Examination Methods

Conservators and scientists use a wide array of non-destructive techniques to analyze ancient vases for information about their manufacture, condition, and past attempts at repair and restoration.

Close-up of an added-clay detail under low-power microscopy

Low-Power Microscopy
Magnification under a microscope helps identify materials and technical features. These include minute traces of pigments and gilding, added-clay details, and the sequence of applying line, color, and relief.

Here, low-power microscopy clearly shows the added-clay grapes behind the figure of Dionysos on the Restored Wine Cup with Dionysos and a Satyr, on view in the exhibition.

Close-up of a broken vase in UV light

Ultraviolet (UV) Visible Fluorescence
Many materials absorb invisible ultraviolet rays and reemit light in the visible spectrum. The colors of this light are often characteristic of specific materials. For example, shellac has an orange fluorescence, while some ancient organic dyes fluoresce a bright pink color.

The orange fluorescence of shellac, an adhesive commonly used in 19th-century restorations, can be seen in this UV detail of the Restored Oil Jar with a Deceased Youth Seated at a Tomb, on view in the exhibition.

Mixing Vessel Fragment with Scylla

X-ray images expose a range of invisible internal features, including breaks and ancient repairs. X-rays also reveal technical details such as the lines left in the clay by the turning of a vessel on a potter's wheel.

This X-ray shows ancient double-sided staples mending a fractured area on a Repaired Mixing Vessel with a Satyr and Maenad, on view in the exhibition.

Conservator using an XRF unit to study the Mixing Vessel with

X-ray Fluorescence (XRF) Spectroscopy
Low-energy X-rays cause materials to respond in characteristic ways, identifying the elemental composition of an object. This analysis can now be easily performed with newly developed XRF (X-ray fluorescence) units.

Here, the ancient staples on the Repaired Mixing Vessel with a Satyr and Maenad are identified as lead using a portable XRF unit.