14 June 2024 • ResearchSTEM Old Colors, New Life By Colin Spencer '19

This summer, students are studying how ancient people were able to produce colored paints utilizing heat. 

Over the summer, Professor of Chemistry Walter Bowyer and students have been examining the production of color during the Upper Paleolithic era.

Professor of Chemistry Walter Bowyer works with Angelina Jordan '27 while conducting research.

Working with Jessica Finnerty ’26, Angelina Jordan ’27 and Ameer Muse ’26, Bowyer has been replicating how artists from the era, about 20,000-50,000 years ago, heated iron ochres to convert them from yellow-brown goethite to red hematite. In a previous research study, Bowyer cited how geologists and material scientists have known that goethite can be converted into hematite by heating. The process has been well studied in the lab using powder X-ray diffraction and electron microscopy. But this process hasn’t been replicated outside of a laboratory, which Bowyer and the students have been doing. 

“We know this can be done in a furnace but how exactly did ancient people do this in a fire?” says Bowyer. 

The students have taken the ochre, heated it over an open flame outside to create the red pigment and, once it has cooled, tracked its color through spectrometry. 

Finnerty, a biology major, became interested in conducting research with Bowyer after taking the Bidisciplinary course “New Chemistry Meets Old Art” that Bowyer teaches jointly with Associate Professor of Art and Architecture Liliana Leopardi. Through the course, Finnerty learned about the ways in which science and art are connected. 

This summer, she also has enjoyed the opportunity to get to know her classmates better. “We’ve got a really great group here and have gotten super close the past few weeks,” says Finnerty, of Fairfield, Conn.

Muse, a chemistry major from Trenton, N.J. has enjoyed this valuable introduction to scientific research. “My goal is to try to learn as much as possible: learning how to use the machines, the furnace, the microscopes and proper lab safety,” he says.

Jordan, who plans to major in chemistry, says she became interested in conducting research after taking a class with Bowyer as well. 

“I enjoyed Professor Bowyer’s class ‘New Chemistry Meets Old Art’ and given the opportunity to work with him in a professional research environment, there was no way I was going to pass it up,” says Jordan, of Canandaigua, N.Y. 

Bowyer hopes the research experience will provide the students with not only knowledge but the confidence to design their own experiments and continue to understand the importance of how what they are learning in their labs is connected to real life. 

Top: Angelina Jordan '27, Ameer Muse '26 and Jessica Finnerty '26 work in Rosenberg Hall.