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Techniques & Tools Spectroscopy

A Pigment Paints a Thousand Words

A Petropoxy resin slide with 45 individual ochre samples. Each square is approximately 2 mm2, with 0.5 mm between the squares.

Take a moment to reflect on the objects that are in your immediate vicinity. Depending on their composition, some of these objects may communicate cultural information that transcends generations. Those objects that are fundamental to our cultural expression often also reflect traditions that go back decades, if not centuries. Some of these may end up in museums - others may remain treasured family heirlooms.

Unfortunately, history often displaces communities or disconnects them from these culturally significant objects, meaning our own connection to the past is lost for generations as well. But chemical characterization offers an insight into these lost connections and our collective humanity. Despite differing environments and contexts, communities around the world often use the same materials for the same purposes – for example, the natural mineral earth pigments used in rock art. Modern analytical approaches – combined with fundamental questions about the exchange of materials, movement of populations, and uses of materials – help us to not only understand our past, but to inform our use of these same materials in today’s society.

Elemental maps showing the relative elemental concentration distributions for the pigments on a bark painting (3).
Elemental maps showing the relative elemental concentration distributions for the pigments on a bark painting (3).

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About the Author

Rachel Popelka-Filcoff

Kimberley Foundation Minderoo Chair in Archaeological Science, University of Melbourne, Australia

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