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Sensing the ancient world: The invisible dimensions of ancient art

Carlsbergfondets postdoc-stipendier i Danmark

What

The human senses are mostly perceived as something we as archaeologists cannot study, which is reflected in our approach to the white marble works displayed in museum collections. These works of art are, however, only "skeletons" and no longer convey the ancient experience accurately. Although sculptural polychromy has now become an established fact, we tend to forget that ancient art had even more dimensions which are today invisible to the contemporary viewer. This research project focuses on these additional dimensions - the invisible archaeology- through the involvement of the bodily senses, in order to gain a new and more holistic understanding of ancient art and of the past. The aim is thus to develop an innovative and interdisciplinary approach to the study of Graeco-Roman art.

Why

The project will make us see and understand ancient Mediterranean art in an entirely different light. It will systematically detect, document and analyse the colours still preserved on the artefacts. This endeavour is complicated by the microscopic size and fragile character of the polychromy. There is a pressing need for this undertaking as the polychromy gradually disappears, partly due to the climatic conditions in the museums. Thus, this documentation may end up being the only testimony of the original colours. This emphasises the importance of this research, as one of the museum's most important tasks is to preserve our cultural heritage for posterity. The polychromy results, moreover, profoundly alter the visitor experience and perception of the past.

How

The project is interdisciplinary. With a start in classical archaeology, it involves classical philology, conservation science, art history, ancient history, physics, chemistry, and geochemistry. It is centred on examinations of ancient marble art-works from the Graeco-Roman period in the collections of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. In addition, recently excavated finds from the Forum of Caesar in Rome will be included. These works of art will be examined for traces of polychromy, which will be a central element of the study. Furthermore, a wealth of information is hidden in the ancient written sources, which describe the effect of sound, odours, light etc. on ancient art, and this will shed light on the polychromy and help verify and facilitate understanding of the laboratory results.

SSR

Archaeology can contribute to international politics, the cause of human rights and in shaping modern values. Previously, studies of ancient sculpture have promoted an Eurocentric past, associating white with civilisation. Scientific research has proved that this was far from the case, a fact which still provokes violent reactions. This underlines the necessity of continued research in the field as well as dissemination of the fact that our past was multi-coloured and - sensorial. Classical scholarship is an international field and our findings should be accessible to all wherefore dissemination in open access journals is prioritised and images provided free of charge. This will ensure a long-term sustainability of access and dissemination to a broader public than academia or museums.