Analyzing Roman wall paintings

BY CAROLINE ROBERTS, Conservator, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

When I think about color in antiquity, I like to imagine how colors have weathered, or changed chemically over time, and the ways these changes impact how we see ancient paint surfaces. Ancient paint can be found on terracotta figurines, marble sculpture, and — most visibly — on wall paintings. The Kelsey Museum preserves a number of Roman wall painting fragments, and curator and professor Elaine Gazda has incorporated these artifacts into her history of art classes. One of Professor Gazda’s students, U-M senior D’Arcy Cook, has taken on the challenge of identifying the pigments from a group of these wall painting fragments.

D’Arcy is a chemical engineering major who is interested in archaeological chemistry and conservation science. Her primary research question was whether pigments on the Kelsey wall painting fragments matched what she had learned to expect based on published literature. To answer this question, D’Arcy used analytical techniques available in the Kelsey Conservation Laboratory and across campus. I felt this would be a great opportunity to learn more about artifacts in the Kelsey collection and to provide D’Arcy with experience analyzing ancient materials.

Using a scalpel, I removed milligram-sized samples of paint from the fragments. D’Arcy analyzed the samples using Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR), an analytical technique that identifies materials by detecting signals produced by their molecular bonds. Among other results, her analysis confirmed that Egyptian blue is present on one of the fragments — a pigment I also detected with a modified camera, and which we both observed using a polarized light microscope. Egyptian blue pigment was commonly used by the Romans on wall paintings and sculpture.

This project illustrates how technical research works best by incorporating multiple, cross-checking analytical techniques, and depends on scientists, art historians, and conservators to happen. Many thanks D’Arcy, to Elaine and the Kelsey curators, and to the U-M Chemistry department and EMAL laboratory for their help with this research!

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Sampling photograph showing plaster and paint layers on a piece of wall plaster.

 

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Visible (VIS), infrared reflected (IRR), infrared reflected false color (IRR-FC), and visible-induced infrared luminescence (VIL) images. The white luminescence in the VIL image shows the presence of Egyptian blue.

Installing Oplontis

BY CAROLINE ROBERTS, Conservator, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

For the past four weeks it has been all hands on deck at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. Indeed, it has taken the entire Kelsey village – curators, registrars, conservators, educators, and exhibit coordinators – to bring Oplontis to life.

The first step in installing Oplontis was to receive the objects. Over 30 crates of artifacts arrived from Italy nearly five weeks ago. Kelsey collections managers were at the Museum (very) early in the morning to oversee the movement of the crates from truck to loading dock to gallery. The crates were allowed to adjust to the climate of the Kelsey galleries for about a day before being opened.

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The Nike sculpture travels from the first to the second floor galleries

 

Our next step was to unpack and install the artifacts. We did this with the help of two couriers, Giuseppe Zolfo, Head of Conservation at Herculaneum, and Stefania Giudice, Conservator at Pompeii. Giuseppe and Stefania checked the condition of artifacts as they were unpacked and helped install them in cases, on stands, and on top of columns. Both Giuseppe and Stefania have traveled to numerous museums around the world to assist with the installation of artifacts from the Pompeii area, and we’re grateful for their help in installing the Oplontis artifacts and sculpture.

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Stefania Giudice examines a wall painting fragment

 

The wall painting fragments that appear suspended on the gallery walls took many days to install, their positions needing to align with their reconstructed backgrounds. The coins and jewelry in the Villa B area were expertly mounted by Stefania and Giuseppe using covered pins and shaped metal rods. You may wonder how we moved the massive strong box onto its base. The box is too fragile to lift manually, but it is set on wheels, which allowed us to roll it from its crate onto the base with the help of a wooden block. We installed the large sculptures with the help of a company specializing in the movement and installation of works of art.

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Giuseppe and Scott install wall painting fragments

 

Our final steps will be to install the lighting and text before the exhibition opens. This is by far the largest installation I have been a part of, and it has been a fantastic learning opportunity. Among other things, I feel much more adept at using a drill.