Vibrant Paint Once Decorated the 2,500-Year-Old Parthenon Marbles

New research has revealed that ancient artists used color to create highly detailed designs

Sculpture analysis
Close examination of drill marks on the sculpture shows how carvers created surfaces to evoke the textures of the represented elements, such as skin, wool or linen. Katarzyna Weglowska / Trustees of the British Museum

For centuries, the Parthenon marbles at the British Museum have been a brilliant white. However, like many sculptures admired for their unadorned look, these works were once brightly colored and decorated with highly detailed designs, according to a study published this week in the journal Antiquity.

Previously, no traces of color had been identified on the 2,500-year-old sculptures, as lead author Giovanni Verri, a conservation scientist at the Art Institute of Chicago, says in a statement. Now, researchers have discovered a “wealth of surviving paint.”

The team analyzed the sculptures at a microscopic level using luminescent imaging, a non-invasive technique developed by Verri that detects traces of Egyptian blue, a man-made pigment of calcium, copper and silicon. Created by the Egyptians, it was also popular in ancient Greece and Rome.

“If you shine regular green or red light, the pigment absorbs it and re-emits it as infrared radiation, which is invisible to the naked eye but can be easily captured by a digital camera,” Verri tells Newsweek’s Aristos Georgiou.

The team detected Egyptian blue on 11 pedimental sculptures and 1 figure—much more than the “very small traces” expected from such a process, as Verri tells the Guardian’s Esther Addley. “It was a wonderful revelation to find that there was more than normally found, because nothing was really visible with the naked eye.”

Egyptian blue showed up on the belt of the goddess Iris, on another figure’s snake-like legs and on the crests of waves from which the god Helios emerges. The team also found evidence of white and purple pigments.

Additionally, a close examination of the sculptures showed that carvers took great care to mimic the textures they were trying to depict, such as skin, wool or linen.

“Carving and color were unified in their conception,” says study co-author Will Wootton, an archaeologist focusing on craft production in antiquity at King’s College London, in the statement. “The Parthenon artists were sympathetic to the final intended polychrome sculpture, providing surfaces that evoked textures similar to those of the subjects represented. It is likely that the painters took advantage of these mimetic surfaces to achieve the final effects.”

The newly discovered traces of pigment suggest that some of the sculptures were “highly patterned,” painted to “conform with the underlying folds and texture of the marble fabric beneath,” writes the Guardian. For example, on the gown of the statue of Dione, researchers detected images that appear to depict human legs, as well as a hand and a foot. They also found patterns featuring human figures and stylized palm leaves.

“Until now … it was hard to imagine that such complex drapery would be decorated with additional figurative designs, with human figures appearing and disappearing within the folds,” Verri tells Newsweek.

While the researchers are excited about their discoveries, they caution that they still cannot create a full reconstruction of what the Parthenon sculptures looked like in their prime. Egyptian blue was often mixed with other pigments to create a variety of colors, and the paintwork was highly detailed. Additionally, because historians once assumed that ancient artists left their statues white, some restorations have even involved removing traces of paint. “Knowing the pigments is just not enough,” Verri tells Guardian.

Still, the new research helps historians develop a more comprehensive understanding of ancient art, Verri tells Newsweek.

“As we try to understand the ancient world, we inevitably try to simplify the picture,” he says, “but this proves that the ancient world was more complex and diverse than we would like to believe.”

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