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U-M Kelsey Museum of Archaeology receives NEH grant to study ancient color

U-M Kelsey Museum of Archaeology receives NEH grant to study ancient color

This portrait of a mummified woman was painted at nearly life size on a wood panel. Photo of the portrait and color reference by Carrie Roberts. Pigment photos by Randal Stegmeyer.

A significant grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities will allow researchers at the University of Michigan Kelsey Museum of Archaeology to continue years-long research into the vibrant colors of ancient Rome.

The NEH awarded Kelsey Museum conservators Caroline Roberts and Suzanne Davis $46,595 to pursue a two-year research project on “Advancing the Technical Study of Color in Archaeological Collections.” 

Their research is an extension of the work presented in a 2019 exhibition at the Kelsey Museum titled “Ancient Color,” which centered on their findings related to pigments and dyes that were used in ancient Rome—despite the white or terracotta-colored architecture and artifacts that survive today.

With the help of scientific instruments used in chemistry, biology, materials science and other fields, they have been able to locate traces of color, identify unknown color on artifacts and help us learn more about artists’ materials.

Artists gave gods in sculptures and paintings red or gold hair to signal their divine status, like Bacchus (pictured) as the sculptural remnant that Kelsey Museum visitors can see today (left; photo by Randal Stegmeyer) and with his probable original colors during the Roman period (right; digital reconstruction by Emily Pierattini).

“This is a wonderful opportunity to make color research more accessible to smaller institutions like ours,” Roberts said. “The NEH grant will allow us to conduct scientific analysis on colorful artifacts at the Kelsey and develop a scalable research tool for other archaeological collections to use.

NEH grants are prestigious and highly competitive awards granted to scholars pursuing projects that embody exceptional research, rigorous analysis and clear writing. 

Roberts’ project is one of six to be granted funding from the NEH Research and Development program this year, chosen from 25 eligible applications.

More information about the latest round of grants is available on the NEH website.