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The Northwest Palace of Ashur-nasir-pal II at Nimrud

An Interactive Publication -- Prototype

page added March 21, 2001


Analysis and text by Elizabeth Hendrix, 
Assistant Conservator, Metropolitan Museum of Art


Pigment study on the Williams College Museum of Art Bird-headed Genius (museum catalogue #1851.2)

Faint traces of black and red pigments were found on the surface of the 9th c. BCE alabaster relief of a bird-headed genius in the Williams College Museum of Art.  Although very little paint remains, it was possible to remove a few particles of pigment from three locations on the sculpted surface: (1) a long vertical red line running up the right edge of the slab, (2) black in the lowest feather, second from the right edge of the slab, and (3) black from the left foot's sandal strap.  Samples of black and red pigments were also taken from the Williams human-headed genius for purposes of comparison.  Analyses were carried out to identify optical as well as chemical characteristics, yielding the following results: 

  • red line on right side of slab = RED OCHRE (analyzed by polarizing light microscope [PLM] and energy-dispersive x-ray spectrometry [EDS]) 
  • black in feather = CHARCOAL (PLM analysis)
  • black in sandal strap = BONE BLACK (PLM analysis)
The red ochre used for the line does not provide any clue as to the antiquity of the red here, although it is different than the red used on the sole of the sandal of the other Williams slab (which is hematite).  Red ochre was used often in antiquity, but it is also used just as frequently to the present day, since it is common, inexpensive, stable, and attractive.  However, trace elements in the red, identified as potassium and titanium, suggest that this might be a modern paint, the purpose of which is as yet unclear.  Further analyses on similar red lines on other slabs, if found, will help solve this puzzle.

Both black pigments have been identified on other sculptures from Mesopotamia (including the other slab at the Williams College Museum); we may confidently assume that the elements on which these pigments were found were painted black. 

To date, we have not found enough color to perform tests that could lead to an identification of the medium. The pigment analyses of the bird-headed genius allow us to reconstruct a certain minimum of its original polychromy: black feathers, and black sandal straps.  It is likely that other colors had been applied; these are reconstructed here based on the colors found on similar works of art.

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