T H E V O R T E X
AMERICAN CHEMICAL SOCIETY, BERKELEY
"CHEMISTRY DIGS THE PAST"
by Dr. Fred H. Stross
History is full of accounts of hoaxes and fakes, usually perpetrated for financial gain, but sometimes merely to embarrass critics or other antagonists. In recent issues, this column has discussed the role the physical sciences can play in unmasking such frauds.
Many egregious errors have been made when full reliance was placed upon the critical eye of the style expert (perhaps because it is so difficult to recognize a true expert), and, by contrast, analytical procedures have often either quite unambiguously uncovered notorious frauds or provided solid evidence in such cases. The Etruscan Warriors, the Van Meegeren forgeries and others already mentioned in this space are examples.
Today we shall invert the usual trend and tell of the scientific vindication of a group of art objects which had been declared forgeries on pseudo-scientific, but actually completely subjective grounds by a scientific dilettante.
In the years just preceding the First World War, the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft was excavating the short-lived capital of the remarkable pharaonic couple Akhnaton and Nefertiti, near the site of the present Tell-El-Amarna. The studio of the sculptor Thut-mose was particularly rewarding, and in it were found works of art in various stages of completion, and fine plaster masks of dignitaries and of the royal family for the instruction of art students. Among them was the painted limestone bust of Queen Nefertiti, which was to become one of the most famous products from ancient Egypt. This gracious and moving work of art in its way was probably the most powerful instrument of discord between Egypt and the Western world before the Assouan Dam and the Suez Canal incidents.
The excavations had been cut short in 1914 by the War, and the Nefertiti head was officially unveiled only in 1923. Immediately a storm began raging over the title of the Germans to the bust, and the question of exactly how it had got out of Egypt has never been quite resolved.
Another consequence of the sensation caused by the emergence of Nefertiti from the sands, on a more shady level, was a rash of fake Amarna objects peddled profusely all over Egypt. The purchase of Tell-El-Amarna art in Egypt was spoken of as equivalent to the purchase of the Brooklyn Bridge in describing the gullibility of Innocents Abroad. There was one difference, however: in the years since the discovery of the Tell-El-Amarna site in 1887 there had
been continuing excavations, official and unofficial, which did funnel real Amarna antiques into possession of museums, dealers, and collectors. The ratio of real to manufactured antiquities of course was minute.
A little before the time of the dramatic Amarna period discoveries - first Nefertiti, then Tutankhamun - a young Copt was building what was to become the venerable firm of M.A.Mansoor and Sons, dealers in Egyptian antiquities in Cairo. He already had become well established when sometime in 1924 he was approached by one of his suppliers from Upper Egypt who had two small Amarna heads to sell. Mansoor was quite familiar with the "renaissance" of Amarna objects, but careful examination convinced him that the pieces were authentic. In the course of the next years he acquired over one hundred carvings - heads, reliefs, statuettes, and busts - some exquisitely beautiful, some of more indifferent workmanship, and some outright failures. Yet this particular group had a certain coherence of style, and the explanation offered was plausible enough.
A farmer in Mellawi, just across the Nile from Tell-El-Amarna, before the turn of the century, not long after the discovery of the site, had found one of the artists' workshop known to have existed in the ancient capital. He had dug up all the objects in reach and taken them to his house, where he kept them until his death, showing them only to a few intimate friends. His only son apparently was unbalanced, and the art objects dropped out of sight. Eventually - some twenty or more years later - they came into the hands of the dealer who sold them to Mansoor. Mansoor kept the awe-inspiring Amarna group separate from his other prizes, and did not offer them for sale for a number of years. Eventually the Cairo Museum heard of the collection and invited Mansoor to submit the pieces to their experts.
A. Lucas, British chemist to the Egyptian Department of Antiquities, whose classic work on Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries still is the standard text on the subject, examined 27 of the artifacts, analyzing samples of material he removed from some of them. He found them to be foraminiferous limestone, not infrequently bearing dendritic incrustations or patination consisting of, or at least containing, high concentration of manganese oxide. Unfortunately the study had been delayed and was carried out only in 1942, a time not propitious for the acquisition of expensive antiquities by an Egyptian museum.
Soon after the end of the war, the Metropolitan Museum in New York heard of the pieces and asked that they be submitted to them for purchase. Mansoor sent a few of the Amarna sculptures to the U.S. with one of his sons. The Metropolitan suggested that the pieces be sent to the consultant to the Fine Arts Museum in Boston, who was just beginning to experiment with simple instruments in studying art objects. After considerable delay the consultant opined that one of the two heads he had been asked to examined was of "made" stone - i.e., some sort of unspecified synthetic. How foraminiferous limestone with nummulites in the millimeter size range can be thought to be a "made" stone remains a mystery. In any
case our expert hastily consulted a more competent authority and withdrew his remarkable pronouncement. More of the sculptures were submitted, and after more than one and a half years, his final report was issued. He had examined the carvings under ultraviolet light and concluded that "there was a general indication that a false condition exists." He also examined the surface with a low power microscope and found the dendritic incrustations, which he admitted were indeed indicative of great antiquity. However, he said, these were "embedded into the surface of the stone," not "formed on the surface of the object."
But how DOES one go about providing "proof" of authenticity of antique objects? Without going into the semantic problem of the concept of proof, let it be said that even providing solid evidence for an opinion in such matters can be a sticky proposition, and every type of object may present a new type of problem.
The Mansoor group of Tell-El-Amarna objects provides a classic and perhaps unique case in which a body of massive evidence was accumulated by use of divers and quite independent techniques contributed by outstanding scholars - geologists, chemists, physicists, criminologists, both with and without special training in the field of Egyptian antiquities. A microscopic examination showed the character of the foraminiferous limestone, and weathering consistent with the presumed conditions of exposure during three and a half millennia.
Nummulities, from millimeter size to microscopic dimensions, obviously impossible to manufacture, were slightly harder than the limestone matrix, which was abraded more than the tiny shells; the latter were consequently exposed as if by an extremely delicate technique of sandblasting. Dendrites, with high concentrations of manganese and iron, were found ON the carved surfaces in fair profusion.
A patina was found, which corresponded to the "desert varnish" described by Engel and Sharp not long before, as characteristic of long exposure of stone surfaces to the elements in desert climate and environment. The patina also was characterized by enrichment of elements such as manganese and copper on the surface compared to the bulk of the stone. The simultaneous existence of patina and matrix erosion, incidentally, provided another point of evidence, since it indicated long cycles of alternating natural influences rather than any conceivable artificial imitative treatment. Search for traces of modern abrasives, and attempts to duplicate patina and weathering patterns proved fruitless.
Finally Dr. Z. Iskander, then chief chemist to the Cairo Museum (now Director General for Technical Affairs, Department of Antiquities), whose thoroughgoing analysis provided many of the points mentioned above, identified small dark organic deposits as "probably animal excretions. Animal [insect] excretions, when old, acquire a resinous appearance and are attacked by organic solvents only with difficulty. Since the excretions are not easily affected by the different solvents, are resinous looking, impregnating, and extremely adherent to the stone, they must have been excreted on
these objects a very long time ago, thus supporting the genuineness of the objects."
In conclusion, we may quote Dr. Harold J. Plenderleith, formerly Keeper of the British Museum Research Laboratory, now Director of the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (UNESCO) in Rome: "...in regard to the laboratory reports submitted it may be sufficient to state that I find the published account...entirely convincing and to my mind it is not essential to carry any laboratory enquiry as to genuineness further, the case having been amply proved.
"...In my considered opinion it would be as serious a mistake to underestimate the importance of scientific investigation as to consider that a lack of unanimity in the conclusion warrants a decision against the genuineness of the Egyptian antiquities, for, as I have analysed the evidence before me, the inescapable conclusion is that there is over-riding agreement as to their genuineness.
"It is because of this conviction that I am taking the exceptional step of making this gratuitous statement in the hope that after 20 years of doubt it nay be a factor in restoring confidence."
This, one would think, wraps up the case. However, reality is less logical than scientific imagination. Our consultant, who thought foraminiferous limestone was a "made" stone is now head of the research laboratory of a great American museum. Only one important American museum, and few individual collectors, have purchased objects from the Amarna collection. The arguments made in the publications and cited above have never been refuted or even attacked; they have in fact elicited much interest and favorable comment. But there the matter rests. The scientific vindication has been accomplished - but is there something missing?
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