Thursday, 3 December 2015




"... These, like the over-largely lettered signs and placards of the street, escape observation by dint of being excessively obvious; and here the physical oversight is precisely analogous with the moral inapprehension by which the intellect suffers to pass unnoticed those considerations which are too obtrusively and too palpably self-evident. But this is a point, it appears, somewhat above or beneath the understanding of the Prefect. He never once thought it probable, or possible, that the Minister had deposited the letter immediately beneath the nose of the whole world, by way of best preventing any portion of that world from perceiving it.”

-Edgar Allan Poe, The Purloined Letter

Beyond Apocalypto -- What Maya Empire Looked Like
Temple Rosalila cutaway. (c) Christopher Klein

Paint. Pigments. Colours.

A mystery of perception and perhaps aversion. Professional and public.

It's a lot like watching too many black and white films as a young child and forgetting that those worlds were actually in colour... though that could just be a personal quirk.

Do you imagine Citizen Kane, Metropolis, or the Cabinet of Dr. Caligiari in colour, for example? Are the trenches of WWI in full colour in your mind or is it often a mash up of black and white, colourized footage and fictional movies shot in colour?

French trench
French Trench. Date Unknown. Image Source

The not so distant past is often recorded in black and white, but we are aware of it and we can question our own perceptions most of the time.

Our culture also often assigns an artistic quality to black and white photographs or film as well.                    

But I wonder how many of us as adults (visitors, museum professionals, archaeologists, etc.) often find ourselves imagining blank marble or grey rough stone when we envision many past cultures. 

With Ancient Egypt, we certainly do imagine a past that is filled with colour. Most painted pottery, and objects made of precious metals or minerals too. 

But with the large stone sculptures or architecture of Ancient Greece, Rome or the Maya and even the Terracotta Army in China, where the original colours have worn away, we often have a blind spot. We recognize cultures for using paint in one instance, but we may overlook it in another.

Colour is important and can take different meanings to different peoples, so it is no small problem if we let it remain unknown.

Using combinations between UV fluorescence, UV reflectography, X-ray fluorescence, gas chromatography raking light, microscopy, or even surviving art on other mediums and the preservation of some traces of the original paint visible to the naked eye, experts have pieced together the clues to uncover the colours that were once there. They are reconstructions, but they do give us a valuable glimpse at the past.

Greece and Rome

Walking into spaces like the ROM's Roman or Greek galleries for example, we are greeted by sculptures that seem larger than life and it is only when we get to the very end, at the back corner of the Greek gallery that we really get a hint. Above the white miniature model of the Acropolis of Athens is a painted replica of part of one of the friezes from the Parthenon.

Fortunately, the Stiftung Archaologie foundation has been collaborating with numerous institutions to conduct research, create reconstructions , publish and put on 24 exhibitions from across Europe and North America. 
Warrior's head from Aphaia Temple  (c) Vinzenz Brinkmann, Stiftung Archäologie & Eva Maria Czako-Stresow (Athena, Aphaia Temple East Pediment) & Franz Kaufmann
Ultraviolet Fluorescence. Warrior's head from Aphaia Temple  (c) Vinzenz Brinkmann, Stiftung Archäologie & Eva Maria Czako-Stresow (Athena, Aphaia Temple East Pediment) & Franz Kaufmann
File:NAMABG-Colored Alexander Sarcophagus 2.JPG
Coloured Alexander Sarcophagus. Source
Portrait of Caligula. (c) Vinzenz Brinkmann

File:NAMABG-Aphaia Athena statue.JPG
Aphaia Athena Source

We also have a whole history of Neoclassical sculpture that took inspiration from and reinforces this colourless aesthetic. The unfortunate thing is that upon seeing these colours, some have decried that the colours are “tacky, 'ugly” or "funky".

China's Terracotta Army

File:Teracotta army pit 1 20090717-02.JPG
Pit 1 Source
Also once quite vibrant and vivid.

Digital Reconstruction by National Geographic
Digital Reconstruction by National Geographic
© O. Louis Mazzatenta Source

Maya Architecture

Stucco frieze at Holmul painted red with blue, green and yellow. F. Estrada-Belli
Aside from being thrown into the Mayaincatec mix up or perhaps because of it, the Maya are also often framed as being dark or dreary, along with pop culture fixations on ritual sacrifice. 

While not as bright as those in the Classical Mediterranean, the Maya did have occasion to use colours on architecture to varying degrees red, Maya blue, green, yellow were used on stucco. In the case of the Rosalila (see below), mica was mixed in, which could give it a shimmering or "glittering" effect.

El Mirador, Guatemala:

Beyond Apocalypto -- What Maya Empire Looked Like
El Mirador T.W. Rutledge

Templo Rosalila ar Copán, Honduras:

Templo Rosalila replica Source

Acropolis at Nakum, Guatemala:

This reconstruction of the Acropolis of Nakum includes Structures 14 and 15, which were excavated by the authors and are discussed in this article. Other structures are designated by letters or numbers.
Acropolis at Nakum Source.

Perception and Imperative?

Chichen Itza Castillo (Catherwood).jpg
Castillo, Chichen Itza 1843. Fredrick Catherwood
Our contemporary sensibilities seem to enjoy and expect a colourlessness, at least on a personal level and that is certainly fine in one sense, but we do have an imperative to challenge this when it comes to our understanding the past rather than to reproduce this inaccurate view in our museum exhibits.

Of course, there is then the challenge of accurate reconstruction.

For example, approximate hue and chroma!

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