Molten lava, volcanic ash, modern grime, salt, humidity – this ancient painting of a Roman woman has been through it all.
But a new type of high-resolution X-ray technology is helping scientists discover just how stunning the original portrait once was, element by element.
The technique could help conservators more precisely restore the image, and other ancient artworks, to their former glory.
Molten lava, volcanic ash, modern grime, salt, humidity, this ancient painting of a Roman woman has been through it all and it looks like it. But a new type of high-resolution X-ray technology is helping scientists discover just how stunning the original portrait once was
Herculaneum was an ancient Roman resort town near modern-day Naples on the Italian coast.
The city, along with nearby Pompeii, was destroyed during an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D.
For centuries, Herculaneum was buried under 66 feet of volcanic material, which helped preserve much of the artwork in the city.
Ironically, it was only when Herculaneum was rediscovered and excavation began in the mid-19th century that many of the paintings, frescos and statues started to deteriorate.
Humidity, temperature variations, salt and other atmospheric agents have done most of the damage.
The portrait of the young woman, for instance, was only excavated about 70 years ago.
In one of the first field studies of its kind, researchers from the Pratt Institute in New York used a recently developed portable macro X-ray fluorescence instrument.
With it, they scanned and analysed a painting of a young woman found in the ancient city of Herculaneum.
This new instrument allows scientists to examine a painting without having to move it or have the device come into contact with the artwork.
It can produce maps of the elements, such as iron, lead and copper, contained in the painting.
Dr Eleonora Del Federico, from Pratt Institute’s School of Liberal Arts and Sciences, speculates that when the picture was first uncovered, it was probably stunning.
But a few decades of exposure to the elements has wrought incalculable damage to it.
Speaking to MailOnline, Dr Del Federico said: ‘This is as far as we know the very first study of a fresco painting in situ and on site at its original setting.
‘What is most remarkable from my point of view is that the portrait is so degraded that it is insignificant.
‘In fact, many books on Herculaneum about this house don’t even mention her.
‘However when we look at the map of Iron atoms, it reveals a beautiful young woman caught in a moment of deep thought.
After she used the X-ray method, Dr Del Federico says she was surprised at how much detail it uncovered.
The analysis revealed that the artist had sketched the young woman with an iron-based pigment and then highlighted around her eyes with a lead pigment.
An iron element map (right) reveals the underlying craftsmanship hidden beneath the damaged portrait (left). The analysis revealed the artist had sketched the young woman with an iron-based pigment and then highlighted around her eyes with a lead pigment
Researchers used a recently developed portable macro X-ray fluorescence instrument (pictured). It allows scientists to examine a painting without having to move it or have the device come into contact with the artwork
The portrait (circled) s that the portrait was so degraded that it was seen as insignificant. Many books on Herculaneum about the house in which it is found don’t make mention of it
High levels of potassium in her cheeks suggested that green earth pigment was used as an underpainting to help create a ‘flesh’ colour.
Dr Del Federico says these insights could help conservators choose cleaning solvents that are compatible with the elements in a painting.
It could also allow much of its original magnificence to be restored.
She added: ‘Science is allowing us to get closer to the people who lived in Herculaneum.
Herculaneum was an ancient Roman resort town near modern-day Naples on the Italian coast. For centuries, Herculaneum was buried under 66 feet of volcanic material, which helped preserve much of the artwork in the city
The city, along with nearby Pompeii (pictured), was destroyed during an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD
‘By unravelling the details of wall paintings that are no longer visible to the naked eye, we are in essence bringing these ancient people back to life. ‘
‘This is very significant from the point of view of bringing back to life other fresco paintings already considered lost given the state of accelerated decay experienced by Herculaneum and Pompeii and other archaeological sites.
‘And learning more about the materials and techniques they used will help us to better preserve this artistry for future generations.’
The researchers are presenting their work today at the 254th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS).
X-RAY LETS EXPERTS PEER INSIDE THE HERCULANEUM SCROLLS
In March, 2016, scientists announced they had used a form of X-ray imaging to peer inside the Herculaneum scrolls without breaking the fragile papyrus.
The Herculaneum papyri were discovered between 1752 and 1754 by workmen of the Bourbon royal family as they were digging in the remains of an ancient villa.
They contain a number of Greek philosophical texts and feature considerable amounts of text by the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus of Gadara.
The technique allowed them to see the text they contained for the first time in 2,000 years.
Some of the texts from what is called the Villa of the Papyri have been deciphered after being discovered in the 1750s.
But many more remain a mystery because they were so badly damaged.
It was feared that unrolling the papyrus they were written on would have destroyed them completely.
Researchers used a technique called X-ray phase contrast tomography, which has previously been used to examine fossils without damaging them.
Phase contrast tomography takes advantage of subtle differences in the way radiation – such as X-rays – pass through different substances, in this case papyrus and ink.
Using the technology at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France, the researchers found they were able to decipher several letters in one of the scrolls, proving that the method could be used to read what’s hidden inside others.
The only clearly distinct marks found inside the document, are rounded or oblique traces – shapes that are not easily confused with papyrus fibres – which run vertically and horizontally, the researchers said.
For example, letters are A, B, D, E, Z, Y, K, L, M, N, O, P, C, U, F, X, C and O are easy to decipher. While G, H, I, X, P and T are more easily confused.
On one fragment, the sequence of Greek capital letters PIPTOIE could be read, and the researchers believe it may read ‘would fall.’