A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Not Quite Ancient
When University of Georgia archaeologist Mark Abbe first saw the fragment of sculpture at the University of Mississippi Museum, the light was low and he didn’t get a very good look. Yet Abbe was intrigued by the faint traces of color he saw on its white marble surface. At the time, he couldn’t have imagined why the relief struck him as different from the thousands of other ancient sculptures he had seen. Wanting to know more, museum Director Robert Saarnio allowed Abbe to bring the relief to the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens. “As soon as I got it back here under good light, I thought, ‘Wait a second, this isn’t like anything I have seen before,’” says Abbe.
While only the section depicting the god Hermes exists, the fragment is actually part of a celebrated ancient composition known as the “Orpheus Relief.” This scene shows Hermes leading the nymph Eurydice back to the underworld after her final parting from her beloved Orpheus. Back in Athens, Abbe and Jeff Speakman of the Center for Applied Isotope Studies used hyperspectral imaging techniques to collect data beyond what the human eye can see. When combined with chemist Tina Salguero’s study of minute traces of pigment, the results were a complete surprise—what had always been thought to be a first-century Roman copy of a late fifth-century B.C. Greek original, had, in fact, been made between 1880 and 1920. “As soon as we saw pigments without ancient parallels, such as titanium white and phthalocyanine blue, we knew the paint wasn’t ancient,” explains Abbe. As he continued to examine the sculpture, he began to realize that it wasn’t just the pigments that weren’t right—the piece could still have been ancient, with the paint added for the marketplace thousands of years later. “At first it just looked like an over-scrubbed ancient artifact, but the more we looked at the surfaces, we realized they weren’t akin to Roman practice,” Abbe says.
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