Northwestern researchers use novel methods to study ancient artifacts

Matthew Choi, Assistant Campus Editor

A team of Northwestern researchers led by McCormick Prof. Marc Walton used innovative techniques to study Roman-Egyptian artifacts, revealing the evolution of different painting techniques in the Byzantine world.

Using novel methods to examine the 2,000-year-old mummy portraits from the Tebtunis archeological site in Egypt, researchers were able to examine the different layers of pigments, uncovering the origins of different materials and methods used in creating the portraits.

Walton presented the findings at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington D.C. on Sunday.

Two scientists on the team, McCormick Profs. Oliver Cossairt and Aggelos Katssaggelos, developed methods for analyzing the artifacts, including computational cameras to map the physical geography of the portraits. Doing so allowed researchers to study brush strokes, revealing methods used to create the portraits.

“Our materials analysis provides a fresh and rich archaeological context for the Tebtunis portraits, reflecting the international perspective of these ancient Egyptians,” Walton said in a news release. “For example, we found that the iron-earth pigments most likely came from Keos in Greece, the red lead from Spain and the wood substrate on which the portraits are painted came from central Europe.”

The team collaborated with conservators at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, where the artifacts are currently housed.

Walton is a member of the Northwestern University/Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts. NU-ACCESS is based out of McCormick and focuses on using scientific methods to study art history.

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Twitter: @matthewchoi2018