With the help of new technology, the Assyrian reliefs in the Bowdoin College Museum of Art are moving back in time. Projected color on the ancient reliefs recreates the way they would have looked in the ninth century BCE, before their paint wore off.
James Higginbotham, associate professor of classics on the Henry Johnson Professorship Fund and curator for the ancient collection, collaborated with Academic Technology Consultant Paul Benham to bring color back to the Assyrian reliefs.
“The experiment was to imagine color on ancient sculpture in a way that didn’t hurt the sculpture and give visitors the chance to imagine how they would have appeared in the palace in the ninth century BCE,” Higginbotham said.
When examining the projected color on the relief, one would assume it is real paint.
“It appears like it’s painted until you put your hand in front of it. [The projector is] high enough that your head doesn’t get in the way,” Higginbotham said.
The five slabs in the Museum formerly decorated the Northwest Palace, built around 875-860 BCE at a site called Kalhu (formerly Nimrud) near Mosul, Iraq.
Higginbotham and Benham were inspired by similar endeavors to restore ancient art with technology. Two years ago, Benham helped out in Bowdoin art classes and learned about the MadMapper software. MadMapper had already been used in Europe in 2008 and 2009 to illuminate buildings, and in the Temple of Dendur, housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
“We saw what they were doing in the Metropolitan [Museum of Art]. We were excited about the idea, but didn’t know how to execute it … There was not the right kind of technical support,” Higginbotham said.
“It’s software used to do projection mapping. It’s similar to Photoshop. You can create layers of sheets that are colorized, and you can use the software to trace discrete areas on the relief,” said Benham. “It was a process of a day or so setting this up and doing the initial tracing, where I’m looking at the computer screen and the actual relief.”
After a long process of trying to choose the most accurate colors to project, the top half of the relief called Panel 17 is now on display with projected color.
“We used a number of different sources for the pigment of the colors. You can see on the sandal, there’s still ancient paint left. You can see around the pupil of the eye there are bright white lines. That’s paint as well,” Higginbotham said.
Higginbotham and Benham have tried their hardest to best match the limited color palette of the Assyrians.
“They would put the pigment on, and then they would put a binding agent on top that would help keep the colors from fading or rubbing off. Based on that and examples of little dollops of paint that are on other reliefs at other institutions, we made a guess,” Higginbotham said.
Higginbotham praised the adaptability of the creative restoration method.
“The beauty of this—what Paul has done with MadMapper—is if we find new information about a particular color, we just change it. It really is an experiment that allows us to create,” he said.
“The response of people coming through here has been really wild,” Higginbotham said.
The addition of color prompts viewers to engage with the art in different ways.
“Once you add color, it invites you to look closer. You can actually see the heads of animals. There’s actually carving here meant to represent embroidery,” Higginbotham said.
Higginbotham and Benham are planning on adding an interactive element.
“We could make use of an iPad that would allow you to increase and decrease the opacity of the colors, maybe change the colors, to give the viewer a chance to change things in real time,” Benham said.
The ability to alter the colors would give the viewer a sense that the colors are not necessarily accurate.
“It’s not an exact science. We’re making an educated guess. Within the range of guesses, there are options,” Higginbotham said.
The slabs were excavated in the 1840s. As the excavators were leaving, they offered the reliefs to local missionaries. Dr. Henri Byron Haskell, a member of Bowdoin’s Medical School of Maine, Class of 1855, was one of these missionaries. He contacted Bowdoin professor Parker Cleaveland (after whom Cleaveland Hall is named) with the opportunity. Cleaveland’s background as a geologist and his general interest in antiquity prompted him to accept the offer.
“They allocated $500 to get them from Mosul to Brunswick. When they arrived here, the shipping bill was $700 dollars in change, and the College almost didn’t pay the extra amount,” Higginbotham explained.
The extra $200 was well worth it, according to Higginbotham. “They are some of the most valuable assets the College owns now,” he said.