Writing a dissertation on the archaic Forum Boarium

BY ANDREA BROCK, PhD candidate in the Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology, University of Michigan

“Every journey begins with one step.” — my mom

dissertation station
My at-home workspace, complete with furry dissertation buddy.

Enough with the background reading and procrastinating. This fall semester marked the official start of my dissertation, in written form at least. I feel like I’ve been working on this project for a decade already (although three years is more realistic). My dissertation is centered on my fieldwork at the Sant’Omobono Project in Rome. Specifically, I am interested in reconstructing the environment and topography of the archaic Forum Boarium. After returning from Rome at the end of the summer, I wrote a long to-do list of my intended accomplishments for the upcoming semester. A major part of that list was to write the opening chapters of my dissertation.

Although the primary goal was always hanging over my head, for weeks I couldn’t even begin to think about the dissertation. First there were conference abstracts that needed to be submitted, then countless grant proposals that needed to be dealt with if I had any hope of supporting my fieldwork in 2015, then just another book that I needed to read, then a meeting with my advisor, then some data crunching, then writing the conference papers … and so it goes. By the time the day came when I had nothing else to do, I just stared at my computer screen. An entire day wasted doing nothing but sitting in front of my computer! It is incredibly daunting to write the first sentence of such an intimidatingly long task. Upon lamenting (read: procrastinating) to my mom, she offered the true, albeit corny, words of encouragement above. I finally realized that I couldn’t avoid it any longer and started typing.

The main strategy that helped me get started on my first dissertation chapter was to write an extensive outline first. That way, I was able to get all of my thoughts on paper without having to worry about constructing vaguely coherent prose. This outline included the abundant references, which I would ultimately need to put into footnotes. After discussing the outline with the applicable committee member — and fortunately getting her approval — I was able to write more freely and quickly. I still encountered days where my momentum slowed, but I tried to keep the task in perspective. Each day was just focused on a particular section of a particular chapter. And each chapter isn’t so different from a seminar term paper, right? And I knocked those out tons of times as a pre-candidate, so why be intimidated by my dissertation? Well, that thought process worked for me at least. The semester is nearing an end and that long to-do list I wrote has been largely completed. Now, I just need to repeat the process next semester, and the semester after that, and the semester after that. But first, a break!


Using UV light to examine ancient paint

BY MADELEINE NEIMAN, 2014–2015 Samuel H. Kress Conservation Fellow at the Kelsey Museum. During her time here, Madeleine’s work will focus on the technical analysis and treatment of objects from Seleucia on the Tigris, a site approximately 18 miles south of modern-day Baghdad, Iraq.

One of my major projects here at the Kelsey is conducting a survey of artifacts from the Seleucia collection. The goal of this work is to answer three questions:

  • What are the artifacts made of and how are they made?
  • What is the condition of the object? More simply, is there any evidence of damage or deterioration (e.g., breaks, cracks, discoloration) present?
  • Have the objects been modified (e.g., repaired or reused) in any way by modern or ancient people?

Conservators utilize a number of tools to help us answer these questions. Today I thought I would share with you a bit about one of our most commonly employed techniques — examination under ultraviolet light.

Light is a form of electromagnetic radiation and exits as part of a large electromagnetic spectrum. Ultraviolet radiation, often called UV light, refers to that area just below what is visible to the human eye. While we can’t see UV light, when it illuminates the surface of an artifact, certain types of materials, including some dyes, minerals, and resins commonly found on archaeological objects, fluoresce. These materials glow different colors!

Let’s look at an example.

Among the over 13,000 objects in the Seleucia collection are a group of bone figurines.   Several of these are decorated with a reddish-pink paint that displays a unique orangey-pink fluorescence.

Images of bone figurine (16187) with pink paint captured under visible (left) and UV (right) illumination.
Images of bone figurine (KM 16187) with pink paint captured under visible (left) and UV (right) illumination.

In antiquity, people created paints using mineral pigments as well as organic colorants found in plants and animals. Among the most common sources of red were the pigments hematite (iron oxide), cinnabar (mercury sulfide), and red lead as well as the dyes kermes (from the Kermes vermilio insect) and madder (from the plant Rubia tinctorium).  When viewed in visible light all five appear red. However, when examined under UV light, one stands out: madder. Madder contains four principal colorants: alizarin (red), purpurin (red), pseudopurprin (red) and xanthine (yellow). The purpurin and pseudopurpurin glow a bright orangey-pink when exposed to UV light, making it easy to distinguish.

By examining the figurines under UV light we can tell that an ancient artist used madder to decorate these figurines!