Captivating New Look at Ancient Painting Buried by Volcano

The ancient town of Herculaneum suffered the same fate as nearby Pompeii, but new technology is revealing the beauty of its paintings.

It's been centuries since a small, unassuming portrait was seen in its original detail

Thanks to a multi-disciplinary network of archaeologists, art historians, and chemists, the nameless woman's image has been partially restored.

Found in the small town of Herculaneum was a small, circular image of a woman's face. Her portrait was found to the right of a door that opened into a network of rooms. Herculaneum suffered a fate similar to that of Pompeii when life was brought to a standstill when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D. Until the early 20th century the town had been hidden by soot and ash. Ironically, the excavations that began 70 years ago may have begun the painting's decline, exposing it to changes in temperature, humidity, and human interference.

This damaged portrait of a Roman woman was found in the town of Herculaneum, which ceased to exist after Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY ROBERTO ALBERTI

See a 360 view of the room here.

Presenting their findings at the 254th National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society, the researchers explained how they were able to restore such a delicate artifact. 

The portable X-ray machine allows researchers to reconstruct the image without physically disturbing the painting.

The restoration was led by Eleonora Del Federico, a professor of chemistry at the Pratt Institute. Using a portable tool called the XGLab SRL, Del Federico and her team were able to scan the painting with macro X-ray fluorescence. The data then revealed maps of chemical compounds such as iron, lead, and copper. Lead, for example, indicates the presence of white compounds, while copper often indicates the presence of blue or green.

Iron element maps created with X-ray technology are able to show the craftsmanship of the image as it was first made.

Speaking at an ACS press conference, Del Federico explained that certain color compounds dehydrate at quicker rates and leave unique footprints. This means chemists are able to get a more exact picture of how Herculaneum and its artifacts must have looked in their own time.

"By unraveling 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," - Del Federico said in a press release

"And learning more about the materials and techniques they used will help us to better preserve this artistry for future generations."

X-rays have been used to reveal hidden images in famous artworks before. In 2015, X-rays revealed a hidden figure in Rembrandt's An Old Man in Military Costume. Pablo Picasso's paintings have also yielded their secrets to x-ray machines. Scans of the abstract painter's famous pieces revealed he sometimes used common house paints, rather than more pricey art oils, making him one of the first artists to do so.

Del Federico's machine, however, is the first of its kind to be easily transported, meaning it can easily make its way down tattered, ancient roads.

Her work was done in partnership with the Herculaneum Conservation Project, which is working to restore the region's lost history. By chemically analyzing how paintings were constructed, she hopes they can eventually be restored.

When asked during a press conference how many ancient paintings could be uncovered using this technique, Del Federico answered emphatically—"countless."

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