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Transmission and Transformation: Ancient Polychromy in an Architectural Context

Other Research Project | 02/05/2016

White marble has generally been considered a typical image of antiquity. However, the lack of colour has no relation to ancient aesthetics. In fact, antiquity cultivated a veritable wealth of colours, but after centuries of deterioration, very little paint remains on the artefacts giving rise to the mistaken notion of white marble as a classical ideal.

Yet the knowledge that ancient art was polychrome does not mark the end of polychromy research. On the contrary: Now research of ancient polychromy can continue acquiring a more comprehensive and detailed knowledge of how the ancient world was coloured and why. Besides the identification of pigments, this entails knowledge of e.g. technique, craftsmanship, and craft traditions. Postdoctoral fellow Cecilie Brøns is therefore heading up a new research project with a new grant from the Carlsberg Foundation – this time focusing on the colours of ancient architecture. The project is highly interdisciplinary including scholars in archaeology, philology, conservation science, geology, chemistry, and physics. It has its point of departure in the collections of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek and focuses among other things on Etruscan architectural terracottas and the synthetic pigment Egyptian blue. 

“It still comes as a surprise to most people, but in fact it is not merely parts of the noses which are missing when we look at ancient sculptures. The colours are missing, too,” Cecilie Brøns explains referring to the lack of colour, which in fact has no relation to ancient aesthetics.

The Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek’s research project “Tracking Colour” which ran from 2010 to 2013 run by Jan Stubbe Østergaard and supported by the Carlsberg Foundation, was a world leading project in its field, demonstrating that that ancient Greek and Roman statues were originally adorned with multiple colours. However, the knowledge that ancient art was polychrome does not mark the end of polychromy research. On the contrary: Now we can, as mentioned, continue the research of ancient polychromy aquiring a more comprehensive and detailed knowledge of how the ancient world was coloured and why. 

Etruscan Terracottas

Although it is fascinating to see classical white statues rendered in colour, it is not, in fact, the museum’s well-known marble sculptures which can tell us most about ancient polychromy. As Cecilie Brøns explains: 

“Studies of the polychromy of marble sculpture awaken enthusiasm when the clinical white is made colourful. But, in fact, we learn much more about the ancient use of colour by examining terracottas for example.” 

With their brown, unglazed surfaces, terracottas are often seen as unattractive, but they often retain exceptionally well-preserved paint layers providing information on the colour palette, painting techniques, and choice of pigments in the ancient world. Despite the terracottas’ unique state of preservation, their polychromy have received surprisingly little attention from archaeological scholars. Cecilie Brøns tells that the research team under her leadership will, therefore, be able to contribute with pioneering research.

Fig. 1. Etruscan antefix from c. 400 BCE, discovered in Orvieto, NCG inv. no. HIN 453 (photo: Maria Louise Sargent). On the right: A reconstruction by Lars Hummelshøj.

The Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek has a unique collection of Etruscan artefacts. These include antefixes, decorative elements which were set up along the eaves on prestigious buildings, and pinakes, painted tablets which originally adorned the walls of important buildings such as temples. The two groups of objects represent two different traditions of craftsmanship. They are studied in order to establish a scientifically well-founded insight into Etruscan architectural polychromy. 

Egyptian Blue

The project is also focusing on broader perspectives within polychromy research. This is, among other things, proceeding as a study of specific pigments with special attention to Egyptian blue. Egyptian blue is a bright blue, crystalline pigment, possibly the earliest artificial pigment ever produced. Egyptian blue is a calcium copper tetrasilicate compound (CaCuSi4O10), made by heating a calcium compound (such as powdered limestone and sand rich on calcium carbonate), together with copper and quartz. It appeared in Early Dynastic Egypt, around 2500 BCE, and its use rapidly spread thereafter throughout the Mediterranean littoral where it was frequently used until the end of the 8th century CE. Using the recently developed VIL method, this particular pigment can be identified – even when present in quantities completely invisible to the naked eye.

Fig. 2. To the left: Terracotta fragment painted with Egyptian blue pigment. NCG inv. no. ÆIN 1262. To the right: Block of Egyptian blue frit. Recovered during Petrie’s excavations at Memphis in 1910. NCG inv. no. ÆIN 1185. (© photos: NCG). 

Lead isotope analysis is included in the project in order to gain better insight into the production and trade of Egyptian blue. Egyptian blue is based on copper, which often contains traces of lead. Samples of Egyptian blue are collected from Egyptian, Etruscan, and Roman artefacts from the collections of Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. The samples are submitted to thermal ionisation mass spectrometry analysis, which reveals the relationship between the different lead isotopes. The data is then compared to lead isotopic data from studies on ancient artefacts, ores, and metallurgical remains from related ancient mining sites in the Mediterranean in order to establish the possible origin of the lead. The lead isotope analysis will thus indicate whether the blue pigments were locally produced or imported thereby shedding light on historical networks of trade and production of Egyptian blue in the Mediterranean area.

Fig. 3. Before performing lead isotope analyses, investigation with XRF was performed in order to find the most promising areas for sampling (photo: Ana Cecilia Gonzáles). 

Pigments and Dyes: Colouring Antiquity

In addition, the research project investigates the link between polychrome painting and textiles. Up until now, research has focused on one specific category of materials, e.g. pigments used for painting on terracotta or colourants used for dyeing textiles. However, several organic colourants can be used for textiles as well as painting. This is the case, for instance, with purple (from three species of molluscs), kermes (from the small kermes insects living on oak trees), madder (from the plant Rubia tinctorium), woad (from the plant Isatis tinctoria), and indigo (from the plant indigofera tinctoria). Many of the organic colourants can be detected with the aid of UV radiation due to their fluorescent properties: 

“The examination of colorants such as madder can yield important information on how textile colours were depicted in ancient art and the significance of this, for instance, as to whether the textiles were dyed and rendered using the same colourants. It also adds to a deeper understanding of the craft traditions with considerable relevance to our project,” says Cecilie Brøns. 

Fig. 4. Gottfried Semper: the entablature of the Parthenon. Akvarel, Anwendungen der Farben in der Architektur und Plastik, 1836, pl. 5. 

This may indicate that, to a far higher degree, we are dealing with an overlap between the various craft traditions with regard to the use and procurement of raw materials for colouring and dyeing purposes.

It has been known at least since the 17th century that the ancient temples were painted. Although, however, the earliest scientific documentation with water-coloured drawings attests to this, the colour aspect of ancient architecture since lived in the shadows of the sculptural and architectural qualities of the buildings. Paint was not the only dimension that was added to the buildings. They were also adorned with textile furnishings such as doorway covers, room dividers, curtains, wall-hangings, and awnings, as attested in written sources and iconography. Thus, paint as well as textiles were used to add colour to architecture. Ancient architecture was far from static, white buildings but rather colourful, changeable, and expressive. 

Led by Cecilie Brøns, the research team is thus bridging the gap between the investigation of polychromy and the field of textiles. In this way they will bring in yet another area of research, which is not easily accessible as ancient textiles, like many of the colours, have disappeared. The project is thus implementing polychromy in a broader perspective demonstrating the wider potential of investigating ancient colours.

The Significance of the Carlsberg Foundation for the Research Project

The project is supported by the Carlsberg Foundation. For more than a decade, outstanding research on ancient polychromy has been carried out at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek with grants from the Carlsberg Foundation. Thus, the museum has compiled extensive expertise within this line of research gaining a leading position internationally. About the grant, Cecilie Brøns says: 

“The grant from the Carlsberg Foundation provides us with a fantastic opportunity to continue the research already undertaken consolidating and pursuing it into new fields of research. This is something which I am looking forward to do.” 

Cecilie Brøns informs that the project is a collaboration between archaeologists, philologists, conservators, geologists, physicists, and chemists working to attain new insights into the polychromy of antiquity.

“The grant from the Carlsberg Foundation is an exceptional opportunity to bring these researchers together to acquire new knowledge. What we have is an interdisciplinary research project where art and archaeology meet the natural sciences,” she adds as a final note.

Selected Publications 

Cecilie Brøns, Signe Skriver Hedegaard & Maria Louise Sargent: “Painted Faces. Investigations of Polychromy on Etruscan Antefixes from the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek”. Etruscan Studies vol. 19.1. 2016. 

Cecilie Brøns, Amalie Skovmøller & Maria Louise Sargent: “Egyptian Blue. Ancients Myths – Modern Realities”. Journal of Roman Archaeology. Forthcoming. 

Cecilie Brøns: “The peplos paradigm. In Abbe, M. & Norman, N. (eds.)”. The Parthenon: Color, Materiality and Aesthetics. Cambridge University Press. Forthcoming. 

Jan Stubbe Østergaard & Anne Marie Nielsen: Transformations. Classical Sculpture in Colour. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek 2014.

Fig. 4. Gottfried Semper: the entablature of the Parthenon. Akvarel, Anwendungen der Farben in der Architektur und Plastik, 1836, pl. 5.