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Posts Tagged ‘carbon dating’

Photo: Bode-Museum, Berlin, Germany.
A wax bust once attributed to Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) has been conclusively shown to be no earlier than the 18th century.

There are always new things to discover. In today’s story, decades of fierce arguments about the artist behind a wax bust in a Berlin museum were laid to rest when researchers mastered the dating of the wax. The History Blog has the report.

“A wax bust whose attribution to Leonardo da Vinci once caused art historians to threaten violence has been conclusively shown to be a modern work from the 18th century at the earliest.

“The bust of Flora, goddess of flowers and springtime, now in the National Museums in Berlin, was spotted by general director of the Royal Museum of Berlin Wilhelm von Bode in an antique store in London in 1907. Her downcast eyes, half-smile and finely-modeled features impressed Bode as a work by Leonardo da Vinci. German art historian Max Friedländer, assistant director of the Kaiser-Friedrich Museum under Bode, was convinced by its high quality and wear patterns that it was a Renaissance work. Bode bought it for a princely sum (185,000 Goldmark) in 1909 and announced with much fanfare that it was a work by no less a Renaissance luminary than Leonardo da Vinci, the only known wax sculpture surviving from the period.

“Bode was held in high regard in Germany. He had been involved in the creation of a national collection for the royal museums since he was hired as assistant curator of sculpture in 1872 and his career would span the entire five decades of the second German Empire from Unification to Republic. …

“Within months, the Times published a story contesting the attribution and alleging Flora was in fact it was created by 19th century British sculptor and photographer Richard Cockle Lucas who had copied it in 1860 from a painting of Flora in the Hermitage once attributed to Leonardo but later determined to be the work of his student and right-hand-man Francesco Melzi.

Lucas’ son Albert Dürer Lucas, then 80 years old, swore that his father had made it and that Albert had helped stuff old newspapers and wood chips into the hollow of the bust.

“Even though newspapers and wood chips were indeed found inside, including an article from 1840, Bode dismissed out of hand the possibility that Lucas was the sculptor. Lucas, Bode contended, was simply not good enough to model so superlative a piece. Unlike Flora, Lucas’ known wax pieces were greyish in color, lacked any polychromy and still smelled of wax. Bode was sure that at most, Lucas had been employed to fill its empty core to reinforce the structure and had fashioned some arms to match.

“In the next two years, more than 730 heated articles were written debating the attribution. There were debates on the floor of the Prussian parliament. Two scholars challenged each other to a duel. Bode died in 1929, still convinced that his attribution to Leonardo was correct. The debate got less aggressive over the decades, but never died down. Even modern technology hasn’t been able to settle the issue conclusively, because wax, as it happens, is a complicated medium to date.

“Albert Dürer Lucas said his father made the bust by melting down a bunch of burned candle ends. Analysis of wax samples found it is composed almost entirely of spermaceti, a waxy substance produced in the head cavity of the sperm whale commonly used in 19th century candles, and a small amount of beeswax. The decay of C14 occurs in the atmosphere in a calculable way, but under water the C14 is absorbed much more slowly and is much older than the carbon absorbed on land. The Marine Reservoir Effect makes radiocarbon dating results difficult to calibrate because you would need to know that specific whale’s full biography — track its movements from equator to ice shelves — to produce any semblance of accurate results. …

“The new study utilized two calibration curves, marine and terrestrial, and applied them to samples of the wax from Flora as well as to another work by Lucas, an 1850 relief of Leda and the Swan. The result was a date range of between 1704 and 1950, admittedly wide, but it conclusively precludes that the bust was made by Leonardo or anyone else in the Renaissance. The study has been published in the journal Scientific Reports and can be read here.”

For additional details, check out the History Blog, here.

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110784674_mineral-nc

Photo: Damien Finch et al
Mud-wasp “nests go hard and mineralise over time,” reports the BBC. “(1) Dating nest material on top of the paintings gives a minimum age only.” (2) Removing the nest allows researchers to ascertain the maximum age.

Prehistoric cave paintings, it seems, still have secrets for the enterprising to unravel. Researchers, with the active support of the local Aboriginal community, recently learned that calcified wasp nests could help determine when some of those paintings were created.

Jonathan Amos reported at the BBC, “When the veteran telecoms engineer Damien Finch went on a three-week bush walk in Australia’s Kimberley region, he became enthralled with its rock art. On his return home, he tried to find out more about these enigmatic aboriginal paintings and engravings.

” ‘I couldn’t believe how little was known about them; we didn’t even know how old they were,’ Damien said. ‘It seemed disrespectful that scientists hadn’t studied this stuff more; it was downplaying the importance of the culture,’ he told BBC News.

“Now, 10 years on and in his 60s, Damien is putting that right. He’s approaching the end of his doctoral research on the topic, and in [a February issue of] Science Advances journal, has published his own efforts to age the Kimberley’s so-called Gwion figures.

“These feature finely painted human forms, often in elaborate ceremonial dress and carrying spears and boomerangs. It was thought they were painted some 16,000 years ago, but the University of Melbourne investigator has been able to show the likely age is [about] 12,000 years ago.

“Dating rock art is really hard. Aboriginal artists use iron oxide pigments (ochre) which contain no organic material and are therefore resistant to any radiocarbon analysis.

“Damien has got around this by studying instead the scraps of organic matter stuck on top of and underneath the paintings. And for this, he’s working with wasps. In particular, the ones that build nests out of mud. …

“When the female wasp gathers her mud supplies she inevitably picks up fragments of charcoal from the Kimberley’s fire-prone landscape. And this charcoal can be radiocarbon dated. … Material that smothers pigment gives a minimum age; underlying material provides a maximum age.

“A distribution of dates from many locations enables an estimate to be made for when the Gwion style was in vogue. …

“The paintings [Damien] and his team have been working on are, of course, sites of immense cultural significance. All the sampling was guided and approved by representatives from the traditional owners of the artwork.

‘We couldn’t have done what we did without their active support and encouragement,’ ‘Damien told BBC News.

“He’s hopeful the mud-wasp dating technique can now be used at more locations right across the north of Australia, and perhaps at other rock art locations in the Americas and Europe.”

More at the BBC, here.

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