Time Through Colours: Analysis of Painted Artefacts in Their Archaeological, Historical and Sociological Contexts

Research project


The Research Project, to be held in three years, deals with the analysis of artefacts, mainly pottery, stored and displayed in the Ashmolean Museum of Oxford in the United Kingdom. It is archaeological material principally coming from archaeological excavations made in Mesopotamia, Northern Syrian and the Levant. The project, coordinated by the Sapienza University of Rome, with the participation of the Research Units of the University of Perugia (Department of Man and Territory) and the University of Cagliari (Department of Physics), aims at studying and analysing, through the spectroscopy Raman, the pottery and clay objects from Mesopotamia, mainly, that bear a painted surface (pots and clay figurines); finally, as a case-study that can be used as a special test to verify past chemical and physical analyses, paintings from Pompei, stored in the faculties apf Humanities and Agrarian sciences at the University of Perugia.
The spectroscopy Raman, in fact, works through the analyses of painted surfaces of objects and artefacts; in that way, is can offers two kinds of results and data: on one hand, the analyses Raman reveal the chemical composition of colours used thus giving important hints and directions for restoration and conservation. On the other hand, the spectroscopy Raman gives important and decisive information on chronology of paints and the fabrication of the object. For what concern archaeological materials, the spectroscopy Raman has been partially employed up to now with similar analyses to detect composition and nature of the colours and clay used, and the date of the items analysed). In fact, the research project essentially plans the application of Raman analyses to clay objects to start experiments that can thus offer new results and data about the chronology of the cultures of southern and central Mesopotamia (in particular, the succession of cultures from the end of the fourth millennium to the advent of the Akkadian power at about 2300 BC).; such analyses should indeed contribute to resolve chronological problems of the subdivision of this so important and crucial period of Mesopotamian history. At the same time, chemical information aim at analysing and understanding the techniques of production of ancient objects and, therefore, at detecting and clarifying the origin of raw materials in a region, as Mesopotamia, that has always been characterized by a strong network of exchanges and trades with both neighbouring and distant regions. Indeed at micrometric scale, the ceramic consist of several crystal phases, where the composition and size depend on the technology used, and then from the historic period of training. Raman and Micro-Raman analysis allows to identify the main elements and to assign the crystal phases at microscopic scale by focalizing the laser beam and can be applied, with the help of archaeologists, to gather the information about the provenience of the sample.
Moreover, results of the chemical composition of colours and processing of surfaces of pots and other containers allow to study in detail the value and significance of colouring and processing of slipping: this indeed has not a decorative finality (or at least not exclusively), but it constitutes a more significant intervention to change the function of the object that is more solid so as to keep liquids and for the preparation of special kinds of food. In fact, also pottery of the Roman period stored tat the University of Perugia will also be part of the Raman analyses to analyse and verify the manufacture of some pottery (as for example the class of cooking pottery) to get a waterproof surface.
For what concerns the other category of objects stored in the Ashmolean Museum of Oxford, the Raman spectroscopy can thus give new data and stimulates the reflection on a revaluation and reconsideration of clay figurines: in fact, Raman analyses can even detect ancient tracks of paints that disappeared and are no longer visible to the naked eye. Even in this case, the presence (or absence) of paint pushes the reflection and analysis on the categories and typologies of this kind of artefacts as it has been done in the past. Actually, the presence or absence of painted surface, more than an iconographic and stylistic matter, can be the occasion to think of the real value and use of these figurines (mass produced) that archaeologists find in every archaeological context, in Mesopotamia and in the Near East, diachronically.
The use of Raman spectroscopy has been mostly employed in the domain of art history, specially to study paintings, frescoes and establish their date and define the most correct procedure for restoration since one of the Raman results deals with the knowledge of the chemical composition of colours used and thus the following chemical reaction in the process of restoration; in fact, all these Raman analyses are non-intrusive and non-destructive and they do not damage the integrity of artefacts and work of art; on the contrary, they supply all necessary information to get the right solution to restore the work properly.
This king of analysis has not been largely employed in archaeology, although recently some analyses have been carried out on archaeological items using the Raman spectroscopy by the British Museum of London: the British Museum has its own laboratory and Raman equipment, and recently it promoted a series of Raman analyses of some near eastern artefacts to study and detect the painted surface.
The research project we are presenting principally aims at analysing pottery from Mesopotamia to define chronologies starting from a different set of information and procedures that, necessarily, must then be confronted with stratigraphy archaeological sites and chronological tables previously arranged according to confronts and archaeological contexts. This approach, including the systematic analysis of Mesopotamian artefacts coming from archaeological excavations (with the collection of pottery coming from Kish in the Ashmolean Museum of Oxford), aims at creating a permanent laboratory where Raman analyses are not a sporadic and occasional instrument to confront and control traditional chronological tables; on the contrary, Raman analyses, it would be really preferable, can be a constant methodological instrument of the archaeological research: first, the results of Raman spectroscopy directly involve archaeology with the impact on chronology; indeed Raman spectroscopy involves following stages of the archaeological research as the concrete and precise information on the restoration of painted plaster, paintings (as for example the most famous group of Pompei frescoes), with suitable operation that keep and preserve the original shape of the artefact (even respecting the nature of the original products used by ancient people).
Effective start/end date1/1/12 → …




Raman spectroscopy
Chemical composition
Archaeological excavations
Clay figurines
Archaeological research
Archaeological context
Archaeological sites