints are made of, and how they looked all that time ago. Spectroscopy relies on the fact that atoms are picky when it comes to what kind of incoming energy they absorb. Certain materials will only accept certain wavelengths of light. Everything else they reflect. Spectroscopes send out a variety of wavelengths, like scouts into a foreign land. Inevitably, a few of these scouts do not come back. By noting which wavelengths are absorbed, scientists can determine what materials the substance is made of. Infrared helps determine organic compounds. X-rays, because of their higher energy level, don’t stop for anything less than the heavier elements, like rocks and minerals. Together, researchers can determine approximately what color a millennia-old statue was painted.

The color? Always something tacky. (Tacky? Um, YOU’RE tacky. These look fantastic and anyone who’s seen remnants of paint on any ancient object [statue, building, etc] knows that paint is one of the most awesome things you can find. I seriously *squee’d* with delight when I discovered the ceilings of pretty much all the Egyptian temple complexes I went to were still painted because they were above the sand line. I plan on recreating the color used by the Egyptians for their night sky in my home someday. Seriously. The statues we’re so used to seeing as stark white [or a little grungy] marble are that way because the paint has come off. Usually due to exposure to elements, the first things to come away from statues are appendages like arms and legs and any outer layers like paint. It’s just the way it goes. Preferred colors in the ancient world were primary colors like reds, blues and yellows along with greens, oranges and blacks if the materials to make them were available. Purples were pretty strictly relegated to fabrics and came once people realized you could gather up THOUSANDS AND THOUSANDS of a little shell called murex to create the color favored by the Romans and other royal folks in the ancient world.)

Ultraviolet light reveals how ancient Greek statues really looked

 

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