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Tracking Color Through Time: Polychromy on Etruscan Urns from Ancient Creation to Modern Intervention


A comparative study of four Etruscan terracotta urns from Chiusi, Italy, investigates their ancient polychromy and the urns’ trajectories through changing modern-day art market practices and museum conservation policies. The objects’ shared moldmade motif of a specific scene from Sophocles’ play Antigone makes this group particularly suitable for illustrating differences and similarities in their past and present materiality, uncovered by multispectral imaging and chemical analyses. The analysis of the urns revealed some recurring patterns but also variations in the color scheme of the repeated scene. Moreover, the study underlines how scientific analysis of the polychromy is potentially a useful tool to assess the originality of archaeological artifacts, even in cases of excessive cleaning. The detection of the modern pigment Prussian blue hints at a now-lost chapter of modern overpaint and its later removal on one of the examined urns. This is used as point of departure for a discussion of the changing attitudes and approaches to restoration and conservation in archaeology and art history and their sometimes radical effects on the present-day appearance of museum artifacts.1


One era’s fake [can be] another’s interesting discovery, for just as there is no constancy in art values so the perspectives by which artefacts are judged are continually reassessed.2

Many types of Etruscan artifacts have been labeled as fakes and forgeries, particularly during the mid and late 20th century.3 The most famous example is probably the purportedly Etruscan terracotta warriors in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.4 The revelation that these previously highly praised sculptures were fake created a frenzied hunt to detect and deaccession such forgeries from European and North American museums, leaving the collections supposedly pure, consisting only of what were considered to be genuine ancient artifacts. The analysis and discussion below show that a distinction between genuine artifacts, forgeries and fakes, and overly zealous restorations is not always straightforward, and that the perception of whether an artifact is indeed genuine and original can change.

This study examines the polychromy of four Chiusine terracotta urns now at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, and the Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts, to gain better insight into the original appearance of these artifacts. The results are used as a point of departure for a discussion of the authenticity of the urns and approaches to their conservation from the time of their acquisition in the late 19th century until today. The study of these Etruscan urns is not only relevant to our understanding of ancient Etruscan art and culture, it also provides important insights into the variety of museological and restorative approaches to antiquities and the history of such artifacts’ reception. Finally, this article discusses the often difficult distinction between fake, forgery, and original.

For well over a century, Etruscan artifacts have been collected by museums worldwide. This includes the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, which houses one of the largest collections of Etruscan art in northern Europe; the Harvard Art Museums are the custodian of a smaller collection. Among some of the most intriguing artifacts in these collections are the terracotta urns from Chiusi of the Hellenistic period. These urns were intended to keep the cremated remains of the deceased and were often found in tombs, placed—each in its individual niche—along the dromos (passage) that led to one or more burial chambers, where urns of alabaster and travertine tended to predominate.5 Terracotta and stone urns alike consist of a rectangular box and a lid.

Four of the urns in these two collections carry the same moldmade motif on the boxes: a scene from Sophocles’ Theban cycle play Antigone, written ca. 441 BCE.6 It shows the moment in the fight between Antigone’s brothers Eteokles and Polyneikes when they give each other the deathblow.7 The scene is framed by architectural elements, which the figures overlap. On either side is a winged female demon (Vanth), wearing short boots and a short chiton with cross-straps, and carrying a torch. The warrior on the left thrusts his sword into his opponent’s throat. The warrior on the right has fallen to his knees and has lost his helmet, which is now lying on the ground to the left. Even so, the kneeling man succeeds in plunging his weapon into his foe’s stomach. The weapons have penetrated so deeply into the bodies that they cannot be seen at all.

The story of the mutual fratricide of Eteokles and Polyneikes was extremely popular in Chiusi and its surrounding territory, and alabaster and terracotta urns with this specific imagery were mass-produced in local workshops during the third and second centuries BCE.8 Hence, several hundred have survived in museum collections worldwide, particularly in Italian museums, and they regularly become available on the international art market.9 In Greek art, scenes from the Theban Cycle are comparatively rare.10 In Etruscan art, the fight between Eteokles and Polyneikes also occurs on two nenfro sarcophagi from Tarquinia,11 on a bronze mirror,12 and in the François Tomb in Vulci. What was the reason for the popularity of this particular motif on the urns from Chiusi? Like other urn images, it is set in a context of battle and emphasizes the value of brotherhood and comradeship, in this case by depicting the fatal consequences of the fraying of the brotherly bond. As de Angelis has argued, iconography centered on military ethos and social ties would also have had broader resonance at a moment of crisis, such as the death of a family member, and the pared-down scenes comprising the two brothers accompanied by two demons could have been read as references to individual destinies.13

The four urns under discussion here do not seem particularly remarkable, but a closer look reveals several curiosities: although all four depict the same molded motif, their appearance is very different. One of the urns displays a rich polychromy, while the other three lack color and seem to have been cleaned, one extremely harshly, as no original polychromy is visible. Moreover, while the boxes share the same scene, the four lids are quite different, carrying depictions of reclining men or women, with varying traces of original paint. This raises the question asked by many scholars of antiquity, museum curators, students, and museum visitors: why do museum objects look the way they do today? In pursuit of an answer to this question, we decided to carry out an interdisciplinary study of the four urns and their extant polychromy.

Thousands of urns in stone and terracotta have been recovered from ancient Etruria and are represented in most museums with antiquities collections. It seems evident based on the often well-preserved paint remains on their surfaces that they were all originally painted in a broad range of colors.14 Due to the often well-preserved paint on Etruscan artifacts, studies on Etruscan polychromy have grown exponentially during the past two decades.15 Yet, so far, there are no publications dedicated to the polychromy of Etruscan terracotta urns.

The present study shows how chemical analysis of their polychromy can provide important insights into the production and original appearance of these artifacts and potentially answer questions regarding their authenticity. Here, a note on terminology is in order, since many terms and designations are used in discussions of authenticity.16 Scott operates with two main categories of inauthenticity: (1) a forgery, which is a fake that is passed off as a genuine work of art; (2) a fake, which is a copy or work in the style of an artist that is not made to be passed off as the genuine article.17 Craddock has formulated four main categories, which slightly differ from Scott’s: (1) a forgery: an entirely new work in imitation of something else; (2) a fake: an object (whether old or new) that has been altered such that it appears to be something else, usually more valuable (for example, a signature on a document can be forged, but the document itself is real); (3) a pastiche: something made up of unrelated pieces (for example, the combination of an urn box with an unrelated lid); (4) a genuine object that has been deceptively restored, such that serious damage is hidden or disguised.18 The differences in what is understood by the terms “fake” and “forgery” clearly illustrate the challenges in discussing issues of authenticity. Here, we follow Craddock’s categories.

The Four Etruscan Terracotta Urns and their Acquisition Histories

The 19th century was a period of great antiquarian interest, during which hundreds of burials in Chiusi and its environs were excavated.19 Archaeological practices of the time lacked modern standards of registration and documentation, which means that almost nothing is known about many of these artifacts’ original contexts. Many of the archaeological artifacts discovered during this period were sold to museums and private collections across Europe and the United States. This is the case for the four urns under study here.

The three urns and lids from the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek (in the following, designated as urns A, B, and C) were acquired over a period of 10 years at the end of the 19th century from two different art dealers: Urn A was acquired in 1900 through Wolfgang Helbig from the Roman art dealer and painter Augusto Alberici, at whose shop the museum’s founder Carl Jacobsen had supposedly seen the urn the year before. Urns B and C were acquired from the art dealer Pacini in Florence in 1896 and 1890, respectively.20 Napoleone distinguishes between two generations of dealers during the period from the 1880s to the 1920s: a first generation of older, self-made merchants who were trained as artists in the 19th-century tradition, and the second-generation dealers, who were highly specialized and had an excellent knowledge of the global market.21 Alberici, who sold Urn A to the museum, belongs to the first category, as one of the numerous artist dealers known in Rome at the time.22 Unfortunately, little is known about Pacini, who was active in Florence.

The urn at the Harvard Art Museums (Urn D) entered the collection in 1932, as a gift from Harris Kennedy, who was a graduate of Harvard College. Kennedy followed in the footsteps of his father, George Golding Kennedy, also a Harvard graduate. The older Kennedy manufactured medicine and was a passionate botanist, collecting specimens throughout North America, Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. He had a strong background in classics from his studies at Harvard, and his travels might have provided the opportunity to build a collection of antiquities. One could speculate that he acquired many of the nearly 140 objects that his son gave to Harvard. In addition to the present urn, these included other Etruscan urn boxes and lids of terracotta as well as stone.23

The figure scenes decorating the front of the four urn boxes were all produced in molds. Once the composition was formed and the mold for the relief cast, the production of hundreds of replicas was possible; it was even possible to make casts and molds from existing urns, which could generate even larger numbers of nearly identical specimens. The repeated copying would affect the sharpness of the relief and its readability, and the dimensions of the reproductions would in time diminish (due to successive shrinking of the molds, drying, and firing of the pieces).24 The lids were usually also moldmade, occasionally with some sculpting being carried out by hand. The lid types for the urns studied here are all very common in the corpus of Chiusine terracotta urns.25

Chiusine urns of this type are generally dated to the second century BCE, some also to the late third.26 The three urns in the Glyptotek are dated based primarily on stylistic traits of the figures on the lids, which demands particular caution since we do not know whether the combination of urn boxes and lids is original. Urns A and B have been dated to the period from 150 to 130 BCE, while Urn C has been assigned to the period from 130 to 80 BCE.27 Urn D, in the collection of the Harvard Art Museums, has been attributed to the first half of the second century BCE; here, too, it is unclear whether lid and box originally belonged together. Stylistic considerations offer only a rough guide, and the four urns and their lids may well originate quite close in time.

Urn A (Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek HIN 171)

The box of Urn A (fig. 1) shows slight damage to the lower part of the right side but is otherwise well preserved. The front was pressed into a fresh mold, and details of the relief were accentuated with a modeling tool. The front was then attached to slabs of clay to form the sides and bottom of the box, while the top was covered by a slab with an oblong opening.

Fig. 1. 
Fig. 1. 

Urn A, terracotta, ht. 27 cm × lgth. 46 cm × wdth. 22 cm (at the upper rim of the box). Copenhagen, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek HIN 171, acq. 1900 (A.S. Berg).

The lid carries a reclining figure of a young man with curly hair, clad in a chiton and a mantle and with a ribbon around his head. In his right hand, he holds a phiale mesomphalos, while he grasps a fold of his mantle with his left.28 The head of the figure was broken off at the neck and reattached in modern times.

The clay of the box is red-brown to light beige. The polychromy is very well preserved, showing blue, red, yellow, white, and black paint. The clay of the lid is red-brown, and significant traces of white, red, brown, and yellow paint survive. Usually, the cremated bones, which the urns were made to keep, have long disappeared, but quite exceptionally, the bones are preserved from Urn A (online appx. 1).29

Urn B (Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek HIN 102)

The box of Urn B (fig. 2) is generally well preserved. It was made in the same way as Urn A, but the mold used for Urn B was slightly more worn. The details of the relief were retouched with a modeling tool.

Fig. 2. 
Fig. 2. 

Urn B, terracotta, ht. 26 cm × lgth. 43 cm × wdth. 23 cm (at the upper rim of the box). Copenhagen, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek HIN 102, acq. 1896 (A.S. Berg).

The lid carries a female figure reclining on a cushion. She wears a diadem and pendant earrings and is clad in a chiton with buttons along the shoulders and fastened by a knotted belt; over the chiton, she wears a mantle. In her left hand, she holds a fan.30 The right arm and left forearm of this figure were broken off but were reattached in modern times.

The clay of the box is red-brown with a lighter red-beige surface, while the clay of the lid is light beige. Urn B has much less polychromy preserved compared to Urn A. Much of the surface of the box and the lid is covered by white paint, probably a ground layer for the polychromy. There are visible traces of blue, yellow, and reddish-brown paint on top of the white ground layer on the box. In some places on the box, paint is applied directly on the terracotta without a preparatory ground below.

Urn C (Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek HIN 65)

The box of Urn C (fig. 3) is overall well preserved, but with some damage to its right rear corner. The front appears to be cast from a very worn mold, as the relief is very flat, and the forms are slightly blurry, although some of this lack of precision might also be due to wear caused by modern cleaning (see below). On the top right edge of the box (hidden by the lid), a circle (possibly the letter theta), was engraved prior to firing. The lid carries a moldmade female figure lying flat, completely wrapped in a cloak, her head resting on a fringed cushion.31 Only the head with wavy hair arranged in a bun reveals that it is a woman.

Fig. 3. 
Fig. 3. 

Urn C, terracotta, ht. 27 cm × lgth. 44 cm × wdth. 21 cm (at the upper rim of the box). Copenhagen, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek HIN 65, acq. 1890 (A.S. Berg).

Both the box and the lid are made from light beige tempered clay. The box’s clay exhibits a finely levigated surface, while the lid is now covered with incrustations and a dark patina. Urn C has no visible paint traces on the box, with its worn relief. In contrast, the lid appears uncleaned, and under its thick and hard crust the colors yellow, red, and white are visible.

Urn D (Harvard Art Museums 1932.56.134.A–B)

The box of Urn D (fig. 4) is well preserved, apart from a (filled) chip on the lower front edge, a chipped corner at back, and minor chips elsewhere. Incrustations are present throughout. The relief is relatively shallow, and the impression of the mold not quite as crisp as that of Urns A and B, but clearer than that of Urn C. The mold used here adds an egg-and-dart ornament below the figure scene. Like Urn C, this box was incised with a letter before firing, in this case a phi placed in one corner of the box’s proper left side. The elongated opening at top has rounded ends.

Fig. 4. 
Fig. 4. 

Urn D, terracotta, ht. 28 cm × lgth. 41 cm × wdth. 25 cm (at the upper rim of the box), 26 cm (at the bottom of the box). Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Gift of Dr. Harris Kennedy, Class of 1894, 1932.56.134.A–B (© President and Fellows of Harvard College).

The lid overhangs the box at the short sides and, therefore, is probably not the lid originally intended for it.32 Atop the lid reclines a beardless man with curly hair and a ribbon tied around his head, dressed in a chiton, with a mantle draped around his body. He supports himself with his left arm, which rests on a pillow, with the left hand holding the mantle. The right hand grasps a phiale mesomphalos, which rests on his bent left leg. His right leg is bent as well but is upright, and the right heel is visible at the back.

Although the clay of the box appears to have an orange tone while the clay of the lid appears a lighter beige, chemical analysis shows that the composition of the two is very similar, with only slight differences in calcium and magnesium (higher in the lid than in the body) and no significant difference in iron contents (see discussion below and online appx. 2). The front of the box preserves some of the white ground layer, especially in the recessed parts of the relief. Small remnants of blue, black, and dark reddish paint are visible with close examination and under magnification. Fluorescence under ultraviolet light suggests the presence of traces of organic red, possibly madder. Most of the lid is covered in white paint, with two shades of pinkish red used for the skin and dark reddish brown for hair and eyes.

Polychromy, Cleaning, and State of Preservation

The polychromy of the four urns shows three different states of preservation. While the polychromy of Urn A is very well preserved, the original paint of the boxes of Urns B and D is more poorly preserved. No readily visible traces of paint survive on the box of Urn C.

According to the Glyptotek’s records, many colors were noted when Urns B and C were acquired in the late 19th century, but now there are only a few traces left, and only patches of the white slip are visible on Urn B. Urn C has even fewer traces of polychromy, and not even the slip is visible on the box. Thus, the urns must have been cleaned at some point after acquisition, though such an intervention is not noted in the museum archive, database, registrar’s files, or catalogues, and it not clear when or why this cleaning took place.33 The first catalogue of the collection, from 1925, includes the three urns with their lids as authentic Etruscan artworks.34 Yet the catalogue of the Glyptotek’s Etruscan collection from 1966 stated that while their lids are original, the boxes of Urns B and C are both modern.35 It was not explained why the two urn boxes were now identified as forgeries, but not their lids or the third urn (Urn A). Therefore, the misconception that these two specific urn boxes were modern forgeries must have arisen sometime between 1925 and 1966. However, in the museum’s catalogue of the Etruscan and central Italian collection from 1996, the two urn boxes were reinstated and were described as authentic Etruscan works.36 In the 1996 catalogue, it is stated that the two urns underwent a heavy-handed cleaning as an attempt to detect a forgery, an invasive process that removed most of the slip and all of the paint. Neither the catalogue nor the museum records mention why the perception that the urns were forgeries had been reversed, nor on which grounds they were now considered authentic once again.

The cleaning of the boxes of the Glyptotek’s Urns B and C most likely took place in connection with the complete reorganization of the museum’s extensive Etruscan exhibition in the 1960s. A newspaper article in Berlingske Tidende from 30 April 1966, published on the occasion of the opening of the Etruscan exhibition, describes the cleaning of the artifacts:37

At the same time as the rebuilding [of the exhibition], the head of the department, museum curator Mogens Gjødesen, began a critical revision of the entire collection, and during this review of the artifacts, it was revealed that Italian art dealers had supplied quite a few of the ancient Etruscans with contemporary additions in plaster, paint, and concealing dirt. This camouflage was now removed at the conservation workshop. In several cases, this entailed almost halving the sculptures, but after the forgeries were removed, you had the satisfaction that you now only had the genuine part left, and that the 2500-year-old artifacts only were what they appeared to be.

Mogens Gjødesen (1915–1989), together with the sculptor and conservator Aksel Theilmann, carried out extensive cleaning of numerous antiquities in the museum’s collections, “freeing them of later, misleading additions.”38 Gjødesen and Theilmann, who was in charge of the department of conservation at the Glyptotek until 1981, removed older restorations of several artworks and cleaned several of the museum’s Etruscan terracottas.39 It is said that Theilmann had developed an efficient method for cleaning terracotta reliefs: he stripped the surfaces of many Etruscan terracotta reliefs of lime-based accretions by applying an aqueous flour paste; when the poultice had dried and was peeled off, the lime would stick to the glue. Other terracotta objects were cleaned with 10% hydrochloric acid (this technique was only employed on artifacts with fired polychromy).40 Due to the lack of information in the museum archives, we have no documentation of how, when, or why the urns were cleaned.41 It is now clear, however, that what may look like suspicious purposeful weathering might in fact be the result of past conservation treatments rather than attempts at creating a false time-worn, antique appearance.42 The changing and unexplained fate of the urns, from authentic, ancient artifacts to modern forgeries and back, illustrates the varying tendencies and approaches within scholarship to define and detect forgeries. It is interesting to ask exactly why two of the urn boxes were considered forgeries while the third was considered genuine, and why only the boxes but not the lids were condemned. In the absence of treatment records, we can only speculate, but perhaps Urn A escaped suspicion due to the bones preserved in it. Or perhaps the suspicion about Urns B and C was related to the fact that both were acquired from the same dealer (Pacini), from whose shop other forgeries might have been detected. A further possibility will be suggested below.

On the lid of the Harvard Urn D, much of the original white slip and paint are preserved, while on the box much of the slip and most of the paint are lost. The discrepancy in condition between lid and box is similar to that for Urns B and C. During a minor conservation treatment carried out in 2013 in the Harvard Art Museums’ Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, the urn was cleaned of surface dust and grime, flaking slip was stabilized, a chip missing on the front of the box was filled, and prominent losses of paint on the figure on the lid were toned down. As far as the museum records show, the state of preservation of the urn has not changed significantly since its acquisition.

Results of the Multispectral Imaging and Chemical Analyses

The four urns underwent various analyses in 2022 in order to characterize their materials and production techniques (see online appx. 2 for a detailed description of the experimental procedures and scientific instruments used). What follows is a presentation of the results of those analyses.

Urn A (Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek HIN 171)

The well-preserved polychromy on Urn A is illustrated in the visible light photograph (VIS; fig. 5A). It shows large areas of the colors blue, red, yellow, white, matte black, and shiny black in the applied paint on the box. On the lid, the colors red, yellow, brown, and white are visible. In addition, ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence (UVF) imaging (see fig. 5B) shows the red fluorescence of two stripes on the garment of the figure on the lid. Their placement and execution are better visible in details (fig. 6A and B), and the fluorescence color suggests the use of a red organic colorant. The abundant green fluorescence on the box and lid probably stems from the binding medium and seems to vary with the pigment. This fluorescence color is in agreement with the detection of animal glue, whose identification is discussed below. Comparison of the VIS and UVF detail images of the warrior at left (fig. 7A and B) indicates that UV-induced fluorescence is absent in the yellow, red, black, and blue paint, as well as in the exposed terracotta area with paint loss. This absence suggests a quenching of the binder’s fluorescence due to the interaction with the pigment, in contrast to the white areas which do fluoresce. Similarly, on the lid, the yellow cup held by the man, his hair, and the skin color of his hands and face do not fluoresce; the repair material around his neck exhibits a yellow fluorescence.

Fig. 5. 
Fig. 5. 

Urn A, front: A, visible light photography; B, UV-induced visible fluorescence imaging; C, visible light–induced infrared luminescence imaging.

Fig. 6. 
Fig. 6. 

Urn A, detail of the figure on the lid of: A, visible light photography; B, UV-induced visible fluorescence imaging; C, visible light–induced infrared luminescence imaging.

Fig. 7. 
Fig. 7. 

Urn A, detail of the left warrior on the box: A, visible light photography; B, UV-induced visible fluorescence imaging; C, visible light–induced infrared luminescence imaging.

Visible light–induced infrared luminescence (VIL) imaging (see fig. 5C) shows strong signals on the box in all areas that are blue in the visible light photograph, suggesting the presence of the synthetic pigment Egyptian blue (calcium copper silicate), which is well known for its unusually high infrared fluorescence. This includes parts of the two arms of the left female demon, her belt, and the lower part of her garment, the left warrior’s cloak on his back and behind his proper right arm, his helmet, the armor in the waist area, the helmet on the ground lost by the right warrior, the shield on the ground, the shield held by the proper left arm of the right warrior, parts of the two arms of the right female demon, an area behind her proper right wing, her belt, lower garment, and her torch.

The stripes on the lid figure’s garment showing red fluorescence in UVF also exhibit a VIL signal, indicating that the red organic colorant was mixed with Egyptian blue to achieve a purple hue. In addition, the pillow and the white part of the figure’s eyes both yield a strong VIL signal, meaning that Egyptian blue was included in the paint mixture. It is interesting that the Egyptian blue on the lid is used in mixtures with white or red and is not visible to the naked eye, while on the box, Egyptian blue was used to render blue. In the images of the back (fig. 8A, B, and C), the pillow and red and blue mixture in the stripes on the garment continuing from the front of the tunic again show a strong VIL signal. In summary, the scientific imaging provides a preliminary overview of the spatial distribution of synthetic and mineral pigments, mixtures, and pure use, as well as organic and inorganic compounds, which serves as a basis of sampling and further chemical analysis.

Fig. 8. 
Fig. 8. 

Urn A, back: A, visible light photography; B, UV-induced visible fluorescence imaging; C, visible light–induced infrared luminescence imaging.

Chemical analysis using X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectroscopy, Fourier-transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy, Raman spectroscopy, and scanning electron microscopy–energy dispersive spectroscopy (SEM-EDS-WDS) give further insight into which pigments were used (see online appx. 2 on these methods and table 1 for a summary of the findings). On the box, the blue pigment is identified as Egyptian blue (by FTIR), the matte black as carbon black mixed with calcite (by Raman spectroscopy), and the yellow as goethite mixed with gypsum (by FTIR). The red colorant is not identified by vibrational spectroscopy, but the high iron content detected in the SEM is strong evidence that it is hematite. In the red paint, gypsum was also detected (by FTIR). On the lid, the yellow of the cup is identified as goethite mixed with gypsum (by Raman spectroscopy). Interestingly, the white ground on the box is identified as a mixture of calcite and gypsum (by FTIR), while on the lid, it is only calcite.

Table 1. 

Summary of material analysis of polychromy on the four urns.

Urn A
blueEgyptian blue
yellowgypsum, goethite
redgypsum, hematite
whitegypsum, calcite
black metallicgraphite
black mattecalcite, carbon black
red fluorescingred organic colorant, gypsum, calcite
white ground on boxcalcite, gypsum
white ground on lidcalcite
Urn B
blueEgyptian blue
yellowquartz, calcite, kaolin
blackcarbon black
dark browngypsum, goethite
ground on boxgypsum, calcium carbonate
white ground on lidcalcium carbonate, minor gypsum
blue on left side of boxPrussian blue
Urn C
ground on boxcalcite, minor gypsum
ground on lidcalcite
Urn D
blueEgyptian blue
red fluorescingred organic colorant
white ground on boxcalcite, minor gypsum, occasional aragonite
white ground on lidcalcite, minor gypsum

The shiny black material is exclusively found near the front top edge of the box (fig. 9). It is very soft and is opaque in the mid-infrared spectral region. SEM-EDS-WDS analysis shows signals from mostly carbon with some locally concentrated trace elements typical for a clay (iron, aluminum, magnesium, silicon, calcium, potassium, titanium, sodium), and some lead. The secondary electron image (online fig. 1) reveals a sheet-like structure.43 All these characteristics together make it highly likely that the material present is natural graphite.44 The use of graphite in pottery decoration is reported for the Middle Neolithic cultures of the Balkans and Central Europe45 and in Greece of the fifth millennium BCE.46 Graphite-tempered pottery was produced during the La Tène period from the fifth to first centuries BCE.47 Moreover, pottery blackened with graphite has been found in Egypt from the 13th century BCE on.48 It is also attested in a recently published study of Gandharan art from the second to the fourth centuries CE.49 To our knowledge, this is the first time it has been identified in Etruscan polychromy. It remains unclear, however, how the graphite fits into the original polychromy of the urn, and this together with the fact that it is not found anywhere else on the object means that a modern origin cannot be excluded, for example an accidental touch with a drawing tool.

Fig. 9. 
Fig. 9. 

Urn A, detail above the left warrior in raking light; circled is the shiny, soft, black material that has the characteristics of graphite.

Cross-sectional analysis of a sample from the originally purple stripes on the garment of the man on the lid shows a single paint layer about 10 µm thick on top of the ground (online fig. 2A and B). Visible chunks of Egyptian blue are intermixed into the red-fluorescing paint. A sample from the yellow drinking cup was also removed and mounted as a cross section (see online fig. 2C and D). The yellow paint layer containing goethite has a thickness on the order of 5 µm and is applied onto a white calcite ground (both determined by Raman spectroscopy). On top of the paint, a crust of about 20 µm is deposited. Its material is also identified as calcite by Raman spectroscopy.

A much thicker paint layer of about 50 µm is observed in a cross section of the red area of the shield’s rim of the right warrior, with a layering of ground, non-fluorescing red paint, and crust (online fig. 3A and B). Elemental mapping of a detail (online fig. 4) shows the high iron content, suggesting that the red colorant is hematite. The size of the iron particles is less than 1 µm, as observed in a high-magnification backscatter image (not illustrated). In the vicinity of the detected iron, there are also observed particles containing sodium, aluminum, silicon, chlorine, potassium, titanium, and manganese. These elements are all typically found in red ocher. All three layers—the ground, the red ocher, and the crust—have a high calcium signal. In the ocher and ground layers, it is correlated with sulfur, indicating at least in part the presence of gypsum. The crust has no sulfur, suggesting calcite.

A second cross section from the shield of the right warrior, this one taken in an area of blue, was also examined in detail (not illustrated). On top of the calcium carbonate ground there is a 5 µm thick brown layer rich in iron, manganese, sulfur, and silicon, suggesting an earth pigment. Above this, the 50 µm blue layer contains three phases: Egyptian blue (copper, calcium, silicon, and sodium), quartz, and a glass phase with mostly calcium but also silicon, copper, sulfur, magnesium, and aluminum.50

FTIR of scrapings produced no signals from the organic binding medium, but a sample from the pillow on the lid was processed for amino acid sequencing by liquid chromatography with tandem mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS). The peptides found belong to the proteins collagen α-1(I) and collagen α-2(I), indicating the use of animal glue as a paint binder. In a future step other tools, for example gas chromatography, could be utilized to further characterize the binder and look for possible additional non-proteinaceous components. Overall, the results on Urn A give detailed insights into the painting materials and application technique of the polychromy, also revealing differences between lid and box. The findings are consistent with the time and geography, and no modern additions to the polychromy or restoration are detected.

Urn B (Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek HIN 102)

Urn B has much less paint preserved compared with Urn A. On both lid and box, a white material applied onto the terracotta is visible to the naked eye (fig. 10A). It is identified as the original ground because small remaining spots of blue and yellow paint are visible on top. However, some black, yellow, and brown paint was applied directly onto the terracotta without a preparatory ground. UVF imaging (see fig. 10B) shows abundant green fluorescence in parallel with Urn A. Additional red fluorescence on the box is observed on the left warrior’s cloak extending from his back to the area behind his proper left arm (fig. 11A and B). Some red fluorescence traces are also on his armor and on the female figure’s garment on the lid.

Fig. 10. 
Fig. 10. 

Urn B, front: A, visible light photography; B, UV-induced visible fluorescence imaging; C, visible light–induced infrared luminescence imaging.

Fig. 11. 
Fig. 11. 

Urn B, detail of the left warrior on the box: A, visible light photography; B, UV-induced visible fluorescence imaging; C, visible light–induced infrared luminescence imaging.

The red fluorescence on the left warrior’s cloak correlates with a positive VIL signal indicative of Egyptian blue (see fig. 11C), suggesting the garment was originally rendered in purple. Egyptian blue is also present on this warrior’s helmet, his armor below the waist, the helmet and shield on the ground, the right warrior’s upper body, details on both female demons (see fig. 10C), as well as the fan (fig. 12) and the belt across the waist of the woman on the lid (fig. 13). In close observations with the microscope, some blue areas appear to be applied as lines with a thin brush while others are rendered in larger masses.

Fig. 12. 
Fig. 12. 

Urn A, detail of the fan on the lid: A, visible light photography; B, UV-induced visible fluorescence imaging; C, visible light–induced infrared luminescence imaging.

Fig. 13. 
Fig. 13. 

Urn B, detail of the figure’s garment on the lid: A, visible light photography; B, UV-induced visible fluorescence imaging; C, visible light–induced infrared luminescence imaging. The two white circles in B mark the locations of orange fluorescing material.

Raman spectroscopy identifies the black as carbon based. The yellow on the lid contains quartz, calcite, and kaolin (by FTIR), suggesting an earth pigment. In a sample from the box’s yellow, on the other hand, calcite and gypsum were found, which were also observed in the box’s ground. In contrast, the lid’s ground is made from calcite with only a trace of gypsum. The dark brown paint used to color the left female demon’s hair contains goethite and gypsum (by FTIR). On the left wall of the box there are thin blue paint splatters (not illustrated), in which the pigment was identified as Prussian blue (by FTIR) or synthetic ferric ferrocyanide. The finding of this modern blue colorant, developed in the early 18th century by Johan Jacob Diesbach in Berlin, supports the hypothesis that the previous cleaning of the entire urn was related to and motivated by the presence of modern overpaint.

A cross section taken from a red area on the front part of the pillow on the lid shows four layers (online fig. 5). The lowest layer visible is the terracotta, showing signals from magnesium, iron, sodium, aluminum, silicon, chlorine, potassium, calcium, titanium, and manganese, all typical for a clay (online fig. 6). The calcium-based ground above is about 100 µm thick. On top of the ground is a thin iron-rich layer only a few micrometers thick, followed by a calcium-rich layer. The last layer on the surface is again iron rich, with other elements present that are typical for an earth pigment.

Samples of the blue paint from Urns A and B were compared in an additional SEM-EDS-WDS elemental analysis. The sample from Urn A, taken from the helmet of the left warrior, has localized areas with high tin content and a representative spectrum (online fig. 7). The high tin areas also contain sodium, a typical element for added flux, and other trace elements such as iron, sulfur, and aluminum. In the Egyptian blue paint on Urn B (see online fig. 7), only copper, calcium, and silicon were detected.

The presence of tin in this particular sample from Urn A may indicate the use of scrap bronze as a raw material in the production of the Egyptian blue. In contrast, no tin was detected in the elemental analysis of the cross section of the blue paint from the shield of the same urn, described above. Hence, two different Egyptian blue pigments originating from different production batches and clearly differing in composition may have been used on Urn A. This variation within the polychromy of one single object diminishes the meaningfulness of the tin content of Egyptian blue as a criterium for the comparison of different objects.

From the analysis of Urn B, it becomes clear that the object was originally produced with as rich a polychrome surface as was Urn A and that color was added in modern times. Today the ancient and modern paint is mostly lost.

Urn C (Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek HIN 65)

Urn C has almost no paint traces left on its box (fig. 14A). The different preservation states of the lid and box are visible and become even more apparent in a UVF image (see fig. 14B). While there is almost no fluorescence on the box, the surface of the lid responds to UV radiation with mostly green fluorescence, similar to Urns A and B. The red part of the mantle of the reclining figure (fig. 15) and two stripes on the pillow (fig. 16) fluoresced red. Again, a correlation between the red UV-induced fluorescence and VIL signals indicate that the original color was purple. The red paint of the hair of the person on the lid does not show UV-induced fluorescence. This pigment is likely a red ocher mixed with Egyptian blue.

Fig. 14. 
Fig. 14. 

Urn C, front: A, visible light photography; B, UV-induced visible fluorescence imaging; C, visible light–induced infrared luminescence imaging.

Fig. 15. 
Fig. 15. 

Urn C, detail on lid: A, visible light photography; B, UV-induced visible fluorescence imaging; C, visible light–induced infrared luminescence imaging.

Fig. 16. 
Fig. 16. 

Urn C, right side of lid: A, visible light photography; B, UV-induced visible fluorescence imaging; C, visible light–induced infrared luminescence imaging.

FTIR analysis is limited to the ground on the box, identified as calcite with a trace of gypsum, and on the lid, where it is calcite only. A cross section from the red edge of the figure’s mantle on the lid and its elemental mapping (online figs. 8, 9) show, similarly to the cross-sectional analysis of Urn B, the typical elements of a clay in the terracotta base. The calcite ground is about 100 µm thick and is covered by the red layer. Here, the iron-based red particles have a large variety of particle sizes, up to 50 µm in diameter; they also contain some manganese. The associated brown material in the same layer contains less iron, similar manganese, and, additionally, the chemical elements aluminum and silicon. The crust, which can be seen best in bright-field and SEM backscatter, is around 100 µm thick and contains calcite only.

A cross section from the red-fluorescing mantle edge was also analyzed with SEM (not illustrated). Here, the layer sequence, thickness, and elemental composition are very similar to those previously discussed. However, the red layer lacks the large-size iron particles and has instead an organic, red-fluorescing compound present.

Urn D (Harvard Art Museums 1932.56.134.A–B)

Urn D (fig. 17) has very little paint on the box. A white layer still covers much of the surface. Close inspection with the naked eye reveals remnants of colored pigments on top of this white ground. A deep, cool red color, similar to the hair of the lid figure, is visible in the warriors’ and demons’ hair, in recesses of the vertical pillars (where there is also some lighter red), along the horizontal edge of the scene, and on both warriors’ tunics. The recessed negative spaces between the figures are dark in normal light and remain so in infrared. Most likely, this is due to soil accretions, or a black or earth-brown pigment was used to set the scene in further relief. UVF imaging shows traces of fluorescent red lake on the boot cuff of the left demon and the inside of the left warrior’s cloak.51 VIL imaging reveals Egyptian blue on the inside of the same cloak, suggesting that, as in Urn B, the cloak was rendered in purple. Remnants of Egyptian blue are also revealed by VIL on the bases and capitals of the columns, the demons’ wings and tunics, the fallen helmet at left, and the right warrior’s breastplate (fig. 18).

Fig. 17. 
Fig. 17. 

Urn D, front: A, visible light photography; B, UV-induced visible fluorescence imaging; C, visible light–induced infrared luminescence imaging.

Fig. 18. 
Fig. 18. 

Urn D, detail of the box front; visible light–induced infrared luminescence imaging.

The lid is coated almost entirely in white, the broad brushstrokes of which remain visible on the figure’s back, where they trail off at the lip of the lid. The reclining man’s garment and the cup in his hand show no other color, while the flesh, hair, and facial features were laid in over the white ground. The flesh tone was built in two layers: a bright pink followed by a darker warm red on the surface; the latter has been largely worn away, visible now as unconnected patches. An even darker and cooler reddish-brown color describes the hair and contours of the facial features. Technical imaging reveals no evidence of a fluorescent lake or any Egyptian blue on the lid. Analysis of samples of the dark red paint on both the box and lid show a top layer composed of large (about 20 µm) particles of hematite with a thin layer (10–15 µm) of finer hematite below. On the lid, the hematite layer also contains some clays and calcite and is separated from the ceramic by a layer of calcite around 30 µm thick (online fig. 10). On the box, the hematite layers contain some calcite, gypsum, and clays, and they overlie a white layer of calcite and minor gypsum around 35 µm thick. In both instances, the lowest layer has a high content of silicates (quartz, clays, and feldspars), with some calcite and minor gypsum also present.

The lighter red paint on the box and lid also contains hematite but in smaller particles, mixed with calcite, clays, and minor gypsum. The overall iron content is much lower than in the dark red paint. On the box, the hematite-rich layer ranges from 20 to 25 µm, while on the lid it varies from 45 to 55 µm. In both instances, the red layer overlies a white layer of calcite with only minor gypsum (up to 110 µm thick on the box, up to 35 µm thick on the lid) over a base of silicates (ceramic). FTIR indicated the presence of aragonite as well as calcite in the white ground of the box only.

The blue paint on the box has a high content of cuprorivaite, with minor silica (likely quartz), calcite, and gypsum, confirming the presence of Egyptian blue (online fig. 11). The Egyptian blue is fairly pure, with only a small amount of the glass phase present. The glass phase occasionally contains isolated particles of tin. The tin content is too low to be confident that bronze was used as a starting material, but it is clear that some tin was present in whatever copper source was used. The Egyptian blue layer is about 65 µm thick and overlies a thick layer of calcite of around 230 µm. Since the underlying ceramic layer is not present, this represents a minimum thickness, although it is likely that the sample separated from the ceramic at the boundary. FTIR indicated the presence of aragonite as well as calcite in the white ground.

The pink paint from the lid has an upper layer (20–35 µm) of calcite with fine hematite over a layer of calcite and gypsum with some clays. The iron content is fairly low, but there is no fluorescence in UV to indicate the presence of an organic red. The white layer ranges from 15 to 40 µm thick and overlies a base of silicates with minor calcite. It was not possible to sample the small area on the box that fluoresced in UV.

The white ground layers from both the box and lid are dominated by calcite, with minor gypsum. Samples from both box and lid show occasional surface deposits of gypsum, calcite, and clays, consistent with FTIR analysis of an accretion from the box, which identified gypsum, calcite, quartz, and kaolin.

On Urn D, the apparent black paint was the most problematic; the cross section appears to comprise two layers, both of which contain calcite, gypsum, and silicates (clays, quartz, and feldspar) with more silicates and less gypsum in the lowest layer. The thickness of the upper layer is highly variable, up to 75 µm with the lower layer up to 140 µm. The upper layer contains fine black particles that have high levels of manganese and iron. This mixture of calcite, gypsum, and silicates is very similar to that of the accretion analyzed, which is also suggested by the internal structure. Thus, this may represent an accretion rather than original paint, and further study is required. FTIR analysis did not identify any organic component that would be present as a binding media in any of the samples from Urn D in parallel to the other three.

Pigments Used on Etruscan Funerary Artifacts

So far, there are no other published studies of the polychromy of Etruscan terracotta urns. However, several studies of the original paint of other funerary artifacts from the Hellenistic period provide comparative insights into the use of specific pigments. An example is the examination of the terracotta sarcophagus of Seianti Hanunia Tlesnasa from Poggio Cantarello, Chiusi.52 The sarcophagus has well-preserved polychromy, including white, blue-green, red, purple, black, pinkish red, and yellow paint. Chemical analysis showed the presence of calcite, Egyptian blue, red and yellow ochers (hematite), carbon black, and organic red lake. Often the pigments were mixed to create various hues, such as purple, pink, or bluish-green. The study also showed that the polychromy was applied on a white ground layer consisting of calcite.53 Another Etruscan terracotta sarcophagus with a reclining female figure on the lid, recovered at Tuscania (Viterbo), has been examined for its polychromy.54 Some remnants of the original polychromy are preserved in the form of visible remains of dark red paint. Analysis showed that the polychromy was applied on a white ground layer of calcite, while the red paint was identified as iron oxides (ochers).55

There are even more studies of the polychromy of Hellenistic funerary containers in stone. The most extraordinary example is the famous Amazon sarcophagus, dated to ca. 350 BCE, discovered at Tarquinia in 1869.56 The marble sarcophagus underwent a very thorough scientific examination, which confirmed the use of a wide range of pigments, including red and yellow ochers (goethite and hematite), Egyptian blue, murex purple (purpurissum), cinnabar, lead carbonates, calcite, kaolinite, cerussite, and carbon black.57 The ground layers were shown to consist of calcite and a mixture of calcite with traces of gypsum. The organic components of the polychromy were also analyzed, which revealed the use of animal glue and egg.58 Moreover, analysis suggested that the purple/violet pigment was probably from murex.59

Another example is a study of 12 Hellenistic urns from two tombs from the necropoleis of Casagalia and Strozzacaponi in Perugia.60 The urns, belonging to the period from the second to the first century BCE, are travertine and, like the terracotta urns, carry mythological scenes on the boxes and the depictions of the deceased on the lid. They display a very bright and well-preserved polychromy, with red, pink, yellow, green, blue, purple, and black paint as well as gilding. The paint was sometimes applied directly onto the stone, sometimes on a white ground layer. Chemical analysis confirmed the presence of red and yellow ochers (hematite and goethite), carbon (vine) black, Egyptian blue, and organic red lake.61

An Etruscan alabaster urn in the collections of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek has undergone study as well.62 The urn, dated to ca. 150 BCE, has relief decoration on three sides. The front carries a scene with a female demon standing between the brothers Eteokles and Polyneikes, and the lid carries the figure of a reclining man holding a phiale. The urn has clearly visible remains of yellow, red, brown, black, blue, and purple paint. In some cases, paint was used to render details not carved in the stone. Noninvasive analysis indicated the presence of iron oxide pigments, Egyptian blue, and organic red lake.63 A further study of alabaster urns dated to the period from the third to the first century BCE from Volterra in the Museo Guarnacci suggested the use of red and yellow ochers, Egyptian blue, and gilding for their polychromy.64

Finally, noninvasive analysis has been carried out on a group of nenfro sarcophagi and funerary sculptures (fourth to third century BCE) from Tuscania (Viterbo) in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Florence. The polychromy of these objects is very faded, and few pigments were identified: primarily red and yellow iron-based pigments and sparse traces of Egyptian blue. Only one sarcophagus revealed the presence of an organic red lake.65 However, most relevant to the current study, examination of a seated female nenfro statue dated to the third century BCE revealed the presence of modern retouching on the face: a spectrum acquired on the blue area near the hairline indicated the possible presence of ultramarine, and the blue in the eye appears to be rendered with indigo.66

These studies suggest that for most Etruscan funerary artifacts from the Hellenistic period, polychromy consisted of a limited pigment palette consisting primarily of red and yellow ochers, carbon black, Egyptian blue, and organic red lake, and occasionally gilding. With the exception of the gilding, this is consistent with the present study, which has demonstrated the exact same pigments, although with the possible addition of graphite (see above, Urn A discussion). The Amazon sarcophagus shows that additional pigments were available in Etruria during this period. However, the more limited palette employed for the terracotta urns and sarcophagi probably reflects financial restrictions, since the additional pigments, such as cinnabar and especially purpurissum, were more expensive. In terms of painting techniques, the use of a white ground layer of calcite or calcite mixed with gypsum is also attested for sarcophagi in terracotta and stone, and appears to have been widespread practice in Etruscan funerary art.

With the exception of the analysis of the Amazon sarcophagus, most of the studies of Hellenistic polychromy focus on the identification of individual pigments, not their mixtures, painting techniques, ground layers, or other constituents of the polychromy, such as binding media. It is therefore possible that more in-depth chemical analysis could reveal more subtle regional or chronological variations, or differences between the painting techniques and composition of the polychromy between urns in terracotta and stone. This could potentially provide information on communities of practice of craftspeople in this medium operating in Etruria, as these pigments could only be learned through training and apprenticeship and not by visual copying. It would also be relevant to compare painting techniques across ethnic boundaries to investigate whether the pigment choices and compositions differ between Etruria, Latium, Campania, and the Greek colonies, for example, as well as in other contemporary media, such as wall painting.

Lids and Boxes: Original Matches or Modern Combinations?

All four urns in this study were acquired with their lids. As already alluded to above, however, we cannot be sure whether the combinations of urns and lids are indeed ancient. Since the boxes and lids were mass-produced and of standardized sizes, it is quite possible that there were no designated pairings before the objects left the kiln or even the workshop, and that box and lid were matched only when a buyer picked them out. These ancient pairings might have been broken up sometime after their discovery. The similar sizes and appearance increase the likelihood that boxes and lids were switched, whether by accident or to combine two better-preserved components. This could have happened during removal from the tombs, during transport, or while in the care of art dealers, museums, or private collectors.67 Intentional mismatches may have been made for aesthetic reasons or to gain greater profit. Such discrepancies of urns and lids are not unknown; an urn in the British Museum, for example, carries a female name inscribed on the box but is combined with a lid with a reclining male.68 In fact, there are very few confirmed instances of an urn box with its original lid in museum collections.69

Modern recombinations of urns and lids are almost impossible to identify today, especially when no inscriptions are preserved.70 One approach can be the comparison of materials on lid and urn based on pigments, binding media, grounds, and terracotta. In the present study, not all this information is available, in part because of the lost polychromy and in part because some of the materials were not characterized and analyzed, such as the terracotta composition.71 However, it is certainly possible that a single workshop used multiple batches of clay or paint at one time, and different practitioners in the same workshop might have employed different techniques and materials.

A comparison of the white ground layers on urns and lids analyzed here shows some interesting variation. On both Urn A and B, a mixture of calcite and gypsum is used as a ground layer on the boxes, while the ground layers of the two lids consists of calcite with only a minor trace of gypsum. In contrast, the grounds on both the box and the lid of Urn C consist of almost pure calcite. Urn D has yet another combination, with calcite and only minor gypsum present in the ground of both box and lid (see table 1).

The light pastel green fluorescence can be observed on all urn boxes and lids except the overcleaned box of Urn C, suggesting the use of the same binding medium. LC-MS/MS identification of animal glue was, however, only conducted on the lid of Urn A, and therefore the hypothesis of this medium being used on all objects remains solely based on UVF imaging.72

The ubiquitous use of earth pigments, carbon black, and Egyptian blue seems insignificant in this context, as the palette in general was often rather limited for Etruscan polychromy (see above). However, the mixing of Egyptian blue with white and red to achieve cool white and purple hues is attested on the lid of Urn A but not on its box, where Egyptian blue was used unadulterated. On Urn B the opposite is the case: here, the cloak of the left warrior was originally painted with an optical purple paint that is absent on the lid. The same is true for Urn D.

Furthermore, cross-sectional analysis shows that the thickness of paint layers on the box of Urn A are about 50 µm (see online fig. 3), while on the lid they are about 10 times thinner (see online fig. 2). This could suggest that different artisans or even different workshops painted the lid and the box. For Urn D, cross sections show considerable variation in ground layer thickness for samples from the box: for example, more than 200 µm under the Egyptian blue but only 35 µm under the dark red hematite. The ground layer under paint layers of the lid was more unform (about 30–35 µm), but a much thicker white layer occurred in a sample of white only (about 200 µm). Similarly, in the dark and light red samples, the red paint layer is about twice as thick on the box as on the lid, with the white ground layer of similar thickness in the dark red, but twice to three times as thick for the lighter red. Given the variations, comparison between components is difficult. One striking similarity is the use of large particles of hematite in a fairly pure layer in the dark red paint, and of finer hematite mixed with a higher proportion of calcite and minor gypsum in the lighter red paint, on both box and lid of Urn D.

For Urn C, the similar composition of the grounds of lid and box as well as the similar greenish fluorescence of both could indicate that their combination is original. The white ground of Urn D has calcite with minor gypsum on both box and lid, but aragonite was detected in some samples from the box only. Comparison of the clay used for this urn shows only slight differences in composition and color between the box and lid. For Urns A and B, the different compositions of the grounds used for lids and boxes could suggest that the present combinations are indeed modern pastiches. However, this finding could also be explained by other factors, such as the use of different grounds in the same workshop, or boxes and lids produced in different workshops being used together in the tomb.73 As interesting as these differences in production are, it is hard to draw firm conclusions from them about the objects themselves. Similarities, on the other hand, might be due to well-proven materials and techniques shared across workshops, indicating communities and even constellations of practice and social networks of craftworkers.

Urn C has the inscribed letter theta in one corner of the top edge of the box, where it would have been covered by the lid. Similarly, Urn D has the incised letter phi in one corner of the box’s proper left side. None of the lids belonging to the four examined urns have such letters. However, another terracotta lid with a reclining man, originally used for a contemporary Chiusine urn, has the letter alpha incised on the cushion near the back edge of the lid.74 Such uses of single letters appear to have been a relatively common phenomenon, and may possibly indicate numbers.75 Their application before firing, in places where they were not intended to be seen, suggests that they are related to the production of the urns. Perhaps the letters mark the commissions of individual customers,76 or served to indicate specific batches or numbers of urns. However, it is also possible that these letters were intended to indicate matching boxes and lids.

Finally, the contents of the urns can potentially indicate whether lids and boxes are original combinations. Only Urn A still contained bones, which were subjected to analysis. This showed that the cremated human remains belong to an adult, probably a man (online fig. 12; online appx. 1). This is consistent with the lid, which carries a figure of a young man. Etruscan urns in museums and private collections only seldom contain bone remains, and if so, these are rarely analyzed.77 An example is a Hellenistic terracotta urn with a fratricide scene on the front and a reclining man on the lid in the Musei Vaticani.78 The museum website notes that the cremated bones in the urn were of a man aged between 60 and 65 years, and possibly a second individual of 16 to 35 years of age.79 (Such narrow age ranges proposed for adults, especially in the case of cremated remains, should be treated with caution.) A further example is a Hellenistic terracotta urn from Chiusi, decorated with a battle scene, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The lid carries a depiction of a reclining young man, and according to the inscription on the urn box, it belonged to Aulus Latinius, son of Velsia.80 A study of the cremated bones contained inside it showed that they belonged to an adult individual, approximately 50 years of age, sex undetermined.81 In a few instances, analysis of the cremated remains suggests that the association of urn box and lid is not original. An example is a Chiusine terracotta urn with a depiction of the myth of Echetlos on the urn box from the second century BCE in the Penn Museum.82 The lid is much longer and deeper than the chest, and the figure reclining on the lid is male, while the cremated remains in the urn belong to a woman, approximately 30 years old, suggesting that the combination of lid and box is not original.83

Polychromy and Authenticity Assessment

Scientific analysis of the polychromy is potentially a powerful tool to assess the originality of cultural artifacts since some pigments were only used during certain periods or in certain geographical areas. Hence, the presence of pigments invented in modern times would indicate that the artifact is either fake or has been tampered with. Such anachronisms of materials have enabled the unmasking of some fakes and forgeries.84 Other pigments were employed only in antiquity and historical periods, which means that their presence in paint layers on an ancient artifact would indicate its authenticity. Although 18th- and 19th-century restorers successfully relearned many medieval and ancient techniques, they tended to use distinctive contemporary materials, which fortunately makes it possible to discern their work through scientific analysis.85 It cannot be excluded, and is in fact quite likely, that forgers used original pigments such as red and yellow ochers, common in both periods.86 However, it was not generally known that ancient artifacts like the Chiusine urns were painted with Egyptian blue and madder lake, for example, which means that painted restorations or forgeries produced during the 19th and early 20th centuries were primarily visual imitations rather than true physical recreations.

The careful scientific examinations of pigments carried out in the present study (see table 1) showed that the extensive polychromy established for Urn A includes only pigments that are expected and have been confirmed for Hellenistic Etruria, and hence its materials are in agreement with the proposed creation date and geographic location. As mentioned above, the bones contained in the urn belonged to an adult, probably a man. Unfortunately, radiocarbon analysis could not be performed as the bones had been cremated, as was usual practice during this period, and no organic material could be extracted for radiocarbon dating. Therefore, the date of the skeletal remains is still unknown, and the possibility persists that the remains were added in modern times to enhance the aura of authenticity.

The examination of Urns B, C, and D revealed extensive remains of the pigment Egyptian blue. This is an extraordinary finding, since the heavy-handed cleaning that Urns B and C underwent while in the museum’s care would have been expected to remove all traces of any potential original paint, particularly in the case of Urn C. Such cleaning of surfaces of cultural artifacts in the search for authenticity and to detect potential forgeries has ironically often resulted in the removal of the actual evidence of that authenticity.87

Invented in Egypt sometime around 3000 BCE, Egyptian blue appears to have quickly spread to the Near East and the Mediterranean basin and eventually was widely used throughout the Mediterranean littoral.88 Its last production and use, however, are still debated. The availability of Egyptian blue seems to have decreased during the fourth and fifth centuries CE. It appears that the artistic use of the pigment declined significantly during the Early Medieval period and so far, only a very limited number of occurrences have been attested from the 7th to the 13th century. Possible explanations for this decrease are the concurrent crisis of glassmaking and the apparent shortage of natron, which is necessary for the production of both products. Alternatively, or perhaps concomitantly, Egyptian blue was simply replaced by other, more popular blue pigments such as azurite and lazurite.89 So far, the latest confirmed use of Egyptian blue is in a fresco by Raphael from 1511–12 in the Villa Farnesina, Rome, and in a painting by Giovanni Battista Benvenuto from 1524.90 It has been proposed that the use of Egyptian blue during the Renaissance can be explained by the discovery of preserved pigments from previous periods or by reuse of recycled materials retrieved from ancient Roman sites.91 Yet the pigment appears to have been unknown (or at least unavailable) to artists during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.92 Despite the uncertainties surrounding the later history of this pigment, the presence of Egyptian blue is considered an indication of original polychromy. Hence, the Urns B, C, and D, too, appear to be genuinely ancient artifacts.

On Urn B, additional material evidence provides a clue to the history of this object. The analysis of the urn box revealed the presence of the pigment known as Prussian blue on its left side. This pigment was not discovered until ca. 1707, when it appears to have been synthesized for the first time by the paint maker Johann Jacob Diesbach in Berlin.93 Some of the blue paint preserved on Urn B is thus undoubtedly modern, while other remains of blue paint are clearly ancient. This suggests that the urn is indeed original, but that it was repainted at some point after 1707, although the modern Prussian blue was not found directly on the moldmade scene on the front (due to the excessive cleaning). It raises questions as to how, when, and why this modern paint got on the urn, which is discussed below. The analytical results also underline how careful we should be when assessing ancient artifacts and their polychromy by visual examination only.

Individual Color Schemes

To summarize, although three of the four objects studied here have extensive paint loss, all four urns still display traces of their original polychromy. This allows us to conclude that all four urn boxes, despite carrying the same motif and employing the same overall palette, were painted differently, with corresponding details appearing in different colors.

The differences in color distribution are well illustrated by the VIL images of the urn boxes (see figs. 5C, 10C, 14C, 17C, and 18), which show how Egyptian blue was used for various elements and details of the composition. For example, Egyptian blue occurs on the cuirass of the fallen warrior on Urns B, C, and D but not on Urn A. The pigment was used for the fallen warrior’s shield on Urn A but not on the other three urns (table 2). Red lake was also employed in distinctive ways. This is demonstrated by the warrior depicted to the left in the scene on Urns A and B: the UVF images (see figs. 7 and 11) illustrate that Urn A does not employ a red lake for the mantle, while Urn B does. Thus, it seems that the warrior on Urn A is rendered with a blue mantle while on Urn B, the same figure wears a purple mantle rendered with a mixture of Egyptian blue and red lake.

Table 2. 

The presence of Egyptian blue by location on the four urn boxes.

Urn AUrn BUrn CUrn D
Helmet of left warrioryesyesyesyes
Mantle of left warrioryesyesyesyes
Cuirass of right warriornoyesyesyes
Inside shield of right warrioryesnonouncertain
Wings of female demonsnoyesyesyes
Torch of right female demonyesyesnono
Fallen helmetyesyes (crest)uncertainyes

The use of Egyptian blue for the helmets on all four urns suggests that these pieces of body armor were meant to be depicted as iron rather than bronze.94 Egyptian blue is also used on the cuirass of the fallen warrior on Urns B, C, and D. In contrast, the fallen warrior on Urn A is depicted in a yellow cuirass, possibly indicative of armor made of bronze, possibly gilded.95

The urns from the Glyptotek and the Harvard Art Museums present a varied polychromy, with different color choices for the individual elements and details of their scenes. This is intriguing because it indicates that the colors were not closely related to the motif itself. Apparently, the artists had a certain freedom in how the reliefs were painted. Perhaps the color schemes simply depended on which pigments were available at the given time, or they reflected the individual preferences of the customers.

The variations in the polychromy of the urns are compelling, not only in relation to painted Etruscan terracotta artifacts but also regarding our understanding of the polychromy of later marble sculpture. So far, we have only very few examples of the same artistic motif being painted in different ways. One such rare example is the marble sculpture depicting a wounded Amazon of the Sciarra type, of which there are at least four known preserved copies.96 The polychromy of the statues in the Glyptotek and in Écija, which were examined in 2010, shows both consistencies and variations.97 Both Amazons had yellow or reddish-yellow hair, and while red and blue were used to render the garments on both, there were some differences in how the colors were applied. Although this is obviously only a very small data set, these findings could hint at the possibility that the polychromy was to some extent independent of the iconography and left in the hands of the artists or based on the wishes of the customers.

Repainting Ancient Artifacts and Restoration Practices of the Mid 20th Century

As shown, Urn B has revealed the presence of ancient as well as modern pigments (Prussian blue), which indicates that it was repainted during modern times. Whether Urn C was also repainted during modern times remains unresolved due to the extremely harsh cleaning it underwent. Such repainting of ancient polychromy is not unique, although published examples are still few, probably because such occurrences are considered less interesting or significant than studies focusing on ancient polychromy, or perhaps because of museums’ reluctance to acknowledge and publicize that their collections include forged or fake artifacts.

The research into ancient polychromy carried out at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek has so far revealed one further example of the repainting of ancient terracottas: two Campana plaques belonging to the period from the first century BCE to the first century CE.98 Both plaques were acquired at an auction of the collection of Louis Saulini at the Hotel Sangiorgi (Palazzo Borghese) in Rome in 1899.99 The plaques, which depict scenes with satyrs picking and treading grapes, were examined by various methods of analysis that demonstrated their polychromy was applied in two stages: an ancient stage that included the pigments red ocher, yellow ocher, carbon black, gypsum, kaolin, lead white, Egyptian blue, cinnabar, and vanadinite; and a modern one that involved touch-ups of certain parts of the scene with a paint containing chrome yellow (lead chromate: PbCrO4) and shellac.100 Unlike the urns, these artifacts avoided any cleaning, perhaps because they were not suspected of being repainted or forgeries.

A further possible comparison is provided by the so-called Tanagra figurines from Hellenistic Greece. A wealth of these terracotta figurines was unearthed during the 19th century. Often, they were subjected to heavy cleaning to eliminate all earthy deposits and incrustations that had accumulated during deposition for more than two millennia. Such treatment would sometimes remove the entire surface, including what would have been left of the original polychromy;101 a similar fate, as we argue, befell our two urns under study here. The effects of this harsh cleaning could be concealed by applying an artificial patina, colored washes, or even touches of paint to make the figurines look more appealing—and authentic.102

Some ancient artifacts were not retouched but were entirely repainted even though no ancient color traces were present. This happened to the so-called Bursa Relief in the Bursa Archaeological Museum in Turkey (258/2067). The marble relief originated from a sculpted portrait acroterion of a large gabled-lid sarcophagus of a type common in Mysia, Bithynia, and Thrace in the late second to late third centuries CE.103 The relief depicts a life-size, middle-aged, male portrait and retains an incredibly rich polychromy, including a blue background. However, analysis of the polychromy has revealed the presence of several modern pigments, including Prussian blue and chrome yellow,104 which clearly points to a modern intervention. In fact, although some of the pigments identified on the relief, such as ocher, could be ancient, Abbe and Verri consider the entire paint layer to be modern and have found no evidence that the relief was retouched or even repainted over an original, now obliterated, paint layer.105 As these examples indicate, modern repainting of ancient artifacts is not uncommon, and many more examples will no doubt emerge during future investigations.106

It is important to keep in mind that extensive maintenance, repair, and restoration—including repainting of artworks—also took place during antiquity,107 and not all color restorations or touch-ups are necessarily modern. Several such examples are known, particularly among marble sculptures from Hellenistic Delos;108 Roman Imperial-period marble statuary;109 and Greek, Roman, and Egyptian architectural elements.110

Questions arise as to why modern repainting happened, and when and by whom it was carried out. It can be very difficult to answer these questions, as it is only rarely possible to figure out what was done by the excavators, dealers, restorers, or even forgers who were likely to be involved in such actions.111 Nevertheless, it appears that these “touch-ups” were normally carried out before the relevant objects entered museum collections. This, at least, is the case for both Urn B and the two Campana plaques from the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, which were all acquired during the late 19th century and when entering the collections were described in the auction catalogues and in the museum’s acquisition protocol as painted in various colors. The answer to why these artifacts were repainted might be found in the way they were valued112—that is, early attitudes toward restoration tended to treat the original ancient fragments as no more than an inspiration to recreate what was, to all intents, an original work.113 Hence, sculptors often added modern parts to ancient fragments in the attempt to make them complete, often causing irreparable damage to the original pieces in the process.

Often individuals treating these objects were not professional restorers or conservators like today but rather had been trained as painters and copyists. For example, at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, a specific class taught 19th-century art students the craft of reproducing or restoring old works of art, whether painting, sculpture, or other types of artifacts.114 Therefore, 19th-century instances of repainting ancient polychromy should not necessarily be considered deliberate forgeries but perhaps more justly well-intended restorations, similarly to what was done to paintings, where restoration of damaged or lost parts was part of normal practice.

As noted above, restoration of ancient artworks could sometimes involve excessive cleaning, which can often be explained by contemporary values and prevailing tastes on which restoration practices tend to depend. Hence, treatments performed on artworks as well as cultural artifacts often reflect the conservation ideology of the day.115 Attitudes toward restoration are extremely variable and have changed considerably over the centuries, never more rapidly than in the 20th century.116 Moreover, approaches to restoration vary across the world and across cultures—even from institution to institution—and everywhere, they continually change. This has sometimes resulted in the cyclical de-restoration and even re-restoration of artifacts.117 The current attitude toward restoration in Europe and North America for most fine art of modern date, paintings in particular, seems to be that restorations should be invisible, but for cultural and historical artifacts, attitudes vary enormously.118

During the 1950s and 1960s, restoration was driven by an extremely purist aesthetic, which intended to remove all modern fills and repaints in search of what was left of the original, thus reestablishing the artworks’ authenticity by recognizing a fragment honestly as a fragment; any form of restoration that could mislead the viewer and distract from the appreciation of the artist’s materials and techniques was not tolerated. This left the artworks in a completely stripped condition.119 Ironically, such procedures are frequently described as following an “archaeological approach” due to their association with the preservation of cultural heritage artifacts.120 The practice of removing all later fills, repainting, or accretions in search of the original had strong proponents at the Yale University Art Gallery but was adopted by many other museums in the United States and in Europe, thus leaving many collections of not only paintings but also of antiquities overly cleaned and depriving them of their original character.121

One explanation (beyond changing artistic tastes) for the shift from the polished aesthetic restorations carried out in the late 19th century to the harsh cleanings of the mid 20th century can be found in conservation ethics. The new professional restorers of the 1950s and 1960s were generally no longer trained as painters and copyists122 but rather as conservators who aimed at separating their interventions from the ancient fragments. They avoided such intrusions as imitative inpainting and the addition of missing limbs since they viewed such additions as interpretive and falsifying.123

Though many collections experienced this trend, there was also a parallel, traditional approach of more fully reintegrating works of art, practiced by many other art museums and, of course, by the art market.124 This illustrates how opinions on the matter have always been divided. The radical cleanings of the paintings at Yale, for example, were already criticized during their time and were stopped in 1971.125 Subsequent discussions caused a reevaluation of the exclusive desire for the seeming honesty or originality thought to be reflected in such cleanings, which look startingly harsh today.126 It is important to emphasize, however, that these changes in conservation practices were not solely associated with the introduction of the modern conservator but are also related to contemporary tendencies in academia and their effect on the museum curators who requested and directed these cleanings.

Although Renaissance paintings are indeed an art orm very far from Etruscan urns with regard to chronology, materiality, and function, the approaches taken to their restoration can nevertheless inform us about how and why cultural heritage artifacts were treated in specific ways by restorers and conservators, in their turn directed by museum curators (or collectors and dealers), through time. The same hunt for originality appears to lie behind the harsh and radical cleanings of the two urns in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. This illustrates the profound effect different approaches to the past have had on the appearance of individual museum objects.127

The radical—and, unfortunately, irreversible—treatment of the Etruscan urns may also be explained by their relatively low status within the corpus of ancient art. While marble and bronze statuary of the classical Greek and Roman periods are usually held up as the epitome of ancient art, Etruscan artworks have attracted less interest, possibly because they were considered more primitive and less aesthetically appealing among scholars and collectors during the 19th and early 20th century. This is expressed, for example, by the much lower prices for Etruscan artifacts on the art market,128 as well as by the fact that there were (and still are) far fewer experts specialized in Etruscan art than in the art of the core classical Mediterranean cultures.129 As argued recently by De Puma: “The Etruscans were an interesting phenomenon, but due to the lack of a large corpus of original literary material, their visual and material culture remained peripheral and poorly understood.”130 Indeed, as discussed by Craddock, how the present perceives the past is to some degree conditioned by how the present currently chooses to view and regard surviving material remains.131 Treatment approaches can be intimately connected to the valuation of an object or artwork, revealed in the way it is written about and exhibited.132 Though Graeco-Roman bronze and marble sculptures were also subjected to extensive cleanings, we argue that the harsh treatments of the urns were associated with the lower status of Etruscan artifacts and the marginalization of their artistic and aesthetic qualities.133

This leads us to what really concerns us here: why do museum objects look the way they do today? What part of the history of an object has been selected for preservation—that is, which stages are to be privileged when planning the restoration and cleaning of archaeological artifacts?

The restorations and paint touch-ups of ancient artifacts are still strongly criticized and even “considered as a threat to the authenticity and material integrity of these art works.”134 Although this is certainly true from a strictly archaeological and modern scientific perspective, focusing only on the appearance at the time when an artifact was constructed as its true identity neglects its further life after its discovery and entry into a museum or private collection. Instances of repainting ancient polychromy should not necessarily be considered as deliberate forgeries, but perhaps more constructively as well-intended restorations carried out in the late 19th century, similarly to what was done to paintings, where restoration of damaged and missing areas was part of normal practice. So instead of removing them with the aim of “salvaging the sacrosanct moment of creation from the accumulated interventions of history,”135 such restorations should rather be documented and preserved as part of the artifacts’ history, starting with creation in antiquity, through their ancient touch-ups and repainting, to their modern history from excavation to restoration and museum display.

This is well in line with the notion of the biography of things as presented by Kopytoff, who argued that things cannot be fully understood at just one point in their existence.136 Rather, their entire existence—from production and use-life to destruction or present-day function and state—should be considered wholistically. Despite their apparent stasis, objects change through their existence and have the capability of accumulating histories; they are continually picking up new significances, connections, and meanings, which change and are constantly renegotiated.137 Hence, as argued by Scott, restorations should be considered as part of the biography of the objects, and their de-restoration does not necessarily signal “an alteration to a more authentic condition but alteration to a different state of being in the name of a spurious originality.”138

By adopting an exclusive focus on the moment of creation of an artwork or artifact, we risk losing fascinating and significant insights into contemporary interferences with and the reception of these objects. This brings to mind the restoration of marvelous ancient monuments by famous artists during the 19th century, such as Bertel Thorvaldsen’s 1815 restorations of the marbles from the Temple of Aphaia on Aegina, now in Munich.139 These restorations were removed during the 1960s, leaving only what was considered ancient and original.140 Some scholars highly praise the de-restoration of Thorvaldsen’s additions, applauding the purification of the ancient remains as “both appropriate and necessary to facilitate scholarly research” as well as claiming that their removal makes it possible “to better understand the disposition of the figures in the original pedimental compositions.”141 However, as argued by Christiansen, “Thorvaldsen’s restorations to the Aegina marbles are increasingly seen as documenting a key moment in the history of classicism and when, in the Museo Altemps in Rome, the restora-tions of Bernini and Algardi to ancient sculpture are not simply pointed out but celebrated—not only because they are of an exceptionally high order but also because they testify to the interaction of two moments of the past and to the vital tradition of classical art within early modern culture.”142 We are not claiming that the touch-ups and modern restoration of the urns under study here were the work of any artistic geniuses such as Thorvaldsen or Bernini, but they should have been preserved, as they are expressions of similar interactions with the past and hence constitute “a fascinating chapter in the history of taste—one that we risk simply cleaning away.”143

The continuously turbulent fate and changing attitudes toward these restored artworks is reflected in current attitudes toward restoration, which have entailed that the extensive de-restoration of ancient artworks has been reversed. An example is the statue of Hercules (the Landsdowne Hercules) in the J. Paul Getty Museum.144 This sculpture was heavily restored in the 18th century, when the artisans recut large parts of the statue, severely cleaned it with acid, and added restorations in marble. In 1974 the statue was de-restored, leaving it in a rather stripped state with any additions limited to those necessary to cover the technical joins. Thirty years later, this treatment of the statue was critically questioned and reevaluated, and it was decided to remove the plaster restorations of the 1970s and instead replace them with the 18th-century carved marble components, most of which had been saved in the 1970s.145 This also underlines the difficulties in deciding which object biographies have particular significance at any given time, and that it is a decision made by the conservator (and curator) that will determine these biographical states.146

In some cases, the restorations may even be more interesting than the original itself.147 This might very well be the case for our repainted urns, in which case the added colors probably reflect their original appearance better than do their present overly cleaned surfaces. That the restorations may be just as relevant as the original artifacts also underlines the duality of antiquities, which are not only archaeological artifacts and objects of scientific research, but also objects of mediation and dissemination in museums.

Ancient polychromy is often communicated to museum visitors via either text or physical or digital reconstructions displayed next to the original artifact. These reconstructions, no matter to what extent they are based on scientific analysis of the original paint remaining, always include a high degree of interpretation. Hence, although very useful from the perspective of museum dissemination, such reconstructions reflect a high amount of ambiguity and can even be argued to represent entirely new artworks, which have little to do with the ancient appearance of the originals on which they are based.148 Possibly, the challenges of modern reconstructions are a further incentive to preserve the paint added to antiquities during the 19th century, since this after all reflects at least the intent of ancient polychromy. This is obviously not to say that we should add more paint to the original archaeological artifacts but rather is an argument in support of leaving what is already there.


This study has emphasized five points. First, it has demonstrated the varied polychromy used for Etruscan Hellenistic terracotta urns. The examined urns have revealed the use of the following pigments: gypsum, calcite, carbon black, goethite (yellow ocher), hematite (red ocher), Egyptian blue, and organic red lake. None of these pigments are rare or surprising to find on such ancient artifacts, which appear to have been painted with a rather simple palette, consistent with findings in other scientific studies of Etruscan polychromy.

Second, it has shown how the same motif, in this case the scene of the fight between Eteokles and Polyneikes, which was mass-produced in molds and extremely common in Chiusi and the surrounding territory, did not have to be painted in one specific way. Thus, identical motifs could be painted differently, and there was no strict color scheme. Rather, it seems the artist could paint the motif in any way they wanted, with the pigments available. This suggests that we should adopt a more nuanced evaluation of certain ancient artworks as not being mere serial fabrication but probably more individualized objects. Hopefully, future studies of similar urns can provide further insights into exactly how freely the artist could add colors to the scenes on the urns, and whether the choice of colors can in any way be connected to chronology or specific workshops or simply to the availability of pigments or the prevailing market forces.

Third, although two of the urns have been heavily cleaned, they still display traces of their original polychromy. This illustrates the vast potential of multispectral imaging for examining the original polychromy of even heavily cleaned artifacts. The characterization of the pigments used in the polychromy can be useful for evaluating questions of authenticity: even miniscule traces of the pigment Egyptian blue, invisible to the naked eye, can confirm that a piece is ancient, as this synthetic pigment, invented in the third millennium BCE, was not rediscovered until sometime in the late 19th century.

Fourth, the presence of modern paint (Prussian blue) on one of the urns clearly demonstrates that thorough scientific analysis can confirm what is in fact ancient, original polychromy and what is modern restoration carried out in the 19th or early 20th century. This study has shown that visual inspection is not sufficient to determine whether paint on a given artifact is original or a later addition (either in part or entirely). The presence of modern pigments on ancient artifacts raises further questions of how to define a forgery, and how we may detect one. In this respect, polychromy research is an extremely helpful tool to carry out such difficult evaluations.

As a fifth, final point, the current study has demonstrated how different approaches to conservation, restoration, cleaning, and de-restoration through time have greatly influenced the current appearance of many objects in museum collections. It has further been made clear that when in doubt of whether an element is indeed original or not, we should not just remove it, but rather preserve it as part of the object’s history.


1 This study is dedicated to the memory of our colleague Rune Frederiksen, Head of Collections and Research at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. We are immensely grateful for all Dr. Frederiksen’s support in realizing this and numerous other projects and for his invaluable and enthusiastic feedback; he is dearly missed. The present study forms part of the interdisciplinary research project Sensing the Ancient World: The Invisible Dimensions of Ancient Art, which has been generously funded by the Carlsberg Foundation. We are deeply grateful to Mark Aronson for critically reading earlier drafts of this paper and for sharing his immense insight and knowledge about the history of conservation and the related literature; to Luise Ørsted Brandt and Fabiana Di Gianvincenzo for performing the LC-MS/MS analysis of a sample from urn HIN 171; to Richard Newman for access to the SEM-EDX at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and to Amy Brauer at the Harvard Art Museums for sharing her latest findings on the provenance of the Harvard urn. We also thank the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, conservator Rebecca Hast, and the museum’s technical staff for facilitating the study of the three urns. Most FTIR and Raman data were collected at the Center for Advanced Bioimaging (CAB) Denmark, University of Copenhagen; we are grateful for access to these facilities. We also thank the company Topsoe A/S for access to the SEM-EDS-WDS. All images are the authors’ except as noted, and all are © Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek except as noted.

2 Craddock 2009, 8.

3 See, e.g., Cagiano de Azevedo 1970; Fleming et al. 1971; Gilotta 1989; Hoving 1996; De Puma 2000; 2002; 2016.

4 von Bothmer and Noble 1961.

5 Moltesen and Nielsen 1996, 118; Haynes 2000, 333–42; Huntsman 2014, 149.

6 While many Etruscan objects and paintings depict this scene (see discussion below), these were selected for study because one of the paper’s authors was involved in the scientific investigation of these specific four urns.

7 Sclafani 2010, 61–65; group AI. For this specific scene on Chiusine urns, see also Briguet 1991.

8 Briguet 1991, 9; de Angelis 2015, 210–11.

9 See, e.g., Sannibale 1994, 91–158; Hoffmann 2004, 53; Sclafani 2010. Moreover, urns with this motif are in many museum collections outside Italy: a few examples are British Museum 1856,1226.542; Amsterdam, Allard Pierson Museum 1510; Paris, Musée du Louvre MN 1164/N 4894/S 795 bis; Lyon, Musée des Beaux-Arts × 482–99; Reims, Musée des Beaux-Arts 2019.1.27; Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille 200; Musée Royal de Mariemont Ac. 66/37; Barcelona, Museu d’Arqueologia de Catalunya BCN-011522; Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts 53.218.1–2; Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden ZV 0110; Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg 1917.950; Bloomington, Indiana, Eskenazi Museum of Art 64.123; Boston, Museum of Fine Arts 22.594; Quebec, Musée d’art de Joliette (inv. no. n/a). See also Huntsman and Wallace 2017 for an urn with the same motif in the Firmin Didot collection.

10 For the Theban cycle in ancient Greek and Etruscan iconography, see Small 1981 and LIMC 4:26–37, “s.v. Eteokles”; de Angelis 2015, 195–229 (63–102 for general thoughts on mythological scenes on Etruscan urns).

11 Musei Vaticani 14561; British Museum 1838,0608.8; see Small 1981, 13–15, 125.

12 British Museum 1847,0909.2.

13 de Angelis 2015, 218–20, 228–29.

14 Sclafani 2010, 25–26.

15 E.g., Schweizer and Rinuy 1982; Angelucci et al. 1995; Joyner 2002; Bordignon et al. 2007; 2008; Calandra et al. 2014; Donati 2014; Verri et al. 2014; Brøns et al. 2016; Noferi et al. 2018; 2019; Ganio et al. 2021. The study by Großekathöfer (2016) is based on visual observations, unsupported by scientific analysis.

16 For a discussion of authenticity and art, see Scott 2016, 35–93, with further references.

17 Scott 2016, 88.

18 Craddock 2009, 11.

19 Huntsman 2014, 141.

20 According to the acquisition protocol, the price for Urn C was one-tenth that paid for Urn B (which was, however, acquired together with one other Etruscan terracotta urn). The lower price could indicate a poorer quality and state of Urn C compared to the other urns. The price for Urn A is not listed in the protocol as it was acquired as part of a larger group of antiquities.

21 Napoleone 2019, 183–84.

22 Napoleone 2019, 184.

23 Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum 1932.56.117–119, 122.1–2, 124, 126. Research by Amy Brauer (Harvard Art Museums) into the collection history of the objects given by Harris Kennedy is ongoing.

24 Briguet 1991, 19.

25 Sclafani 2010.

26 Hoffmann 2004, 53. Regarding the duration of use of the molds, opinions are divided, which helps explain why the dates proposed for the urns decorated with this specific motif oscillate between the first and second half of the second century BCE; Briguet 1991, 20.

27 Moltesen and Nielsen 1996, 118–20.

28 Sclafani 2010, group B.

29 Appendices are available here.

30 Sclafani 2010, group C.

31 Sclafani 2010, group E II.

32 Measurements of the lid: ht. 26 cm × lgth. 44.5 cm × wdth. 25 cm.

33 Clearly, a record of all treatments is desirable, and the Glyptotek now creates and maintains such records.

34 Poulsen 1925, 133; 1927, 149.

35 Gjødesen 1966, 59.

36 Moltesen and Nielsen 1996.

37 Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek archive; translated from Danish by the authors.

38 Riis 1989, 151. Translated from Danish by the authors.

39 Moltesen 2003, 209. For examples of the restoration and de-restoration of Etruscan urns from Chiusi, see Heres 1988.

40 We are grateful to Lars Henningsen, former conservator at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, for providing this information (December 2022).

41 The cleaning of polychrome terracotta objects with acid or base has been reported before and has sometimes led to the formation of new chemical compounds such as challacolloid (Bezur et al. 2015, with further references), making the applied paint flake off to an extreme degree and requiring stabilization and consolidation treatment (Snow et al. 2016). On the cleaning of an Etruscan-Hellenistic terracotta urn, see Bastard 2014.

42 Craddock 2009, 10, 499.

43 Online figures are available here.

44 Winter and FitzHugh 2007.

45 von Carnap-Bornheim 1998.

46 Gardner 1979. A review of graphite-treated pottery from different sites in the northeastern Mediterranean is given in Martino 2017.

47 Kreiter et al. 2014, with further references.

48 Lucas and Harris 2012.

49 Lluveras-Tenorio et al. 2022.

50 See further analysis of the Egyptian blue on Urn A below, where it is compared with that on Urn B.

51 A lake pigment is an organic pigment produced by precipitation of a dye onto an inorganic substrate such as aluminum hydroxide; see

52 British Museum 1887.4-2.1; see Joyner 2002.

53 Joyner 2002, 50–51.

54 Viterbo, Museo Civico 199.

55 Angelucci et al. 1995. Moreover, preliminary results of another study were presented in the poster “Analysis of Residual Polychromy on a Group of Terracotta Sarcophagi Coming from Tuscania (Viterbo) Stored in the National Archaeological Museum of Florence (MAF)” by D. Magrini, G. Bartolozzi, S. Bracci, R. Iannaccone, E. Cantisani, C. Cianferoni, S. Lenzi, and C. Noferi, presented at the 9th International Round Table on Polychromy in Ancient Sculpture and Architecture, London, British Museum, 9–10 November 2018.

56 Florence, Museo Archeologico Nazionale 5811.

57 Giachi et al. 2007, 132–56.

58 Analysis also identified shellac and drying oil, both used in modern restoration.

59 Giachi et al. 2007, 160.

60 Calandra et al. 2014.

61 Calandra et al. 2014.

62 Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek HIN 60.

63 The urn was analyzed by Maria Louise Sargent in 2010. Excerpts of the study are available online:

64 Donati 2014.

65 Noferi et al. 2018; 2019.

66 Noferi et al. 2019.

67 Briguet 1991, 9; Huntsman 2014, 148.

68 British Museum 1926,0324.124; see Haynes 2000, 341–42; Huntsman 2014, 148.

69 Briguet 1991, 9.

70 The sizes of lid and urn box are not necessarily valid indications of original combinations (or the opposite).

71 Due to the required sample size, thermoluminescence dating of the urns was not undertaken.

72 The LC-MS/MS analysis was carried out by Luise Ørsted Brandt and Fabiana Di Gianvincenzo as part of a separate research project funded by the L’Oreal Women in Science Award, examining the binding media of selected ancient artifacts in the collections of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. The report is available at Only the polychromy of Urn A was preserved sufficiently well to be sampled for LC-MS/MS.

73 For the Hellenistic terracotta workshops at Chiusi as well as the production process of the terracotta urns, see Sclafani 2010, 17–26.

74 Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek HIN 203, ca. 150 BCE. A comparative example is an Archaic bronze urn with a two-letter inscription comprising the two Etruscan characters khi and V. Metropolitan Museum of Art 40.11.3a, b.

75 The numeral marking system was developed in Etruria during the Archaic period, but the phenomenon of using letters for reckoning purposes is attested in Etruria already from the Orientalizing period. For example, the seventh-century BCE bronze deposit of San Francesco at Bologna contained several objects marked with single letters or numeral marks, which are believed to be for counting and checking the objects. The decorated terracotta revetments from the Portonaccio temple at Veii were marked with syllabic groups of two or three letters whose function was simply numeral (Maras 2018, 487–88). For the Etruscan representation of numerals, see Agostiniani 2003.

76 Moltesen and Nielsen 1996, 113.

77 The cremated human remains from a Chiusine terracotta urn in the Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum 1977.216.2518.2, were examined in 2015 by Marshall Becker and Theresa Huntsman, reported in “Ancient Secrets Uncovered,” Index Magazine, 12 May 2015, Harvard Art Museums.

78 Musei Vaticani 16254.

79 Unfortunately, the web page offers no peer-reviewed citation for the analysis of the human remains recovered in the urn.

80 Metropolitan Museum of Art 96.18.163a,b.

81 Huntsman and Becker 2013. See also Becker et al. 2009 for a study of the human remains preserved in four Archaic and two Hellenistic terracotta urns from Chiusi.

82 Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology L-64-481A.

83 Becker et al. 2009, 79–80. The cremated remains from a Chiusine terracotta urn with a depiction of the duel of Eteokles and Polyneikes was also analyzed, but without any result.

84 Craddock 2009, 1.

85 Craddock 2009, 521.

86 This is, for example, the case for forgeries of later works of art; see, e.g., Scott 2016, 25.

87 Craddock 2009, 502.

88 Riederer 1997; Scott 2002; Skovmøller et al. 2016.

89 Nicola et al. 2023, 393–97. The early technical literature of the Middle Ages from the 9th to the 16th century CE provides no written evidence that Egyptian blue was produced after the Roman period (Riederer 1997, 27).

90 Bredal-Jørgensen et al. 2011; Sgamelotti and Anselmi 2022.

91 Nicola et al. 2023.

92 Egyptian blue pigments were identified already in 1850 from the tombs of Saint-Médard-des-Prés in France, and in 1902 from tombs in Herne-Saint-Hubert, Belgium (Riederer 1997, 26). This suggests that Egyptian blue was potentially known by artists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but not necessarily available to them.

93 Eastaugh et al. 2004, 309.

94 “Exciting Pigments,” Index Magazine, 25 March 2014, Harvard Art Museums. The earliest Etruscan muscle cuirass is the so-called Lanuvium cuirass from ca. 475 BCE, which is made of bronze (Cowan 2018, 747–75).

95 Besides bronze, the Etruscans also employed linen and scale armor, as well as armor made of leather (Cowan 2018).

96 Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek 1568; Berlin, Pergamon Museum SK7; Tivoli, Hadrian’s Villa, Antiquarium 2266; Museo Histórico Municipal of Écija, 8041-197.

97 Østergaard 2010; Sargent and Therkildsen 2010; Frischer 2015, 82.

98 Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek IN 1701 and IN 1708.

99 “Catalogue des objets antiques recueillis par M. le Chev. Loius Saulini. Le vente, dépendant de la succession, aura lieu á Rome Hôtel Sangiorgi (Palais Borghese) du lundi 24 au mercredi 26 Avril 1899,” lot. 247. Auction catalogue in the library of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek.

100 Brøns et al. forthcoming.

101 Bourgeois 2010, 239.

102 Bourgeois 2010, 239.

103 Abbe and Verri 2018, 167.

104 Abbe and Verri 2018, 171–77.

105 Abbe and Verri 2018, 177.

106 Further attestations of the retouching of the paint of ancient artifacts include the painted funerary portraits of Roman Egypt, which have often been subjected to various forms of modern restoration, repainting, and even the construction of so-called portrait pastiches assembled from fragments of numerous original portraits. See, e.g., Stein and Corcoran 2020; Rayner et al. 2023.

107 Fejfer 2003, 87–88; Bourgeois 2014; Bourgeois and Jeammet 2014; Leka 2014; Scott 2016, 71–72; Blume-Jung 2018.

108 Bourgeois 2010, 242.

109 Neri et al. 2022.

110 Hedegaard et al. 2019, 9; Zink 2019.

111 Bourgeois 2010, 239.

112 Perceptions of object categories such as artworks versus cultural artifacts have fluctuated over time. For example, today we tend to insist on distinguishing a work of art such as a painting from a cultural artifact (Christiansen 2003, 74). However, this distinction was probably not as rigid during the late 19th century, when antiquities were valued not only as historical evidence, but also as aesthetic artworks, decorating the homes of wealthy collectors (see, e.g., Fejfer 2003; Moltesen 2012).

113 Craddock 2009, 513.

114 Hoeniger 1999, 148.

115 Hoeniger 1999, 144–45; Podany 2003, 13–14.

116 Craddock 2009, 501.

117 Craddock 2009, 497; Scott 2016, 9.

118 Craddock 2009, 497.

119 Hoeniger 1999, 147, 149; Aronson et al. 2017, 125, 127.

120 Hoeniger 1999, 156.

121 Christiansen 2003, 74; Moltesen 2003; Podany 2003; Aronson et al. 2017, 122.

122 As was, e.g., Andrew Petryn (1918–2013), who directed the radical cleanings of pieces in the Yale University Art Gallery. He graduated from the Yale School of Art and was a painter in his own right.

123 Hoeniger 1999, 149; Podany 2003, 19.

124 See, e.g., Brandi 1963; Meiss 1963, 137–62; Scott 2016, 9–12.

125 Aronson et al. 2017, 125.

126 Hoeniger 1999, 152, 153; Podany 2003; True 2003, 8.

127 Christiansen 2003, 74.

128 Moltesen 2012, 203.

129 De Puma 2016, 446. On a similar note, Etruscan collections often occupy less prominent galleries in museums. This is clearly the case in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, where the outstanding and extensive collection of Etruscan artifacts has always been relegated to the museum’s lower floor.

130 De Puma 2016, 446.

131 Craddock 2009, 512.

132 Hoeniger 1999, 158.

133 Similarly, Hoeniger (1999, 145) describes several instances in which early Italian panel paintings were radically cleaned during the 20th century, which she argues demonstrates the low status of the early Italian masters in art history. She further suggests that the treatment of these paintings “may reflect biases similar to those of the treatment and display of non-Western art and artifacts in the context of the Western art museum. The pervasive conception of early Italian art as ‘primitive’ betrays an unsympathetic, indeed pejorative, classification as ‘different.’ It is often said that the paintings are being treated ‘honestly’ as ‘fragments,’ but the reason may lie, instead, in the way they are valued” (Hoeniger 1999, 156).

134 Bourgeois 2010, 239.

135 Christiansen 2003, 72.

136 Kopytoff 1986.

137 Gosden and Marshall 1999, 170.

138 Scott 2016, 205.

139 Not all artists were willing to carry out such restorations. For example, Canova refused to restore the Elgin marbles in the British Museum; Podany 2003, 198; True 2003, 5; Craddock 2009, 517–18.

140 Ohly 1976; Wünsche 2011.

141 True 2003, 6–7.

142 Christiansen 2003, 74.

143 Christiansen 2003, 75.

144 J. Paul Getty Museum 70.AA.109. The statue was found in 1790 near the ruins of Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli. It was first in the possession of Lord Lansdowne, whose descendent sold it to Getty in the 1970s.

145 Podany 2003; True 2003, 8–9; Scott 2016, 198–200; for the 1970s restoration, see Howard 1978.

146 Scott 2016, 84.

147 Moltesen 2003, 216.

148 See, e.g., Hedegaard and Brøns 2019; Østergaard 2019; Brøns 2020.

Supplementary Online Figures

Online Fig. 1. 
Online Fig. 1. 

Scanning electron microscopy secondary electron image of the shiny black material on Urn A. The sheet-like structure is typical for graphite.

Online Fig. 2. 
Online Fig. 2. 

Two cross sections of paint samples from the lid of Urn A. The red-fluorescing stripes on the figure’s garment: A, visible light, bright-field and crossed polarizers; B, UV-induced visible fluorescence; and the yellow cup in his right hand: C, visible light, bright-field and crossed polarizers; D, UV-induced visible fluorescence.

Online Fig. 3. 
Online Fig. 3. 

A cross section from the red part of the shield on the box of Urn A: A, visible light, bright-field and crossed polarizers; B, UV-induced visible fluorescence; C, SEM backscatter image. The red square in C shows the area of elemental mapping in online fig. 4.

Online Fig. 4. 
Online Fig. 4. 

Elemental mapping of the cross section from the red sample of Urn A. The area measures 130 μm x 130 μm.

Online Fig. 5. 
Online Fig. 5. 

A cross section from the red part of the pillow on the lid of Urn B: A, visible light, bright-field and crossed polarizers; B, UV-induced visible fluorescence; C, scanning electron microscopy backscatter image. The red square in C shows the area of elemental mapping in online fig. 6.

Online Fig. 6. 
Online Fig. 6. 

Elemental mapping of the cross section from the red sample of Urn B. The area measures 130 μm x 130 μm.

Online Fig. 7. 
Online Fig. 7. 

Comparison of two scanning electron microscopy–energy dispersive spectroscopy spectra of Egyptian blue (baselines are offset). The sample from the helmet on the box of Urn A (red line) contains tin (Sn) while the sample from the helmet on the box of Urn B (blue line) does not.

Online Fig. 8. 
Online Fig. 8. 

A cross section from the red part on the lid of Urn C: A, visible light, bright-field; B, visible light, bright-field and crossed polarizers; C, UV-induced visible fluorescence; D, scanning electron microscopy backscatter image). The red square in D shows the area of elemental mapping in online fig. 9.

Online Fig. 9. 
Online Fig. 9. 

Elemental mapping of the cross section from the red sample of Urn C. The area measures 250 μm x 250 μm.

Online Fig. 10. 
Online Fig. 10. 

Scanning electron microscopy–energy dispersive spectroscopy analysis of a cross section of a dark red area from the lid of Urn D. The iron particles have the highest signal in the backscatter (BSI) image.

Online Fig. 11. 
Online Fig. 11. 

Scanning electron microscopy–energy dispersive spectroscopy analysis of a cross section of a blue area on the box of Urn D.

Online Fig. 12. 
Online Fig. 12. 

The cremated bones found inside Urn A sorted into 10 categories (full length of scale = 12 cm).

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