Culture under close examination

To probe the mysteries of an art collection from the island of New Guinea, one student went to the chemistry lab.

Sloan Sanders and Dr. Hoffman

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Sloan Sanders '22 and Dr. Kate Hoffman test the paint on the New Guinea Artifacts in an effort to better understand the ceremonial practices of their makers.

Photo: Tracie Karasik

Among chemistry majors and pre-med students, Sloan Sanders ’22 stands out by doing the heavy lifting. She spent the summer carting dense wooden sculptures from a storage unit on campus to Swenson Science Center and back.

These heavy ancestor figures are part of the Ellsworth La Boyteaux Collection of New Guinea Artifacts, which also includes masks, wall hooks, weapons, and jewelry from the island’s Sepik River region. Sanders’ task as a researcher was to test the paint on them in an effort to better understand the ceremonial practices of their makers.

Her chemistry lab mates mostly study things “that you can’t really physically touch or see” outside of the lab, such as the structure of a protein. While the large scale of the objects was the worst thing about her project, Sanders said, in a different way it was also the best thing. In their bright colors and varied styles, the works of art attracted her. 

“I knew going into my first week of research: Oh my gosh, I want to do every piece in the collection,” said Sanders, whose minor is art history. 

Using the chemistry lab’s new X-ray fluorescence spectrometer, Sanders ended up running five tests for each color of paint on more than 20 works, for a total of about 400 samples. Now, she is deciding what to include in a statistical analysis aimed at characterizing the various paints. In a separate role with Cal Lutheran’s galleries, Sanders is also organizing the collection and making photos and information about it available online.

At Cal Lutheran, undergraduates form teams and partnerships directly with professors and professional staff,  unlike their peers at universities known mainly for research. That's an advantage. Sanders goes straight to her mentor Kate Hoffman, the John Stauffer Professor of Analytical Chemistry, for guidance on the array of techniques for analyzing paint. For questions about Sepik River culture and the Abelam people, she has help from exhibitions curator Rachel Schmid. 

Hoffmann, an associate professor, has a longstanding interest in chemical investigations of art, the theme of an interdisciplinary elective course that she co-created at Cal Lutheran. She first proposed a study of the New Guinea artifacts to Sanders, her academic advisee, as a way to complete research as a Ronald E. McNair Scholar while pursuing a love of art. 

Hoffmann had learned from Schmid about different pieces in the collection and believed that paint analysis might answer some key questions.

For one thing, some of the pieces were at one time considered sacred by their tribal owners. Among these were the heavy ancestor figures, used in coming-of-age or initiation rituals. According to a 1959 study by social anthropologist Anthony Forge, there was a connection between the sacredness of the ceremonial objects and the application of paint to them. In some way, they became sacred in the painting.

Luckily for the researchers, the collection also includes painted pieces withoutspiritual or sacred significance. The artisans at some point began producing works expressly for sale to tourists, and the paint on those pieces, which were identified by Oceanic art dealer and expert Michael Hamson, could be thought of as purely decorative. In the examples at hand, Schmid noted that the brightest tones appeared orange compared with the red on ancestor figures.

With these facts in mind, the team used the ancestor figures and the “tourist figures” as positive and negative controls for analysis. If the paints chosen for ancestor figures were different in composition from the paints destined for sale, then chemical analysis ought to show that. 

Everyone involved wanted to be sure that they weren’t harming the irreplaceable cultural material in order to understand it. They used techniques that didn’t require scratching or cracking paint, including raking light photography to look at the thickness and texture. 

The interesting preliminary results may allow researchers to focus attention on a few colors and on specific parts of the works. For example, the white paint used on several possibly sacred figures has a distinct metallic character that is lacking in the whites on tourist figures.

“Normally, chemistry is invisible. It does not make for really good photographs. It doesn’t make for really accessible talks for the general public. Even the title of a paper is usually hard for people to grasp,” Hoffmann said. 

But this project and the student conducting it are special. “Sloan is so curious about everything. She was open to seeing what this combination of things would lead to for her.”

To learn more about the McNair Scholars program, visit