Biofilms Coat Monuments – Good or Bad or Both? #archeology #biology #art #science

An iridescent biofilm on the surface of a fish tank.

An iridescent biofilm on the surface of a fish tank.

Biofilms are everywhere – miniature ecosystems of bacteria, algae, and fungi – inside your gut, on the surface of the ocean, and colonizing the monuments of human civilizations old and new.

The Jefferson Memorial is developing a suntan as the gel-like film produces protective pigments.

Snowy white monuments and edifices in Washington, D.C., were built to link the American experiment with its Greek and Roman muses. Crafted from pure, unstained marble, the city’s classical architecture is a visual representation of the nation’s pursuit of civic ideals”

This is ironic, since the Greek and Roman statues that inspired America’s Founding Fathers were only white because of their age. Originally, most were painted in bright colors. But I can’t claim the dark blotches reproduce such color – in Washington DC, Italy, Egypt, or Cambodia, where other cultural treasures are under attack.

Or, maybe not. Maybe the films are protective.

The answer, at best, is unclear. But the white surfaces of the newer American monuments are a clean slate for observing how biofilms develop, grow, and spread and so are a valuable experimental research ground for helping clarify how biofilms may be damaging—or protecting—the world’s great historic stone monuments.”

That’s not the only question. New biofilms are appearing on ancient monuments – why now? Some people think that reducing air pollution, at least in the US, has stopped acid rain from scrubbing the stones. Increased humidity from thousands of tourists breathing may explain the growth at other sites.

Science will work to understand what’s happening, but how our aesthetics evolve is another story. Will our descendants someday think we’re as crazy to want white marble as we think ancient Romans were to paint their statues in garish colors?

Thanks to for their article and the quotes above.


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