Secret of gold-painted ceramic vessels from Varna Necropolis

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“Ceramic vessels – plate and bowl from grave 4 of the Varna Chalcolithic necropolis. The plate is a wide flat plate and the bowl has a lid. The unique thing about them is that they are decorated with geometric motifs of gold paint. Even today, the application of gold paint is extremely difficult due to the physico-chemical properties of gold. Connecting materials (mixers) in very precise and specific proportions are needed. The plate is one of the symbols of the necropolis and one of the most frequently depicted objects,” – states Archaeological Museum of Varna.

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John Chapman in his scientific article ‘Enchantment and enchainment in later Balkan prehistory: towards an aesthetic of precision and geometric order‘ adds some insights: “A third example of high-precision execution derives from the Varna cemetery, where one grave – Grave 4 – was furnished with two gold-painted vessels. The first was a large necked dish (rim diameter = 52 cm) with a black-burnished, undecorated exterior and an interior covered in geometric motifs ‘applied’ in gold (…) after the firing of the vessels in the traditional manner, the vessel surfaces were pre-painted with a glue-like substance. Then a gilding technique akin to cold welding was used to fix the flakes of alluvial gold to the ‘tempera’. However, the tiny flakes of alluvial gold were no greater than 1/10,000 mm in thickness and, moreover, their attachment to the vessel surfaces showed no signs of pressing or smoothing. This raises two intriguing questions: how were such miniscule fragments of gold produced? And how were the tiny fragments transferred to the ‘tempera’? There are currently no easy solutions to either question. It is hard to identify a special find from the grave goods of the Varna cemetery; such is the variety of raw materials, the peak of technological skills and the innovations in form and decoration. But the two gold-painted vessels must come close to being exceptional. … the qualities of the vessels were centered on an aesthetic of colour, brilliance, and geometric order, with the hidden technological mastery of the production and application of microscopic gold flakes”.

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