Resources for Teaching Art, Archaeology, and Chemistry

Image is of ancient cave drawing of two cows found in the Lascaux cave in France

The inaugural ChemEd X Journal Club Meeting was held virtually on April 7, 2022 to discuss the article, "Curricular Materials on the Chemistry of Pottery, Including Thermodynamic Calculations for Redox Reactions in the 3-Stage Firing Process of Athenian Black- and Red-Figure Vases Produced from the Sixth-Fourth Centuries BCE" (Journal of Chemical Education 99 (2), 768-776). The purpose of this post is to follow-up by summarizing what transpired and to share with those who have an interest in the intersection of science, art, and archaeology. There are so many possibilities for motivating and inspiring non-majors and high school students by applying chemistry to the analysis and restoration of ancient art. 

The paper's author, Chris Vyhnal, joined a group of chemistry educators from across the US and as far away as the Philippines to answer questions and discuss the integration of art and archaeology into an advanced high school chemistry course. Chris developed a year-long course, "Advanced Chemistry: Applications in Art & Archaeology", that applies chemistry topics to art and archaeology (see course outline as supporting information below). He answered questions about the newly designed course, the types of students taking the course, various activities that comprise the course as described in the paper, and shared additional resources for those interested in incorporating existing activities or developing new activities for their courses.

The paper and the discussion that followed describes one unit of a course comprised of three lessons that Chris designed. The first lesson included looking at the structure of clay using phase diagrams, stoichiometry calculations, and the ideal gas laws as applied to the expansion of water as moist clay is fired in the furnace. The second lesson in the unit is a hands-on lab activity where students build pots and measure the water loss upon drying and firing. The third lesson in the unit includes the study of iron pigments used in Athenian black and red figure vases and the redox reactions that likely happen during the different stages of firing. The redox reactions create the distinct colors found in these ancient vessels. The third lesson includes the use of thermodynamic data and calculations involving enthalpy, entropy, and Gibbs free energy changes. Furthermore, Chris and his colleagues also have published a paper entitled, "Pigment Synthesis and Analysis of Color in Art: An Example of Applied Science for High School and College Chemistry Students", J. Chem. Educ. 2020, 97, 1272−1282. This paper describes lab activities that include the synthesis and analysis of four pigments: Egyptian blue, madder lake (red), cobalt green and yellow. 

If you are interested in incorporating art and archaeology into your teaching, check out the following: