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Examining Prehistoric Paint

During the Mississippian period (c. 1000–1600 CE) in the Southeast, paint, or more appropriately, color, became prominent in the archaeological record and can be found on a variety of media including ceramics, statuary, rock and cave art, structures, the body, and even mounds that were “painted” with colored earth.

To obtain both the chemical and the mineralogical constituents of paint, UT archaeology PhD candidate Sierra Bow is using two nondestructive analytical instruments—a Portable X-Ray Fluorescence Spectrometer (PXRF) and a Fiber Optic Reflectance Spectrometer—to examine red, yellow, black, and white paints from ceramics, a painted wall fragment, and statuary in the museum’s collections.

Bow’s preliminary results indicate that paint recipes in certain contexts are very simple, consisting of a primary colorant mixed with water to produce a liquid paint that was then applied to the media. Since color is symbolically involved in expressions of religion in the observable world, comprehending the physical, chemical, and mineral properties of painted archaeological materials is essential for understanding how they were made and used.

Bow intends on growing her data set on prehistoric paints and combining it with contextual information to reveal how paint fits into the Mississippian culture of this region. Her work is an important example of how the museum’s collections can safely be used to help reveal important information about the archaeological record.