March’s News from the Conservation Lab: Reconstructing Color on a Roman Marble Head

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

This month I’ve been getting to know Bacchus (Dionysos to the Greeks), a Kelsey Museum favorite normally on display outside the Villa of the Mysteries room. Bacchus’s head dates from the early to mid-second century AD. It is made of carved white marble and was once part of a larger standing figure which would have been pretty impressive given how great its noggin is! I’m examining the head because, believe it or not, there are traces of color on it. There is an abundance of red in the hair that is visible to the naked eye, but there are also traces of red in less noticeable areas. Using a Dinolite digital microscope I’ve spotted tiny deposits of red pigment in the tear ducts of Bacchus’s eyes and at the corner of his mouth. Using an imaging technique called visible induced infrared luminescence (or VIL), I’ve also found traces of Egyptian blue on the leaves of the god’s ivy wreath. This could mean that the wreath was painted blue, or perhaps green if the blue was mixed with yellow.

Bacchus will return to display in the Roman galleries this summer and will be featured in the upcoming exhibition Ancient Color, opening February 8, 2019. Visitors to the exhibition will get a chance to see Bacchus’s colorful hair through digital color reconstructions that will illustrate how he might have appeared in antiquity, based on material evidence.

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Marble head of Bacchus, early to mid-2nd c. AD. Height: 32.5 cm. Joint purchase of the University of Michigan Museum of Art and the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, 1974. KM 1974.4.1.
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Left: visible light image, proper left side; right, VIL image showing Egyptian blue under a leaf on Bacchus’s ivy wreath (the whitish spots in the middle of the image).