Archaeology’s Hidden Secrets | May 20, 2013 Issue - Vol. 91 Issue 20 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 91 Issue 20 | p. 8 | News of The Week
Issue Date: May 20, 2013 | Web Date: May 17, 2013

Archaeology’s Hidden Secrets

Ancient Ivory: Metal traces on Phoenician artifacts show long-gone paint and gold
Department: Science & Technology
News Channels: Analytical SCENE, Nano SCENE
Keywords: Phoenician, ivory, pigments, gold
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This Phoenician sculpture made of ivory was once gilded.
Credit: Courtesy of Musée du Louvre/R. Chipault
This is a photo of Phoenician ivory.
 
This Phoenician sculpture made of ivory was once gilded.
Credit: Courtesy of Musée du Louvre/R. Chipault

Ancient ivory carvings made by Phoenician artists some 3,000 years ago have long hidden a secret, even while being openly displayed in museums around the world: The sculptures were originally painted with colorful pigments, and some were decorated with gold.

Researchers based in France and Germany report chemical analyses showing that 8th-century B.C. Phoenician ivory artifacts bear metal traces that are invisible to the naked eye (Anal. Chem. 2013, DOI: 10.1021/ac4006167).

These metals are found in pigments commonly used in antiquity, such as the copper-based pigment Egyptian blue or the iron-based pigment hematite. The metals are not normally in ivory nor in the soil where the artifacts were long buried, explains Ina Reiche, a chemist at the Laboratory of Molecular & Structural Archaeology, in Paris. Reiche led the research, which was performed on ivory originally unearthed in Syria and now held at Baden State Museum, in Karlsruhe, Germany.

Phoenicians were seafaring Semitic traders who pioneered the use of an alphabet later adopted in ancient Greece, and they controlled the valuable royal-purple pigment trade throughout the Mediterranean during the period 1500–300 B.C.

Scholars had suspected that Phoenician ivory sculptures might initially have been painted, but to date most studies had examined just a few spots on ivory surfaces, Reiche says. Her team used a synchrotron to do X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy to analyze the entire surface of the artifacts with micrometer resolution, revealing the spatial distribution of the lost pigmentation.

“Knowledge of an object’s original appearance can help us understand why it was so visually powerful to ancient viewers,” says Benjamin W. Porter, an archaeologist at the University of California, Berkeley. And there are plenty of important objects to examine, he adds. “This technique is transferable to other kinds of ancient art whose pigments have been weathered, from the palace wall reliefs of the Assyrian empire to Egyptian tomb paintings to everyday ceramic vessels whose decorations have been worn.”

 
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Comments
Peter John (Mon May 20 23:41:56 EDT 2013)
The wings and the head gear seems to be quite similar to Egyptian motifs. The Winds are also similar to Babylonia motifs. I wonder if these civilization have some common origin or this is just the result of cross fertilization.
diane ferguson (Tue May 21 07:31:22 EDT 2013)
Wind and thunder were ubiquitous in the middle east, as well as Etruria at that time(bronze- iron age). The Greek God Zeus, Etruscan Tinia and Turkish Tarchon are just a few examples of the 'thunder god' cult.
Historian (Wed May 22 04:55:00 EDT 2013)
If you look at the similarities between ancient Egyptian and Hindu cultures, you wonder the same thing.
diane ferguson (Thu May 23 13:00:40 EDT 2013)
Since you mention Hindu cultures I have noticed a simultaneous pottery production of Northern Polished Black ware in the Gangetic Plains 500 BCE and a similar, almost identical bottery called bucchero in Etruria exactly same type/timeframe. Yet there are no scholastic connections between the two that I have found. Any thoughts?
Historian (Thu May 30 01:27:03 EDT 2013)
I guess it would be best to do an isotope analysis of both types to see if they were manufactured locally, or arrived by trade.
diane ferguson (Thu May 23 13:00:40 EDT 2013)
Since you mention Hindu cultures I have noticed a simultaneous pottery production of Northern Polished Black ware in the Gangetic Plains 500 BCE and a similar, almost identical bottery called bucchero in Etruria exactly same type/timeframe. Yet there are no scholastic connections between the two that I have found. Any thoughts?
Binns (Tue May 28 17:19:40 EDT 2013)
The easiest explanation is that the ancient world was not as isolated as many believe. We have lost more of our knowledge and culture than we have now with all the advances in science. I looked at a couple sites on the Gangetic Plains excavations and compared it with Bucchero. The only conclusion for the same design probably stems from the trade between the east, during this time in India a new regim had taken over and started expanding, and the west, Italy and Greece have always played an important role in ancient history. The pottery could have also found it's way in through Egypt which would require a find from that time period there. It is a good topic and question that deserves some study either way.
Historian (Thu May 30 01:25:26 EDT 2013)
I have to agree with Binns. I think that the ancient world was far more connected that we thought. Linguists also need to consider this. For example, I had noticed that the languages of Southern India sound a lot like the aboriginal language of Australia. Recent DNA evidence has shown that people from southern India did in fact settle in Australia thousands of years ago, mixing with the first settlers. (BBC.com)

Similarly, there are a lot of commonalities between Hindi and Sanskrit words and Mandarin and Korean words, yet the Oriental civilizations are always treated as having evolved in isolation.

Regarding Diane's question, I think a re-analysis of the relationships and co-evolution of all of the pan-theistic ancient religions is warranted.
Robin J. DeWitt Knauth (Fri May 24 11:52:45 EDT 2013)
Phoenicia was under the direct political control of Egypt for 400 years during the Late Bronze Age (prior to the date of these artifacts), and so Egyptian motifs had a profound influence on Phoenician art. In addition, during the Middle Bronze Age, there were the active Old Assyrian trade networks, extensive trade and diplomatic relations, and intermarriage between Old Babylonian kingdoms and those in the vicinity of Phoenicia. For example, King Zimri-Lim of Mari was married to a princess of Yamhad in Syria, and took refuge there during the reign of Shamshi-Adad prior to Hammurabi's establishment of the Old Babylonian Empire. Hammurabi and Zimri-Lim were ethnic Amorites, meaning their families probably came from the area of Syria prior to their taking significant leadership roles in Mesopotamia. See the Mari Letters (Middle Bronze Age) and the Amarna Letters (Late Bronze Age) as just a small sample of evidence for cultural interaction over centuries.
Sarah Mangan (Tue May 21 01:40:37 EDT 2013)
This is simalar to the "white" marble scuptures of thr Romans and the pyramids of the Americas ,they were also painted.
badran ghosn (Sat May 25 01:23:46 EDT 2013)
hi... we had found new ancient phoenician ivories some are not seen before..like ancient phoenician ship and ancient phoenician venus etc...to see go

flickr.com/photos/badranghosn/
Garry Sandison (Tue May 28 13:08:27 EDT 2013)
Does this research paper transform the established notion of "chryselephantine"? According to the nearest dictionary to hand just now (Collins English), "chryselephantine" is a nineteenth-century word that means "made of or overlaid with gold and ivory" - but only in relation, specifically, to "ancient Greek statues". Moreover, the cited etymology is "from Greek khruselephantinos, from khrusos (gold) + elephas (ivory)". In other words, this is a modern scientific term with a profoundly hellenocentric and occidental bias. Thus, for example, the statue, by Phidias, of Zeus at Olympia, was one of the seven wonders of the world; similarly famous was the same sculptor's statue of Athena Parthenos. Such works as these epitomise the image of ivory-and-gold statues as part of the special contribution of classical Greece to world heritage. But perhaps the work of Reiche et al. raises the question: Just how far might the chryselephantine art of the Greeks have been indebted to Phoenician (semitic, oriental) precursors?

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