Behold Ancient Egyptian, Greek & Roman Sculptures in Their Original Color

There was a time when we imag­ined that most ancient sculp­ture nev­er had any col­or except for that of the stone from which it was hewed. Doubt fell upon that notion as long ago as the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry, when archae­o­log­i­cal dig­ging in Pom­peii and Her­cu­la­neum brought up stat­ues whose col­or had been pre­served, but only in recent years has it come to be pre­sent­ed as an explod­ed myth. Though some of the cov­er­age of the false “white­ness” of ancient Egypt­ian, Greek, and Roman sculp­ture has divid­ed along drea­ri­ly pre­dictable twen­ty-first-cen­tu­ry cul­tur­al bat­tle lines, this moment has also pre­sent­ed an oppor­tu­ni­ty to stage fas­ci­nat­ing, even ground­break­ing exhi­bi­tions.

Take Chro­ma: Ancient Sculp­ture in Col­or, which ran from the sum­mer of last year to the spring of this year at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art. You can still see some of its dis­plays in the Smarthis­to­ry video at the top of the post, in which art his­to­ri­ans Eliz­a­beth Macaulay and Beth Har­ris dis­cuss the “world of Tech­ni­col­or” that was antiq­ui­ty, the Renais­sance ori­gins of the “idea that ancient sculp­ture was not paint­ed,” and the mod­ern attempts to recon­struct the sculp­tur­al col­or schemes almost total­ly lost to time.

Archi­tect Vinzenz Brinkmann goes deep­er into these sub­jects in the video from the Met itself just above, pay­ing spe­cial atten­tion to the muse­um’s bust of Caligu­la — not the finest emper­or Rome ever had, to put it mild­ly, but one whose face has become a promis­ing can­vas for the restora­tion of col­or.

You can see much more of Chro­ma in the Art Trip tour video just above. Its won­ders include not just gen­uine pieces of ancient sculp­ture, but strik­ing­ly col­or­ful recon­struc­tions of a finial in the form of a sphinx, a Pom­pei­ian stat­ue of the god­dess Artemis, a bat­tle-depict­ing side of the Alexan­der Sar­coph­a­gus, and “a mar­ble archer in the cos­tume of a horse­man of the peo­ples to the north and east of Greece,” to name just a few. You may pre­fer these his­tor­i­cal­ly edu­cat­ed col­oriza­tions to the aus­tere mono­chrome fig­ures you grew up see­ing in text­books, or you may appre­ci­ate after all the kind of ele­gance that only cen­turies of ruin can bestow. Either way, your rela­tion­ship to the ancient world will nev­er be quite the same.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art Restores the Orig­i­nal Col­ors to Ancient Stat­ues

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

Roman Stat­ues Weren’t White; They Were Once Paint­ed in Vivid, Bright Col­ors

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

The Mak­ing of a Mar­ble Sculp­ture: See Every Stage of the Process, from the Quar­ry to the Stu­dio

Why Most Ancient Civ­i­liza­tions Had No Word for the Col­or Blue

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (14)
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  • Alan Cooke says:

    Pro­found­ly true. Makes me think. Thank you.

  • Kismet says:

    Woooooow it’s amaz­ing how “white and pale” these peo­ple stayed under all that sun, espe­cial­ly con­sid­er­ing most of their time was spent out­side and It was much warmer then. It’s also amaz­ing how so many Cau­casian peo­ple had nap­py hair and dread­locks.
    But I guess that’s just his­to­ry huh? The world was always just super Cau­casian and black folks just stayed in mid­dle Africa far far away from any­thing civ­i­lized throw­ing spears, con­fused by all the progress Cau­casian made.

    (Fun­ny how no one ever men­tions how in all ancient art all the peo­ple who aren’t wear­ing wigs have round­ed out hair like “afros,” the Hyk­sos includ­ed)

  • Mi says:

    “You should’ve seen it in col­or”
    What a ref­er­ence — I believe it cer­tain­ly may apply in this instance.

  • Andrea says:

    Of course the Cau­casian took the cred­it for oth­er ppls cul­ture some­things nev­er change even with the so called woke move­ment the took it and brand­ed it some­things else but it’s here and ppl are learn­ing the truth every­day they can’t stop the real awak­en­ing.

  • Jude says:

    My God, why is race being dragged into every­thing? Can’t we just admire the beau­ty that an ancient cul­ture pro­duced? There is so much beau­ty in the world. Can’t we learn from it togeth­er?

  • EJ says:

    Can you real­ly call it learn­ing when there’s imme­di­ate doubt on the accuracy/ authen­tic­i­ty of what we’re see­ing?

    Like for real, the old white lady for some rea­son default­ed to mak­ing all the peo­ple depict­ed in the art white. The art from Africa and the Medit­ter­anean. The art from Africa and the Mediter­ranean pro­duced at a point long bef­fore glob­al­iza­tion and ease of trans­port.

    Sure. It just so hap­pens all the local artists hap­pened to exclu­sive­ly pro­duce art of white peo­ple. Total­ly believ­able. We should all learn from that, absolute­ly.

  • Karabo says:

    I instant­ly knew before I saw it that they’re all white. How can white skin wear a man skirt, with no top, in EGYPT under that sun???

    Y’all need to be sued for real.

  • JD fu says:

    Actu­al­ly you are wrong. It was mul­ti­cul­tur­al. Read some his­to­ry books

  • Don says:

    we have recre­ations using chro­mat­ic spec­trom­e­ters that their skin col­or was light, there are lit­er­al­ly white Blue eyes berbers and Moroc­cans the Egyp­tians depict­ed Africans as dark­er than them­selves in mul­ti­ple exmaples. Espe­cial­ly for Roman and Greece we have ful­ly real­is­tic stat­ues with white fea­tures only

  • Melokule says:

    Wrong on soo many lev­els, but then that’s what they do. I’m near­ly cer­tain that some­where in the future Eminem will be named as the Father of Hip Hop with an influ­ence of Vanil­la Ice. These peo­ple are just stu­pid­ly full of them­selves. It’s no won­der why black Chris­tians nev­er learn about the ecu­meni­cal coun­cils that craft­ed their cults, or how Ser­apis Chris­tus became Jesus through Ptole­my I Sorter. Read, read,read, read “reed!!”

  • Melokule says:

    “Ptole­my I Sot­er”

  • Don't worry about it says:

    This has to be around the time the Euro­pean Cau­casian Romans rude Egypt because before then the depic­tion was not white. Take this L

  • Autochthonous says:

    Thanks for pro­vid­ing more proof of his­tor­i­cal white­wash­ing.

  • Jeremy Murphy says:

    Con­sid­er­ing the lengths the cura­tor’s went explain­ing their objec­tive here and the thought process/discussion they hoped to start, it’s painful­ly iron­ic that the com­men­tary runs to zero in large­ly on eth­nic­i­ty. Inter­pret­ing nar­row con­tem­po­rary con­cerns against anti­quar­i­an stud­ies is to hit one point at the expense of sev­er­al oth­ers.
    One impor­tant ‘oth­er’ is one of inter­pret­ing evi­dence. Sim­ply because evi­dence of pig­ments is found only goes so far, it does­n’t begin to tell us how the paint was han­dled for exam­ple. Can evi­dence of a medi­um or binder glazes be estab­lished? These would have con­sid­er­able aes­thet­ic con­se­quence, per­haps turn­ing assumed con­text on it’s head. What the cura­tor’s present us with is best guess work. They can­not point to shad­ing or nuance for lack of cur­rent evi­dence thus it’s all a lit­tle crude.
    There remains a large ‘we sim­ply don’t know’ over all this. That’s hard­ly a basis or an invi­ta­tion to assump­tion based com­men­tary.

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