Reading the painting on the wall

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Louisa Campbell with one of the distance stones from the Antonine Wall that she analysed for pigments. (IMAGE: Louisa Campbell)

Last month, we reported in ‘News’ on the recent LiDAR work done to accurately measure the length of the Antonine Wall. Here, we highlight further groundbreaking research being carried out to uncover the history of this magnificent monument. Dr Louisa Campbell from the University of Glasgow has used X-ray and laser technology to analyse the remnants of the Wall as part of the Historic Environment Scotland-funded project, Paints and Pigments in the Past.

The results showed that paint had once been applied to the relief sculptures carved into the distance stones that were once attached to the Wall, but that it had faded with the passage of time. It seems many of these stones were originally decorated in bright reds and yellows.

Regarding her methods, Louisa told CA that ‘the project used cutting-edge scientific techniques, including pXRF [portable X-ray fluorescence] and Raman spectrometry, to identify the elements and mineral compounds present in small traces of paints that were originally applied to the sculptures during the 2nd century. The results provide invaluable information on how the stones would have looked in the past and allow us to re-imagine them as vibrant and colourful objects.’

These sandstone sculptures – many of which are on display at the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum – are elaborately carved and depict battle scenes, religious rituals, and architectural features, emphasising Roman authority and domination. Louisa noted that, ‘These sculptures [were] propaganda tools used by Rome to demonstrate their power over these and other indigenous groups, they help[ed] the empire control their frontiers and [had] different meanings to different audiences.’ She added that the bright colours that these sculptures were probably painted ‘would have been a very powerful addition to bring these scenes to life and aid in the subjugation of the northern peoples.’

While this part of the project is complete, an additional phase is planned during which the sculptures will be reproduced digitally and physically, using authentic colours. The recreations will hopefully provide more context for those visiting either the actual remains of the Wall or the sculptures on display in museums.

This article appeared in CA 340.

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