The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a collaborative group of California scientists from the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI), The Aerospace Corporation, and the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory (SLAC) at Stanford $495,723 over three years to investigate the chemical and physical makeup of Attic pottery—long considered to be the pinnacle of ancient ceramic craftsmanship.
The collaborative partnership received the grant as part of the NSF’s SCIART program which seeks to fund projects at the intersection of science and art.
Attic pottery, the iconic red-and-black figure pottery produced in ancient Greece from the 6th to the 4th centuries B.C., required immense precision to produce, and the means by which craftsman created these vessels is still not completely understood.
Led by Karen Trentelman, a conservation scientist at the GCI, along with GCI scientist Marc Walton, who helped develop the grant, the project team already is analyzing fragments of ancient pottery. Working with conservators and curators from the J. Paul Getty Museum to select fragments that have been attributed to specific artists, the scientific analysis will enable a characteristic material “signature” of known artists to be established, which should help unsigned works to be classified. In the process, the information they discover will provide a deeper understanding of ancient pottery techniques and inform future conservation methods, as well as create a deeper knowledge of iron spinel chemistry, used in the advanced ceramics found in aerospace applications.
The primary scientific techniques used will be x-ray absorption near edge structure (XANES), a spectroscopic tool used to determine iron oxidation states in the Attic pottery, which gives it the iconic black and red coloring; along with X-ray absorption fine structure (EXAFS) to provide information on the molecular structure of the iron minerals, and high resolution digital microscopy to study the surface of the work, among other analytical methods.
The scientists ultimately hope to uncover whether works attributed to different artists used the same methods, or if techniques for creating the work differed across workshops producing the pots at the same time. They also hope to document how the process evolved over time. The results are expected to impact a diverse range of fields in both art and science, including materials science, chemistry, archaeology, art history, and art conservation.
“By partnering with SLAC and The Aerospace Corporation, we can look at the artwork in a new way,” said Trentelman. “Scientific analysis gives us new insight into how and when the work was produced. In turn, our analysis can support hypotheses developed by art historians about ancient workshop practices, and also inform museum conservation efforts. Using nothing but clay dug from the ground, ancient craftsmen were able to create magnificent vessels with amazing detail. Something doesn’t need to be complex to be sophisticated. If we can understand the technology with which these works of art were made, we can use the knowledge for a surprisingly wide variety of applications.” The funding will in large part be used to support a postdoctoral student who will be able to work in all three labs in three very different environments.
This research is funded by the new National Science Foundation (NSF) SCIART Program, which supports collaborative research between academic, industrial and cultural heritage institutions. This program was developed out of a workshop jointly sponsored by the NSF and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
The Getty Conservation Institute works internationally to advance conservation practice in the visual arts-broadly interpreted to include objects, collections, architecture, and sites. The Institute serves the conservation community through scientific research, education and training, model field projects, and the dissemination of the results of both its own work and the work of others in the field. In all its endeavors, the GCI focuses on the creation and delivery of knowledge that will benefit the professionals and organizations responsible for the conservation of the world’s cultural heritage.