A trick of the light: the Great North Museum

Hancock, Newcastle

Glowing in vivid technicolour against a pitch-black backdrop, the stone blocks pictured here are part of a group of seven Roman altars that have been reimagined in colour using only projected light – all as part of a new, immersive display in the Hadrian’s Wall gallery of the Great North Museum: Hancock.

Although today Roman altars survive wearing mottled hues of ivory and grey, many would once have been decorated with bold polychromatic paintwork. ‘We’re used to the look of sandstone altars and reliefs in museums, but we forget that they were originally painted in bright colours,’ said Andrew Parkin, the museum’s Keeper of Archaeology. ‘The paint has been lost over the centuries, but researchers have found trace amounts of pigment using ultraviolet light and X-rays,’ he explained.

The museum’s curators do not know exactly what colours these particular altars (which are dedicated to Jupiter, Fortuna, Minerva, and Antenociticus) would have sported c.1,900 years ago when they were first commissioned, but research on Romano-British paint indicates that earthy tones were made from locally sourced pigments of iron ore, chalk, and clay. Some brighter pigments, like blue, may have been imported and would have been used sparingly due to their rarity and cost, while red would have been widely available across the Empire.

To give visitors a palpable impression of the altars’ former vibrance, the team worked in conjunction with creative studio NOVAK to map images and animations on to the objects using lasers. Some of the projections have been designed to pick out engraved designs and abbreviated Latin inscriptions, but others are more interpretative: one projection illuminating the altar to Neptune, found in the River Tyne, for example, features an underwater scene with swimming fish, while the altar dedicated to Fortuna has been used as the background for a video animating a sacrifice.

The display, titled Roman Britain in Colour, is a creative collaboration between the museum and the Hadrian’s Wall Community Archaeology Project (WallCAP), funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. For more information, including an informative video about the altars narrated by WallCAP’s project manager Dr Rob Collins (Newcastle University), visit www.greatnorthmuseum.org.uk.

Text: H Blair
Image: © Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums Photo by Colin Davison

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