Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Jan F. Simek

Committee Members

David G. Anderson, Kandace D. Hollenbach, Jeffrey Moresch


In the southeastern United States, paint was ever-present during the Mississippian period (A.D. 1000-1600). People used it to decorate and/or sanctify a variety of media including mounds, structures, pottery, textiles, statuary, rock and cave art, and even the body. While many scholars have focused on deciphering paintings and motifs, little attention has been directed towards understanding the composition of the paint. This in large part is due to the destructive nature of traditional analytical analysis techniques that required a sample to be taken from the artifact. Recent technical advancements, however, have led to analytical instrumentation capable of providing compositional data rapidly, in-situ, and completely non-destructively. In this dissertation, I use two such instruments, portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometry (PXRF) and fiber-optic reflectance spectrometry (FORS) to examine the constituents of Mississippian period paints from three groups of archaeological media: rock art, stone statuary, and pottery. The goal of this research is to reveal the constituents or ingredients artists selected for the manufacture of paints and to determine if paint recipes differ with respect to archaeological context. A second objective is to establish a solid methodology for analyzing archaeological materials using PXRF and FORS techniques.Results indicate that late prehistoric paint recipes vary in a few select cases across the archaeological media analyzed. The basic recipe consists of a chromophore that was mixed with water before being applied to the media. Red and yellow paints were created using hematite, goethite, or limonite as chromophores, while organic (vegetal) carbon was used to create black paints. In some cases of red paint, evidence for the addition of manganese and gypsum minerals was also identified. All of the ingredients found to make paints were readily available in the landscape. Variations in paint recipes found can be attributed to the technical functions they may have served for the performance of the paint or they could be indicative of culturally symbolic additions. In addition to unraveling paint compositions, this dissertation highlights the efficacy of using non-destructive techniques like PXRF and FORS to garner the physical material characteristics of precious cultural heritage materials.

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