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Ancient colour revealed on the Parthenon Sculptures

Helios, sculpture from the east pediment of the Parthenon

Sculptures from the Parthenon have been on display in the British Museum for almost 200 years, and have been intensively studied and investigated throughout that time (1, 2). It has often been assumed that they, like other Classical objects in the Museum, were once painted with colour, but until recently no firm evidence had
ever been found.

Now, thanks to a new imaging technique developed in the British Museum’s Department of Conservation and Scientific Research, the presence of traces of original blue paint has been confirmed. These traces of blue suggest that the sculptures, like the upper reaches of the architecture, were originally decorated in bright colours (polychromy). The image above illustrates the god Helios from the east pediment rising with his chariot from a wavy sea, where blue pigment has been found.

Ancient Egyptian lump of Egyptian blue

Egyptian blue

The blue material used (known as Egyptian blue) is possibly the earliest artificial pigment ever produced. It first appeared in Egypt and Mesopotamia around 2500 BC and then spread throughout the Mediterranean world where it was widely used until around AD 800. It is a bright blue crystalline material, made by mixing sand, lime and copper or copper ore and heating them to around 850-1000°C.

Research by British Museum staff has found that Egyptian blue has a very unusual property. When red light is shone onto it, it gives off infrared light; this property is called luminescence. This luminescence cannot be seen by the naked eye, but can be recorded using a device which is sensitive to infrared light (such as a night vision camera). The luminescence can be most clearly detected when other sources of visible and infrared light are excluded, for example by working in a darkened room. Extensive testing of other blue/purple pigments has found that only two others, Han blue and Han purple, share this property. We know that the Han colours, which are chemically very similar to Egyptian blue, were only ever used in China and only during a very restricted time period, so they are unlikely ever to be confused with Egyptian blue.

Investigation technique

To look for traces of Egyptian blue a red light is shone onto the object being studied and images are recorded using a normal digital camera which has been slightly adapted by changing some of the filters. This means that it will only detect infrared light. Objects such as the Parthenon sculptures can be non-invasively studied in position in the Museum, but because the method works best in the dark, all of the work has been carried out in the evenings, as it is often not possible to screen off natural light sources in the galleries. In the resulting images, areas containing Egyptian blue show up as a very bright white. Because the infrared emission is so strong, it is possible to see tiny traces of pigment, down to single grains, even when they appear degraded and discoloured.

Egyptian blue on the Parthenon sculptures

For the Parthenon sculptures this method has led to the discovery of pigment traces which have been missed in 200 years of intensive study. Since there is no contact with the surface of the objects, and all that is involved is shining red light onto the pieces, the method is totally non-destructive and there is no possibly of harm to the objects studied. Unfortunately we have not been able to find any similar methods which can be used to locate and uniquely identify other ancient pigments, but when Egyptian blue is found it is often a clue that traces of other, less easily detected, pigments may also survive.

Egyptian blue has been found on several of the Parthenon sculptures, including Iris, a messenger goddess from the west pediment of the temple and two goddesses from the east pediment.

 

The discovery of paint on the Parthenon sculptures in London complements recent reports by Greek specialists of newly found colour on some parts of the frieze in Athens (3).  The British Museum has shared its latest discovery with colleagues in Athens and staff are looking forward to further discussion of its implications for mutual understanding of the Parthenon sculptures, both in Athens and in London.


More about Egyptian Blue at the British Museum

Egyptian Blue investigation video

Conservation scientist Giovanni Verri and curator Ian Jenkins talk about the discovery of ancient colour.

Imaging of Egyptian Blue, technical details (69.5kb)


Images (from top):

  • Marble statue from the east pediment of the Parthenon (about 438-432 BC). The sculpture has been identified as Helios, the sun-god. Helios' chariot was drawn by two pairs of horses. His chariot is emerging from the waves. Large amounts of Egyptian blue were found in the ripples of the sea.
  • An ancient Egyptian lump of Egyptian blue pigment
  • Objects from the east and west pediments of the Parthenon

Notes

1. I. Jenkins and A. Middleton, ‘Paint on the Parthenon sculptures’, Annual of the British School of Athens’, 85 (1990) 89-114

2. I. Jenkins, ‘Cleaning and controversy: the Parthenon sculptures 1811-1939’, British Museum Occasional Paper 146, London (2001)

3. C. Vlassopoulou, ‘Neue Untersuchungen zur Farbigkeit des Parthenon’ in Bunte Götter, Die Farbigkeit antiker Skulptur, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, Frankfurt am Main (2008) 145-147

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