Ancient Colours

The ancient world was full of colour and diversity. In reality, ancient colours of buildings and statues are some of the archaeologists’ favourite topics.

For a start, imagine visiting a random archaeological museum or an ancient heritage site. The difference between a “bunch of stones” and a “wonderful place” can be very tiny when people talk about ancient sites. The so-called “must visit” places are no exception. While some people will see Acropolis of Athens as something truly wonderful, others will say it was a disappointment compared to what they expected.

In any case, visiting museums and heritage sites needs to be relatable. The only way for you to enjoy the place is by understanding its meaning, the feeling, the human side of it.

So, now let’s go to the point. Ancient. Buildings. And. Statues. Were. Coloured. In this article, you will find an introduction to the fascinating world of colour and diversity in the ancient world.

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The fascinating ancient worlds

Certainly, we are all able to find ancient stories truly appealing and lovely. It was so long time ago. These buildings and arts are like mythical fairytales. From Egyptian paintings to Roman mosaics, all these artistic items reveal a little piece of idea about some unknown people who lived thousands of years ago. It was all far from being a fairytale… but still, let’s just not think about it.

I would like to give a few insights about finding magic in these ancient colours. Above all, I need to show you how simple it can be. For some context, I recommend my guide to some basic Greek words we all use in our everyday life, in English and other European languages. For instance, “technology” actually means something like “understanding of artistic skills”. Art in Ancient Greece was all about skills and abilities rather than ideas.

Ancient Colours
Uncovering Parthenon – one of the biggest technological achievements of the ancient times, along with Egyptian pyramids and Roman amphitheatres.

Slow travel and discovery

I have an opinion that for enjoyable learning about places you visit, it is important to travel slowly. That is to say, you need to allow yourself time. Now that many people had their planned trips canceled due to Covid-19, the interest for that kind of travel is on the rise.

My kind of slow traveling is to sketch the places I visit, and fill my drawings with imagination. The ancient colours are one of my favourite sources of inspiration, as I am happy we know about them today.

However, the Renaissance artists hadn’t known these ancient colours yet. They truly believed that ancient cities were white, and the whole idea about classical, human-centred art in the Renaissance times was that – it was all so pure and shiny!

After that, in the 18th century during the excavations of Pompeii, small fragments on paint were found on ancient marbles. Slowly but steadily, it changed the whole idea about the ancient world.

Not (only) white

Now, let’s go back to our time. In these recent days, we have seen a lot of conversations about racism. Although racism is a complex topic and it happens on so many levels, each of us can do something to counter it. We should not accept racism as a legitimate individual opinion.

Why did I bring it up here?

Because there are some obscure ideas that typical ancient Greeks and Romans were blondes. Certain theories suggest that ancient Mediterranean physique was similar to Celtic or Scandinavian looks. Subsequently, the racist agenda tries to state that these ancient people went extinct, being replaced by Arabs and other Africans/Asians who somehow adopted the “cultured” languages (Greek and Latin).

But the truth is – ancient societies were incredibly diverse, just like modern societies are. When looking carefully at these statues or paintings, you can notice many different looks.

Further, that Renaissance idea about ancient cities, buildings, and statues had suggested the idea of white purity, as opposed to Egyptian (African) colourful arts. As these ancient colours faded away, we got a completely wrong picture about ancient cultures, ideal for fuelling racism and colonial ideas.

The so called “Elgin marbles” are a great example. A rich British man got the whole collection of marbles from Parthenon under quite an obscure deal with then-Ottoman authorities. The idea that the Ancient Greece was something else, unrelated to Greek population of the 18th century, made British museologists of that time believe that they are just taking “heritage of the whole humankind” to the “centre of the world” – London. They just didn’t understand the concept of local cultures and communities at all.

Unaware of the true ancient colours, the British Museum conservators even made a questionable cleaning process, which resulted in erasing all the fragments of the original paint.

Marble, bronze, and ancient colours

Most importantly, white is the natural colour of the – marble. Many statues were made in a darker material called bronze, but only a very few of them survived to our days.

Apoxyomenos - Apoksiomen - Museum © Bosnic + Dorotic
The Apoxyomenos, a rare Greek bronze statue found in the sea near the Croatian island of Lošinj. The statue has its own museum. Photo by Bosnic @ Dorotic

Still today, when we refer to a typically tanned Mediterranean skin, we call it a bronze tan. Therefore, it is a perfect material to show how an average Mediterranean ancient person looked. On the other hand, marble was painted so that it looks more – natural.

To sum up, there was a huge diversity of looks among Ancient Mediterranean people, as it continues today in modern Mediterranean societies.

How to enjoy the visits to archaeological museums and sites?

Turn on your imagination, and forget about anything you heard before. Open your mind for a different view. After that, museums and any kind of heritage sites will never be a “bunch of stones” to you again.

Reconstruction of the archer from one of the pediments on the temple of Aphaia, Aegina. This is what this marble statue might have looked like in the early fifth century BC. The only parts left unpainted are the whites of the statue’s eyes. Source: Ancient World Magazine (source is below the article)

Some easily accessible sources for the topic:

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