Science meets Art: Investigating pigments in art and archaeology
By Ann Fenech, on 4 July 2011
The Lunch Hour Lecture series has been on tour for the last three weeks at the British Museum. Aptly enough, the last lecture of this ‘tour’ dealt with the meeting of two fields that sound very different, but that in reality can very much complement each other: science and art. As a PhD student at the Centre for Sustainable Heritage working in this very field I couldn’t miss it!
First the theory: In 1928, CV Raman, an Indian scientist, discovered that when light falls on an object most of it is scattered while keeping the original frequency of light falling on the material. However, some of the light also interacts with the molecules making up the material, in the process increasing or decreasing its energy. These interactions are highly specific to an individual molecule and can characterise a molecule quickly and uniquely. Raman Spectroscopy uses these phenomena to provide spectra of these side-bands, and hence, essentially, provide fingerprints of the molecules. This is the tool used most commonly to examine pigments.
Watch Professor Clark’s lecture at the British Museum (45 minutes)
Having explained the concepts behind the main technique he uses, Professor Clark then went on to provide examples of items he has studied in the past and what the conclusions of those studies were. He mentioned situations where identifying a pigment is important for purposes of restoration and conservation. He in fact discussed a painting where the areas of highlight on a hand actually appeared blacker, rather than whiter. A study of the pigment discovered that the original white pigment, lead carbonate, on exposure to sulfur dioxide (a pollutant), gave a black pigment, lead sulfide, leading to this unexpected appearance.
The examples that mostly intrigued me, however, were probably the ones where the authenticity of a work of art was in question. Professor Clark discussed a number of situations. In one case, rare postage stamps from Hawaii were identified as fake, as real stamps had the pigment ultramarine blue in the paper to make it appear whiter, while the fake ones didn’t. In another case, someone was trying to sell around 100 papyri for around £2 million each, but on even cursory examination he could identify that they were actually fake as they contained synthetic pigments that were not around during the time period they were supposedly produced. In another case, the papyrus was actually printed using an inkjet printer!
However, unfortunately, this technique cannot provide the answer to all questions! As Professor Clark explained, if you find a pigment in a work of art which should not be there, you can rule out the work of art immediately as either a fake or one that has been repainted. However, if you only find what you expect, that does not prove anything.
A very enlightening lecture, and one which clearly showed that, quoting Professor Robin Clark, “You admire it as a piece of art work [but] there is also excellent science”.