Deciphering the Elements of Iconic Pottery

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Example of a Greek vase being studied by researchers.

Researchers have begun to tackle the question of how pottery such as the ancient Greek vessel shown above was produced. A collaborative group of California scientists from the Getty Conservation Institute, The Aerospace Corporation, and the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford is investigating the ancient technology used to create these works of art.

One primary scientific technique the researchers are using is x-ray absorption near edge structure (XANES) spectroscopy, a tool for determining the iron oxidation states in the Attic pottery, which gives the pottery its iconic black and red coloring.

The researchers will also use X-ray absorption fine structure (EXAFS) analyses to provide information on the molecular structure of the iron minerals, and high resolution digital microscopy to study the surface of the works, among other analytical methods.

Aside from the technical aspects of the work, all of the scientists also are keenly interested in the sociological aspects of the work—that is, what impact did these potters have on their community?

For GCI scientist Marc Walton, who helped Trentelman develop the project, the effort is about understanding the society in which these pots were made. At SLAC, which houses a high powered X-ray source driven by a particle accelerator called a synchrotron, staff scientist Apurva Mehta is working with the team to reveal nanoscale details across large regions of the pots. According to Mehta, the work will push the development of high-powered tools to probe many other materials, from biomaterials to the electrodes of lithium-ion batteries. His work will also help uncover answers to some important questions.

“There were several workshops making this pottery at the same time,” says Mehta. “It’s a fairly challenging technology—how was it invented? Did one workshop invent it and other workshops copy, modify and perfect it? Were they collaborating or competing with each other? I want to understand how technology really works in a society. How does a technology grow, how does it transfer from place to place, how does it change, what keeps it alive, why do some technologies eventually die away? Maybe this will help us understand how technologies are growing and changing today.”

The results are expected to impact a diverse range of fields in both art and science, including materials science, chemistry, archaeology, art history and art conservation.

Read more from LiveScience.

 

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