By Marion Großmann - Editors: Daniel Kunc, Thomas Mauerhofer

Polychromy (polychromy) refers to the colorful design used in painting, arts and crafts, sculpture and architecture. In the context of ancient statues, the term primarily refers to the study of their coloration in antiquity.
According to the latest research findings, ancient statues were not "classically" white, as we often imagine, or as paintings, films or old documentaries suggest. Many imitations of ancient statues (such as Pallas Athena in front of the Parliament) also emulate a colorless image of ancient statues, which - at least for the most part - did not exist. In fact, after more than 1,700 years, only the color is simply no longer visible.

The Project

Polychromy has so far been associated in research almost exclusively with sculptures and architecture in the Mediterranean region. Now the "Polychromon" research project of the Austrian Archaeological Institute and the Academy of Sciences aims to gain new insights into the colourfulness of ancient stone monuments on the Danube Limes. The analysed objects come from Carnuntum and its hinterland and are kept in the Carnuntinum Museum and the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, so they have a very strong connection to "Roman Austria".

In addition to an inventory, the materiality of the pigments and binders used will be analysed. New insights are also expected into the painting techniques used in antiquity as well as the interpretation and - where possible - reconstruction of the painted surfaces. The visualisation and communication of colourfulness and its effect on the viewer are central to the project. The results can subsequently be used specifically in the conservation and restoration of monuments with polychrome painting.


Which methods are used?

The techniques used are predominantly non-invasive, i.e. possible without taking samples. After an optical autopsy, a comprehensive multispectral analysis is carried out, which provides information about the material used and its origin and makes both the smallest pigments and modern retouching and additions visible. 
Macro-photography and a portable spectrometer are used to determine the chemical composition of the materials used. An X-ray diffractometer is then used to reveal pigment phases and their alteration products. Finally, where possible, the smallest samples are examined under a microscope and organic binders are identified using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry.

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