La Dama de Baza, or the Lady of Baza, was found in 1971 during Francisco Presedo’s excavations of the necropolis of Cerro del Santuario in Baza, a town in Granada, southern Spain. The painted sculpture depicting a seated woman was found inside a burial chamber with other rich grave goods. Dating to the 4th century BC, the sculpture has been attributed to the Bastetani, the pre-Roman people living in the region in this period.
Soon after the sculpture’s discovery, it became apparent that its original colours were fading rapidly, and that water leaks had caused staining in some areas. In an effort to prevent the sculpture decaying any further, Presedo covered it with hairspray as a temporary measure before it underwent conservation in Madrid. Despite this, much of the bright paint covering the Lady of Baza was lost. Now modern technology is being used to identify the sculpture’s original colours in greater detail.
A paper published in 2021 in Boletín del Museo Arqueológico Nacional 40 explains how researchers have used new digital photographs to reveal lost details and colours. Although the statue’s colours are still visible to the naked eye, the new study utilised controlled lighting and subtle photo-processing to eliminate any glare caused by reflected light, making the colours appear much more vivid, thus making them easier to identify.
Previous research in the 1990s and in 2006 used analytical techniques to identify the pigments used on the sculpture. They found evidence of ‘Egyptian blue’, an artificial pigment made of copper and calcium silicate, on her tunic, mantle, foot cushion, and the baby bird held in her left hand; an intense red vermilion made from cinnabar on the chequerboard pattern of her tunic and mantle and on her footwear, and the same red mixed with gypsum in some places to create softer hues for her skin; ochre or red earth for the red-brown colour of her throne, and a rich black created using bone char for her hair. The analysis also identified a fine copper leaf used for the jewels adorning her clothing to make them appear to glitter in the light.
Using the new photographs in combination with this earlier pigment analysis, researchers were able to shed more light on many of the details of the Lady of Baza’s original appearance. It was revealed that her cheeks and lips were both painted with a brighter red made from cinnabar, while her eyebrows, eyelashes, and the outline of her eyelids were defined in black, probably using the same bone char as her hair. Researchers discovered that her eyes would once have appeared much more expressive, due to painted irises and pupils, which are now lost, leaving her with a slightly vacant gaze. The photographs also revealed the realism of the Lady of Baza’s facial features, which include a double chin, suggesting that the artist wanted to depict his or her subject as accurately as possible. Other details that became clearer through digital photography included her hairstyle, with small waves on the forehead, gathered into two circular buns level with the cheeks, and her headdress, which is adorned with metallic elements and may be a flexible textile garment, like a hijab.
The digital images also made it possible to see more clearly a motif originally thought to be a long string of beads. It became evident, however, that this motif was painted vermilion, like the edging of the cloak and tunic, leading researchers to suggest that it depicts a thread or cord with knots, rather than hard beads. This indicates that its symbolic value may have been of greater significance than the material itself, perhaps acting as a talisman for personal protection.
This new analysis brings the 2,400-year-old sculpture to life, revealing a vivid image of a real elite Iberian woman, carefully recreated with all of her rich clothing and accessories.
TEXT: Amy Brunskill.
Images: Pedro Saura.