Jun 27, 2017 | Updated: 09:10 PM EDT

Laser Cleaning Reveals 1600 Year-Old Painting of Christ in Roman Catacombs

Jun 13, 2017 06:52 PM EDT

figures, fresco, catacombs of Domitilla
(Photo : Getty Images)

The ancient catacombs of St. Domitilla run for more than 10 miles beneath Rome and contain numerous tombs. First discovered 400 years ago by the explorer Antonio Bosio, these tombs were the burial sites of the upper class of Rome. During a recent excavation, scientists made a shocking discovery: a 1600 year old painting of Christ in the tomb of a grain merchant.  

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The painting is "a personal presentation of the dead to Christ," said Barbara Mazzei, an archaeologist with the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology. 

The painting was covered with layers of dirt and dust and could not be properly exposed without the technology of laser ablation

Once popular in removing unwanted tattoos, laser ablation is now finding new usefulness in removing layers of sand and dirt from artifacts found in archaeological digs. The technique can be used to remove paints and coatings without damaging the underlying surface. The technique involves removing material from a solid surface by vaporizing the material with a laser beam.  

Until recently, laser ablation had found itself out of a job. Refinements in the use of laser ablation in cleaning artwork and artifacts have been explored and pioneered by Salvtore Siano and Renzo Salembeni. Since these breakthroughs in its use, laser ablation has been used to preserve and clean several famous pieces including such masterpieces as Lorenzo Ghiberti's Porta del Paradiso and Donatello's David. Previously, the technique was not useful in cleaning pieces of art because of its tendency to leave a yellowish tint on the underling artwork. Recent advances in the technique have solved this problem through the optimization of the laser pulse duration.

With these breakthroughs, laser ablation is widely becoming the accepted way in which artifacts and art are preserved in the field of cultural heritage conservation. 

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