I’ve been spending a lot of quality time in collections storage lately and have noticed something curious: an abundance of pink! Namely, ancient pink pigment. Why is this so interesting? Because the pink most frequently used in the ancient Mediterranean was made of madder root, a plant-based dye that was used to color textiles as well as a pigment on objects.
Like other organic pigments, rose madder is highly light sensitive and prone to fading. The occurrence of rose madder on so many artifacts in the collection surprises me, given what we know about its fugitive nature. Rose madder also has a unique chemical property that causes it to luminesce, or glow, an orange-pink color when exposed to ultraviolet light. A quick look with a UV LED flashlight can help confirm whether or not the pink on an object is madder.
Marble sculpture fragment KM 1931.441 from Seleucia with pink pigment between fingers and inside elbow.
Despite its tendency to fade, I am finding pink on everything from terracotta figurines to marble sculpture to limestone grave markers. I’m also finding it in different hues and on different decorative elements, from flesh tones to jewelry to architecture. It turns out pink is everywhere at the Kelsey, and it is pretty fascinating.
Last week I returned from a few weeks of work at the site of El-Kurru, Sudan, where a project directed by Kelsey Museum research scientist Geoff Emberling explores both an ancient royal cemetery of the Napatan kings and how an archaeological research project can connect with and celebrate contemporary cultural heritage in the community surrounding it. My time at El-Kurru this year was short but productive, and below are a few of the big highlights for me.
First, I got to work with conservation architect Kelly Wong on multiple projects, including conservation planning for the El-Kurru pyramid known as Ku. 1. This included a lot of fun investigation and problem solving, as well as mixing and testing of construction mortars. Our favorite mortar formulation was then applied to a joint in the pyramid to see how it will hold up over the next year. If you’re reading this as a conservator (or a mason) and thinking, But wait, isn’t that pyramid dry masonry? Yes, it is. But we have an interesting situation where the walls are moving in response to pressure from the rubble core, thus we’re testing different methods for stabilizing the outer masonry shell.
Second, IPCAA student Caitlin Clerkin and I recorded a series of short videos for an upcoming Kelsey exhibition — Graffiti as Devotion along the Nile: El-Kurru, Sudan. For these, we asked people to tell us either about their favorite ancient graffito at the site, or to share something they wanted people to know about the site. Each person had something different to say, things we probably would never have heard if we hadn’t been doing these videos! Among the people we talked to were Anwar Mahajoub and Bakri Abdelmoneim, both of whom work on the El-Kurru project but are also from El-Kurru village. They talked about growing up playing soccer within sight of the ancient cemetery and how they feel about their work now, as part of the international team working to study and preserve it.
A third thing I really enjoyed was an afternoon spent baking bread with Marwa Mahajoub, Anwar’s sister. And yes, I do consider this conservation work! If bread isn’t an important form of cultural heritage to celebrate and preserve, I don’t know what is. Marwa has worked with the project for several years, and when Anwar discovered that a group of us were interested in baking, he volunteered her to teach us how she makes the bread for their family. Happily for us, she was cool with this. Bread is a big deal in Sudan — it’s not only your main carbohydrate at each meal, it’s also your utensil. Many people don’t have ovens at home and instead buy bread at one of several town bakeries, all of which use wood-fired ovens. Fresh bread out of one of these bakeries is fantastic but, as we discovered, the bread is even more delicious when it’s baked at home.
One of the best parts of being a conservator, in my view, is the opportunity to do research. Here at the Kelsey, we do a lot of research in support of the conservation and care of the Museum’s collections as well as Kelsey-sponsored archaeological field projects. In our efforts, we accumulate a lot of books. Sure, plenty of information we use comes to us in PDF or other non-print format. Yet somehow, even in this digital age, books of all shapes, sizes, and subjects have taken up residence in our lab at a starling rate, to the point where things start to go missing among the piles. From time to time — often at the behest of a lending library or a fellow researcher — we let go of a few of them. A recent “return” pile made me laugh. The stack contained books on trade routes, conservation materials, geochemistry, Egyptian painting, and at least three other seemingly unrelated topics. The only thing these books had in common was the fact that they are bound blocks of text with chapters, references, and page numbers. They were otherwise complete strangers, hailing from disparate corners of the bibliographic universe.
Why so many books? One reason is that Suzanne and I have made a big push recently to publish some of the research we’re doing. This means checking sources, conducting literature reviews, and verifying information left and right. The research itself has been pretty wide-ranging, from computational imaging of ancient graffiti to chemical analysis of pigments on artifacts. This is where the diverse subject matter of the books in our lab starts to make sense. Conservators often find themselves needing to answer many different types of research questions. Sometimes these focus on figuring out how cultural materials were made and used. But more often than that, they’re about developing ways to characterize and slow artifact deterioration. Cultural heritage preservation is our primary goal, after all! Conservators have always been active in presenting their work at conferences, and an increasing number are publishing their practical experiences in books and journals. This means more peer review, and even more helpful references to fill our lab with. All good things, in my book!
Last month, I returned from fieldwork at El Kurru, the Kelsey’s excavation project in Sudan. It was a good season overall, but also a bit odd. It felt to me like a season where almost nothing worked out the way we’d planned. For example, the conservation worklist included stabilization of cracked columns in the funerary temple with a lime-based mortar. I’ve done work like this on many other projects and expected it to go smoothly, but it didn’t. Amaris Sturm — conservation intern this year at El Kurru, and a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow in conservation at the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation — ended up testing twenty-six (!) different grout mixtures before hitting on one we were happy with. For other team members, equipment was delayed or couldn’t get through customs, supplies didn’t arrive, and work plans had to be altered mid-season.
In retrospect, it was a season of significant progress on multiple fronts, but at the time … at the time, I often felt like nothing was working and it was seriously frustrating. When I think about it now, my time onsite this year was a small lesson in persistence and a demonstration of the power of kaizen. This philosophy (which originated in the U.S. but became popular in Japan following WWII) advocates continuous improvement by making small changes or taking small steps. In Arabic, people often say, “shwaya-shwaya” to mean, “a little bit,” or “little-by-little.” For me, it was a shwaya-shwaya season, and in the end we accomplished most of what we’d set out to do.
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.