Revealed: The Vibrant Colors of Ancient Art

If you asked most people to picture an ancient Greek or Roman statue, they would describe a figure in white marble, maybe a god or goddess, possibly missing a few fingers. Museums around the world feature such works. But these statues don’t look anything like they did when they were made. All their color is missing.

At a dig in the old Greek city of Aphrodisias, Mark Abbe, a professor of fine art, observed that excavated statues were covered in specks of pigment — red, black, blues, pinks, even gold leaf. It was a revelation, he told The New Yorker. Looking more deeply into it, he discovered that color was used throughout ancient art. Over-diligent museum curators had scrubbed off the little flecks of pigment to create the crisp white statues. They knew color was there, but it was too sparse to create a better impression, so they got rid of it.

Ancient marble statue of a nude woman

Ancient marble statue of a nude woman. Photo: Shutterstock


Too gaudy?

Since then, many archaeologists and art historians have come to the same conclusion. Many set about trying to recreate the color of the original statues on replicas. New technologies such as X-ray fluorescence analysis can identify very subtle pigments.

Not everyone agreed with this revisionism. Some insisted that the colored replicas looked too gaudy. They preferred the all-white statues.

In 2017, the argument took another turn. One classics professor said that white statues reinforced the idea that the ancient world had white skin, which is untrue. By refusing to accept the pigments of a work of art, we were refusing to acknowledge the skin tones of ancient civilizations.

Scene on the wall of an Egyptian temple

Scene on the wall of an Egyptian temple. Photo: Shutterstock


Statues are not the only ancient stone artifacts whose colors we have overlooked. Some Spanish and Portuguese megaliths dating back to almost 6000 BC also contain pigments. Ironically, the color least used by the ancients was white. It didn’t show up as well as black or red.

Red: favorite pigment of the ancients

Many of these pigments come from natural sources, and ancient artists seemed particularly enamored of red. They commonly used ochre to create that color in wall art as early as the time of the Neanderthals. Red hematite powder has turned up in 700,000-year-old caves in China. The Egyptians and the Romans used cinnabar, which they didn’t realize was toxic. The Aztecs and Mayans used red dye from cochineal beetles to dye fabrics. Carmine and kermes dyes extracted from beetles have been used in paintings, makeup, and textiles throughout ancient civilizations.

Prehistoric hand paintings at the Cave of Hands (Spanish: Cueva de Las Manos ) in Santa Cruz Province, Patagonia, Argentina. The art in the cave dates from 13,000 to 9,000 years ago.

Prehistoric hand paintings at the Cave of Hands in Argentina. The art from 13,000 to 9,000 years ago. Photo: Shutterstock


Why did everyone want to use the color red, considering that the world’s favorite colors nowadays are blue and green? Some think it is part of our evolution. Red was the most significant color for early people. It is the color of blood, the one that hunters would look for. In ancient mythology, it is identified with warriors and with Mars, the god of war.

Even today, we associate it with love and romance. Red, not white, seems to have had a grip on civilization since the dawn of time. It’s not hard to accept that like us, those early masters preferred color to to colorlessness in their art.

Rebecca McPhee

Rebecca McPhee is a freelance writer for ExplorersWeb.

Rebecca has been writing about open water sports, adventure travel, and marine science for three years. Prior to that, Rebecca worked as an Editorial Assistant at Taylor and Francis, and a Wildlife Officer for ORCA.

Based in the UK Rebecca is a science teacher and volunteers for a number of marine charities. She enjoys open water swimming, hiking, diving, and traveling.