How Ancient Greek Statues Really Looked: Research Reveals Their Bold, Bright Colors and Patterns

“Did they have col­or in the past?” This ques­tion, one often hears, ranks among the darn­d­est things said by kids, or at least kids who have learned a lit­tle about his­to­ry, but not the his­to­ry of pho­tog­ra­phy. But even the kids who get seri­ous­ly swept up in sto­ries and images of the past might hold on to the mis­con­cep­tion, giv­en how thor­ough­ly time has mono­chro­m­a­tized the arti­facts of pre­vi­ous civ­i­liza­tions. As much as such pre­co­cious young­sters have always learned from trips to the muse­um to see, for instance, ancient Greek stat­ues, they haven’t come away with an accu­rate impres­sion of how they real­ly looked in their day.

Recent research has begun to change that. “To us, clas­si­cal antiq­ui­ty means white mar­ble,” writes Smith­son­ian mag­a­zine’s Matthew Gure­witsch. “Not so to the Greeks, who thought of their gods in liv­ing col­or and por­trayed them that way too. The tem­ples that housed them were in col­or, also, like mighty stage sets. Time and weath­er have stripped most of the hues away. And for cen­turies peo­ple who should have known bet­ter pre­tend­ed that col­or scarce­ly mat­tered.” But today, the right mix of inspec­tion with ultra­vi­o­let light and infrared and x‑ray spec­troscopy has made it pos­si­ble to fig­ure out the very col­ors with which these appar­ent­ly col­or­less stat­ues once called out to the eye.

Enter Ger­man archae­ol­o­gist Vinzenz Brinkmann, who, “armed with high-inten­si­ty lamps, ultra­vi­o­let light, cam­eras, plas­ter casts and jars of cost­ly pow­dered min­er­als,” has “spent the past quar­ter cen­tu­ry try­ing to revive the pea­cock glo­ry that was Greece” by “cre­at­ing full-scale plas­ter or mar­ble copies hand-paint­ed in the same min­er­al and organ­ic pig­ments used by the ancients: green from mala­chite, blue from azu­rite, yel­low and ocher from arsenic com­pounds, red from cinnabar, black from burned bone and vine.” You can see the results in the Get­ty Muse­um video at the top of the post.


In the years since the dis­cov­ery of ancient Greek stat­ues’ orig­i­nal col­ors, the reac­tions of us mod­erns have, shall we say, var­ied. We’ve grown accus­tomed to, and grown to admire, the aus­ter­i­ty of white mar­ble, which we’ve come to asso­ciate with an idea of the puri­ty of antiq­ui­ty. (The Get­ty itself used a sim­i­lar­ly evoca­tive stone, exten­sive­ly and at stag­ger­ing expense, in the con­struc­tion of their Richard Meier-designed com­plex over­look­ing Los Ange­les.) And so the bold col­ors revealed by Brinkmann and his col­lab­o­ra­tors may, on first or even sec­ond glance, strike us as gaudy, kitschy, tacky. How­ev­er you re-eval­u­ate its aes­thet­ics, though, you have to feel a cer­tain exhil­a­ra­tion at the fact that the ancient world has con­tin­ued to hold sur­pris­es for us.

The image above is an archer from the west­ern ped­i­ment of the Tem­ple of Apha­ia on Aig­i­na, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons.

(via i09)

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Dis­cov­er the “Brazen Bull,” the Ancient Greek Tor­ture Machine That Dou­bled as a Musi­cal Instru­ment

What Ancient Greek Music Sound­ed Like: Hear a Recon­struc­tion That is ‘100% Accu­rate’

Watch Art on Ancient Greek Vas­es Come to Life with 21st Cen­tu­ry Ani­ma­tion

The Met Dig­i­tal­ly Restores the Col­ors of an Ancient Egypt­ian Tem­ple, Using Pro­jec­tion Map­ping Tech­nol­o­gy

Dis­cov­er Harvard’s Col­lec­tion of 2,500 Pig­ments: Pre­serv­ing the World’s Rare, Won­der­ful Col­ors

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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