For centuries, the ancient Roman resort town of Herculaneum was buried under 66 feet of volcanic material. The city on the Italian coast, along with nearby Pompeii, was destroyed during an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Excavations in the mid-19th century uncovered much of Herculaneum, including its large “House of the Mosaic Atrium,” but an ancient painting in the house went almost unnoticed, until now.
A newly developed portable macro X-ray fluorescence instrument, ELIO by XGLab SRL, revealed the Roman woman in the portrait that has been subjected to molten lava, volcanic ash, grime, salt, and humidity over the years. As if that weren’t rough treatment enough, its exposure since it was excavated 70 years ago has caused much of it to deteriorate.
The portable X-ray instrument was brought directly to the site at Herculaneum, where the noninvasive analysis of the mid-1st century AD painting occurred.
“As far as we know, this is the first study of an ancient Roman wall painting — or any other historical wall painting — in situ, in its original setting,” Eleonora Del Federico, a professor of chemistry at the Pratt Institute who studies artists’ materials and conservation, told Seeker. “The technique is fairly new, and has been used for studies at museums on Rembrandts, Picassos and Van Goghs, among others.”