About the Tracking Colour Project
Reviving the colours of ancient sculpture – and architecture.
Since about 1900, many scholars have known that ancient sculpture was polychrome, ‘multicoloured’. However, in the minds of a very large majority, it has remained marble white to this day.
Over the last couple of decades, however, research on ancient sculptural polychromy has experienced a decisive breakthrough. This has come about because conservation science and the natural sciences – especially chemistry and physics – have teamed up with the humanities of classical archaeology, classical philology, ancient history and the history of art.
As insight into the use of colour in ancient sculpture increases, understanding of our classical past is profoundly changed. For most people, it is a positive, fascinating change.
And it must be kept in mind that colour is not only returning to ancient sculpture, but to ancient architecture as well, changing conceptions just as radically: the polychromy of ancient sculpture and architecture must studied as aspects of one and the same visual culture.
The aim of the Tracking Colour project is to deepen and expand our knowledge base – and to communicate what we find to the public.
To achieve this aim, we are taking a close look at the collection of Greek and Roman sculpture in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. This website is an integrated part of that endeavour.
By scrolling below you will find further information on:
Organization and funding
Organization and funding
Tracking Colour is an interdisciplinary project. This is reflected in the organizational framework. It’s called The Copenhagen Polychromy Network, or the CPN for short, comprising archaeology, conservation, chemistry, physics and geology. An article in the Tracking Colour preliminary report 1, 2009, contains more detailed information. Updated information can be found in a more recent article in the annual bulletin of the Medelhavsmuseet in Stockholm, Focus on the Mediterranean 6, 2011.
The CPN comprises Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek and, as external partners, the Museum of Geology / Natural History Museum of Denmark, the Institute of Chemistry / Technical University of Denmark and the School of Conservation of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.
The Glyptotek heads the project through a directing research curator in classical archaeology. The museum provides the research objects, project administration and coordination, as well as classical archaeological and technical conservation expertise. Besides the project director, the staff has consisted of two half-time conservation technicians and a Ph.D. student.
Each external CPN partner has a network representative. The representatives offer vital advice, professional input and access to analytical technologies not available at the museum. This constitutes the core of the interdisciplinarity of the project. The external partners also funnel students into the project as interns, stimulating interest in the research field.
The methodologies are given in the section on ‘Methods’.
As for funding, core staff were paid by the museum until 2011. From then on, and until May 31st, 2013, the project was financed by a generous grant from the Carlsberg Foundation. Vital support was given in 2009 and 2010 by the Kirsten and Freddy Johansen Foundation, for the acquisition of high-end optical and digital microscopes.
Research on ancient sculptural polychromy is an international undertaking. We are in contact with a number of other interdisciplinary projects in Europe and the US:
Under the auspices of the Stiftung Archäologie, the team led by Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann has established a synergy between research and dissemination of research results to a wider public through the international travelling exhibition ‘Bunte Götter’.
A significant contribution has been made by a Greek-French project, directed by Brigitte Bourgeois and Philippe Jockey, dealing with the surface treatment of Late Hellenistic marble sculpture from Delos. Final publication is under preparation, but important articles have already been published.
At the Musée du Louvre, the highly sophisticated polychromy of large Late Hellenistic terracotta statuettes has been discovered by Brigitte Bourgeois, Violaine Jeammet and Sandrine Pagès-Camagna.
Paolo Liverani (Università di Firenze) and Ulderico Santamaria (Laboratoio di Ricerce Scientifiche, Musei Vaticani) have continued their collaboration. After the work done on the Augustus Prima Porta and the polychrome marble veneering in the Aula del Colosso of the Forum of Augustus, they have concentrated on the polychromy of Early Christian sarcophagi.
At the Institute of Greek and Roman Antiquity of the Hellenic National Research Foundation in Athens, Hariclia Brecoulaki is a mainstay of interdisciplinary polychromy research in Greece. At present she is collaborating with physio-chemist Sophia Sotiropoulou of the Ormylia Foundation.
The British Museum has since 2010 been investigating selected Greek and Roman sculptures. The interdisciplinary project involves the Department of Greece and Rome and the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research. Important results were published by Verri, Opper and Deviese in 2010.
Under Archaeology at the University of Southampton, the Archaeological Computing Research Group has an on-going project led by Graeme Earl, studying a Roman sculpture from Herculaneum.
Working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until recently Mark Abbe has worked on ancient sculptural polychromy,
Mark now holds an assistant professorship at the University of Georgia where he will continue his work.
In Richmond, Virginia, the Virtual World Heritage Laboratory directed by Bernhard Frischer has conducted work on the portrait statue of Caligula in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, cf.
Visual investigation takes place at the museum. It follows preset protocols and standards, involving mavroscopy, technical photography and microscopy. Analytical investigation is mainly the province of our external partners in the CPN.
Until April 2012, the visual examination work space was located in a sculpture gallery. This was an asset in communicating the project to visitors, but eventually became a drawback. We ran out of space, and creating darkened conditions for technical photography was awkward. The work space therefore moved behind the scenes, but the communication function of the earlier space has been retained.
When a sculpture enters the work space, its history and any earlier conservation treatment has been researched. Its present state of conservation is described and the piece is systematically photographed in natural (Tungsten) light, followed by technical imaging to reveal traces of polychromy: Ultra Violet Fluorescence (UVF), Infra Red Reflectography (IR) and Visible-Induced Luminescence (VIL). The photographic documentation and investigation is followed by microscopy. Traces of pigment found may then be identified by non-invasive methods, primarily X-Ray Fluorescence spectrometry (XRF).
At this point, we may decide to turn to invasive methods. This involves removing pigment samples, usually the size of a full stop in a text. Such samples are subjected to analyses which may be destructive, involving the loss of the sample, or non-destructive.
The CPN external partners contribute staff time for a range of instrumental, analytical technologies for elemental pigment and colourant identification and characterization. The analyses carried out so far have included the use of the following: Scanning Electron Microscopy / Energy-Dispersive X-Ray spectroscopy (SEM/EDX) and Scanning Electron Microscopy / X-Ray Diffraction (SEM / XRD); Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR); Gas Chromatography – Mass Spectrometry (GC-MS; for binding media analysis); Raman Laser Spectroscopy; X-ray Fluorescence Spectroscopy (XRF; including portable XRF), and Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry (ICP-MS, for isotopic analysis).
The contribution made by the external partners to the project is absolutely vital and has so far, in principle, been provided free of charge. The present financial crisis makes it uncertain whether this can continue. In budget planning, payment for these services should now be foreseen.
These methods and their application in the project are the subject of a number of published articles.
In the summer of 2000, Vinzenz Brinkmann of the Glyptothek in Munich suggested that the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek and the Musei Vaticani might collaborate with his institution on a travelling exhibition dealing with ancient sculptural polychromy. It was intended to communicate the results of the seminal work done by Brinkmann since about 1980. Experimental archaeological reconstructions based on research data and executed by his wife Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann were to play a major part.
The exhibition opened in the Glyptothek in 2003, with the title ‘Bunte Götter. Die Farbigkeit antiker Skulptur’. In the spring of 2004, it was shown in the Glyptotek in Copenhagen, as ‘ClassiColor. Farven i antik skulptur’. Later the same year it opened at the Musei Vaticani, changing title to ‘Il colore del bianco’. The ‘Bunte Götter’ has since been presented at many other venues with considerable success.
The Copenhagen Polychromy Network, CPN
In Copenhagen, the exhibition was also well-received. A section devoted to the vital part played by conservation science and natural sciences attracted the interest of colleagues in those fields. By the spring of 2005, an interdisciplinary network focusing on ancient sculptural polychromy had come into being: the CPN, an interdisciplinary research partnership involving the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, the School of Conservation, the Institute of Chemistry at the Technical University of Denmark, and the Museum of Geology.
The CPN pilot project, 2005 – 2007/8
We decided to test the network’s capabilities through a pilot project focusing on the collection of Greek and Roman marble sculpture. In the selection of works for investigation, the criteria were above all the potential for acquiring good primary data and the degree to which the pieces were representative of the collection.
At the time, an Attic late classical marble funerary lekythos (IN 2564) and our portrait of Caligula (IN 2687) had been closely examined. We therefore turned to other classes of sculpture: an original Attic female head from around 420 BCE (IN 2830), an original Late Hellenistic colossal head of Zeus/Jupiter from Italy (IN 1664), and a 2nd century CE Roman ideal head of Asclepios (IN 2619).
Fortunately, we were in luck: working across disciplinary boundaries was inspiring, and exciting discoveries were made. The way was paved for a more concerted effort.
‘Tracking Colour’ 2008/9 till 2013
In 2008, the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek decided to embark for the first time on a research project of several years duration. Entitled ‘Tracking Colour. The polychromy of Greek and Roman sculpture in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek’, it was to be a continuation of the CPN’s pilot project. A full-time position as research curator and two half-time positions as project conservators were allotted. Furthermore, a PhD studentship in classical archaeology was allotted.
‘Transformations – Classical Sculpture in Colour’
In the autumn 2014 was an international exhibition at the Glyptotek entitled ‘Transformations – Classical Sculpture in Colour’. An exhibition catalogue in English is available on the webshop of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek.
The catalogue includes articles by a number of leading scholars in the field, which provide an overview of, and an insight into the fascinating polychromy of Greek and Roman sculpture.