Colours of the
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Colour (polychromy) is known to have been an inherent part of sculpture and architecture in the ancient world. Over time, through unfavourable environmental or burial conditions and human intervention, much of this original colouration has been lost.
If colour survives at all it usually does so in very minute traces, often invisible to the naked eye. As a result our understanding of such pieces and their place in ancient cultures has been quite fragmentary. With the help of new imaging technology developed at the British Museum, startling evidence of previously invisible colour has been revealed.
This new technology, together with other analytical methods, makes it possible to undertake detailed study of surviving polychromy traces, greatly improving our understanding of the use of colour in antiquity.
Continuing investigations have not only benefited art-historical interpretation, but also impact on collection care, where awareness of (often invisible) polychromy informs conservation, display and storage.
Imaging techniques are being actively used on the Museum collection and are contributing to the following currect research projects:
Polychromy in the collection
Egyptian blue is possibly the earliest artificial pigment ever produced. It first appeared in Egypt and Mesopotamia around 2500 BC.
This pigment has been discovered on a range of objects in the Museum collection.
Video: A new technique unveils ancient colour at the British Museum
Ancient colour revealed on the Parthenon Sculptures
Discoveries of Egyptian blue pigment at the British Museum
Limestone sculpture of the Egyptian god Horus in Roman military costume
Publications and outputs
A number of case studies that demonstrate use of the new technique have been published in the British Museum Technical Research Bulletin and more results will be published in due course.
Articles currently available. include:
G. Verri, T. Opper and T. Deviese, The ‘Treu Head’: a case study in Roman sculptural polychromy, in British Museum Technical Research Bulletin, volume 4, 2010
G. Verri, P. Collins, J. Ambers, T. Sweek and S.J. Simpson, Assyrian colours: pigments on a neo-Assyrian relief of a parade horse, in British Museum Technical Research Bulletin, volume 3, 2009
Images: top, Iris, a messenger goddess from the west pediment of the Parthenon. The bright white line around the belt in the infrared image on the right shows the existence of Egyptian blue pigment; bottom left, Marble head from the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus - some pink paint remains on the head, but no blue was visible until tiny amounts were found in the eyes; middle, video about Egyptian blue; bottom right, horse’s head from the Palace of Sargon at Khorsabad, in northern Iraq. Much of the harness must originally have been painted with Egyptian blue.