Sensing the ancient world: The invisible dimensions of ancient art

Name of applicant

Cecilie Brøns


Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek


DKK 3,499,324



Type of grant

Reintegration Fellowships


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.


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.


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.

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