Artistry revealed in Ancient Greek vase.

17 Oct

Under beams of X-rays, the colours of art become the colours of chemistry. The mysterious blacks, reds and whites of ancient Greek pottery can be read in elements – iron, potassium , calcium and zinc –  and art history may be rewritten.


Image on Greek vase.( Image) https://2.bp.blogspot,com


Image: https:// 1.bp

Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center worked with SLAC scientists to explore the chemistry hidden under the paintings on this Greek flask.The chemical map image  shows calcium(green) matching the white areas in the driver’s tunic  and dot accents, and iron (red) and potassium (blue) matching the black of the horse and figure silhouettes. (Credit : SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)

That’s the power of a growing collaboration between the Cantor Arts Center’s Art and Science Learning Lab, art and science faculty, and the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation  Light source  (SSRL) at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

Having a faculty like SSRL just up the hill from the Cantor’s conservation lab lends a unique opportunity for students to probe cultural mysteries with advanced scientific tools, say Susan Roberts- Manganelli,director of the Learning Lab. About two years ago she started a fellowship for science students interested in studying art conservation. She works closely with SSRL scientific staff to mentor students bringing delicate, valuable art objects to SLAC in search of discoveries that benefit art and science


A chemical map of Greek art revealed that a calcium-based colour additive was used for white, which would have added an additional step .It also raised questions about the firing process due to the absence of zinc in the black regions. It had been assumed that a zinc additive was key to achieving  the black figures in the heating process.(Credit SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)


“We can do a lot of testing here at the Cantor,” Roberts Manganelli says, “But some studies need more robust collaboration and more powerful   X-rays to actually get answers to our questions.”  One such study, done by Kevin Chow, BS’ 13, when he was a senior in collaboration with Stanford, SLAC and the Getty Conservation Institute, took a deeper look at the techniques of the  ancient Greek potters, which are difficult to reproduce and not entirely understood. Using a technique called synchrotron X-ray fluorescence, the team was able to uncover surprising steps in the production process that challenge the conventional understanding.


Athenian oil-flask ( Lekythos) from 500-480 BC; decorated in the black-figure technique (Credit SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)

“Under what they thought was a single coat, they found other instances of painting that the naked eye could not see,” says Chow’s advisor Jody Maxim, associate professor of art and art history and of classics. “It was thrilling to learn that a very humble vase – hundreds of these were produced for the Festival of Athena every four years – shows certain standards of aesthetic excellence. The artists invested more in his work than we had given him credit for.”

Such collaboration spark scientific innovation as well. Well conserved art objects allow researchers to look at uniquely complex materials of a certain age that generate intriguing chemistry questions and require new techniques, says SLAC staff scientist Apurva Mechta, who is also an affiliated faculty member at the Stanford Archaeology Center. ” We had to find a way to see all layers of the Greek pot in detail, which is something we want to do for other materials that might be used in batteries or electronics.”


A custom-made mount held the delicate pot during a rotational scan at SSRL

(Credit SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)

Source: SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory)



Posted by on October 17, 2016 in Uncategorized


10 responses to “Artistry revealed in Ancient Greek vase.

  1. Aquileana

    October 21, 2016 at 12:49 pm

    These discoveries certainly challenge the conventional understanding… I had no idea or would have ever thought that calcium-based colour additives were used in this pieces!… a very interesting share,d ear Rita! thank you… sending best wishes. Aquileana 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ritaroberts

    October 22, 2016 at 5:01 pm

    Yes Aquileana, I found it quite intriguing . Thanks for your interest and nice comment. Best wishes to you also.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Linnea Tanner

    October 24, 2016 at 4:40 pm

    What a wonderful post, Rita. It is fascinating how modern technology provides insight on the composition of the additives. Ancient civilizations continue to fascinate me with their endearing artwork that has lasted for centuries. Thank you for sharing.


    Liked by 1 person

  4. ritaroberts

    October 24, 2016 at 5:22 pm

    Thanks for your comment Linnea. I also am fascinated in the new technology which is revealing many outstanding things we did not know about the ancient civilizations. There must be more to come.


  5. cav12

    October 30, 2016 at 7:50 am

    What a fascinating article. The colours the Ancient Greeks used and no doubt other ancient civilisations, have more depth and chemical interactions than we give them credit for. Not so one dimensional at all.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. ritaroberts

    October 30, 2016 at 6:56 pm

    Hi Cav12 I agree ! The colours are so vibrant. The ancients techniques were so clever that, is it any wonder they are now antiquities of the highest standards. When I visit museums I just stand looking in awe at them. Thanks for reading and comment much appreciated.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Anne

    November 5, 2016 at 2:55 am

    Amazing, Rita…thank you for sharing


  8. ritaroberts

    November 5, 2016 at 8:52 am

    Thanks for reading and your nice comment Anne. Also for all your Rts. Have a great weekend.


  9. vallance22

    November 7, 2016 at 7:31 am


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