UCL News


Press cutting: Iraqi artists poisoned by arsenic

24 January 2007

Some Iraqi artists may have literally died for their art, suggests new analysis of stucco fragments from the 9th century.

A fragment, taken from the ancient palace-city of Samarra, contains three arsenic-based pigments that are known to be poisonous and may cause cancer if people are exposed to them. …

Curators at London's Victoria and Albert Museum, where the fragments are housed, have already taken special handling precautions.

For the study, Dr Lucia Burgio, Dr Mariam Rosser-Owen and colleague Professor Robin Clark [UCL Chemistry] used a noninvasive process called Raman microscopy, which scanned a grid pattern over the surface of the fragments to construct maps of chemical information.

These maps revealed that an otherwise innocuous looking stucco fragment of colourful stripes contained the toxic pigments orpiment, pararealgar and another related substance.

These orange-yellow minerals are toxic arsenic sulfides. Orpiment was once used to coat the tips of poison arrows. …

Jennifer Viegas, 'Discovery News'