A team of archaeologists from the University of Southampton have used the latest in digital imaging technology to record and analyze carvings on an Easter Island statue. And those body scanners the TSA uses at the airport are having a major impact in the art world too: they are revealing what may lie underneath the surface of great works of art. For instance, researchers have used them to detect the face of an ancient Roman man hidden below the surface of a wall painting in the Louvre Museum in Paris. Scientists and art historians think he image say may be thousands of years old.
Archeologist Graeme Earl says, "The Hoa Hakananai’a statue has rarely been studied at first hand by archaeologists, but developments in digital imaging technology have now allowed us to examine it in unprecedented detail."
And he didn’t have to go to Easter Island to do it: The statue was brought to England in 1869 (something that would never be done today). It is traditionally said to have been carved around 1,200 AD. The Island is home to around 1,000 similar statues, but Hoa Hakananai’a is of particular interest because of the intricate carvings on its back.
It is believed that around 1,600 AD, the Easter Islanders faced an ecological crisis and stopped worshipping their iconic statues. The Rapa Nui, as they are known, turned instead to a new birdman religion, or cult. This included a ritual based around collecting the first egg of migrating terns from a nearby islet. The winning team, whose representative swam to the islet and then back with the egg, was given sacred status for a year.
Meanwhile, since the Louvre was a fortress built in the late 12th century before it was turned into a museum, the building itself is not thousands of years old, so how could such ancient walls be there? The explanation for the discovery of such an ancient fresco may be Giampietro Campana, an Italian art collector in the 1800s, whose art collection is now on display in museums around the world. When Campana acquired a work of art, he sometimes restored damaged parts or reworked the original. Art historians believe that Campana painted the art in question after the fresco was removed from its original wall in Italy and entered his collection.
A fresco is a mural or painting done on a wall after application of fresh plaster. In a fresco, the artist’s paint seeps into the wet plaster and sets as the plaster dries, so the painting becomes part of the wall. The earliest known frescoes date to about 1500 BC and were found on the island of Crete in Greece.
The same kind of microwaves used in microwave ovens help reveal hidden paintings as well. Artists, including some of the great masters, sometimes re-used canvases, wiping out the initial image or covered old paintings with new works. They often did this in order to avoid the expense of buying a new canvas.
In order to reveal these (NOTE: Subscribers can still listen to this show) art conservators use beams of electromagnetic radiation that lie between microwaves, like those used in kitchen ovens, and the infrared rays used in TV remote controls. This radiation is relatively weak, does not damage paintings and does not involve exposure to harmful radiation.
When the underlying fresco in the Louvre was revealed, art historian J. Bianca Jackson says, "We were amazed, and we were delighted. We could not believe our eyes as the image materialized on the screen. Underneath the top painting of the folds of a man’s tunic, we saw an eye, a nose and then a mouth appear. We were seeing what likely was part of an ancient Roman fresco, thousands of years old."
When you dig deeply, like we do here on unknowncountry.com, there’s NO TELLING what you’ll find (NOTE: Subscribers can still listen to THIS show too, so why not subscribe for one year today and get a FREE unknowncountry.com tote bag, while supplies last!)
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