If a marble statue has a broken nose, a museum conservator can use anatomy as a guide to help restore the originally sculpted face. But the stark white statues we’re used to seeing in museums are no help when it comes to recovering their original colors.
In Roman times, marble sculptures were not complete until they were nearly kitschy with colors in complex patterns on their clothing and true-to-life shadows in the folds of their bright robes. A statue’s eyes seemed to actually look through the pupils and lashes painted on them. Splashes of flashy color also emblazoned the era’s architecture, along with everyday objects.
Color as a feature of ancient sculpture has gotten lost in the intervening years, but a new exhibition at LSA’s Kelsey Museum of Archaeology intends to reveal what we’ve been missing. Open February 8 through May 26, the exhibition debunks the common misconception that marble sculptures were intentionally all white by applying modern tools to uncover ancient Roman pigments, showing how colorful the ancient world could be.
“At first, I thought it might be a stain,” says conservator Carrie Roberts, who co-curated the exhibition with Kelsey Museum colleague Cathy Person, as she remembers a red smudge she noticed on the carved hair of a marble bust of the Roman god Bacchus. “When things like this are in the ground with metal, metal corrodes, and iron corrodes red. You often get red staining from that kind of environment.”
But looking at the bust more closely with a digital microscope, Roberts saw clear evidence that the red layer was paint that had been intentionally applied. The exhibition includes the bust alongside a digital reproduction of its likely original painted form.
Artists gave gods in sculptures and paintings red or gold hair to signal their divine status, like Bacchus, shown above as the sculptural remnant that Kelsey Museum visitors can see today (left; photo by Randal Stegmeyer) and with his probable original colors during the Roman period (right; digital reconstruction by Emily Pierattini). Another giveaway that Bacchus appears in a painting: He’s wearing only one sandal. In Roman art, a missing sandal works as a visual cue to show that a person is intoxicated.
“So we ended up figuring out that the hair is definitely red,” she says, a typical color for the wild god Bacchus. The red pigment probably came from the ochre commonly found in dirt across Europe. Weirder, though, is the brighter trace of red in the corner of his mouth, which was made from the toxic material cinnabar and contains mercury. Considering that the inside of the mouth is an area so out of view, the artist took some pains to add color—maybe the artist applied the exceptionally bright hue to make the mouth stand out, or decided to shade the lips red. A sample of toxic cinnabar, along with other raw materials that formed common dyes used in ancient art and life, also are on display in the exhibition.
Intriguing, too, are traces of blue in the sculpted leaves that form a crown on the Bacchus bust. Roberts found the color when she waved an LED light over the head and saw bright luminescence—a dead giveaway for the color known as Egyptian blue. “I saw a spot of blue under his bun, which I thought might be left over from someone marking the surface with a number or something,” says Roberts, but clusters of luminescence across the leaves gave her enough information to understand that the artist had painted the leaves with a blue tint, probably mixed with another color to create green.
Back then, trade routes carried color from dye shops to artist studios across the Roman Empire. A large map on the exhibition wall shows how the colors spread. Roberts and Person get especially excited by well-preserved evidence of the color trade in one particular ancient shipwreck off the coast of Italy: Discovered in the 1960s, the wreck’s cargo contained pigments prepped for market.
Ancient mixing bowls for pigments on display are more mundane remnants of the paints and dyes used in the ancient world. When Roberts examined a couple surprisingly intact mixing bowls with a technique involving X-ray fluorescence, she found smears of copper-based green visibly encrusted in one dish, along with an iron-based red in the other.
In a wood-panel mummy portrait also included in the exhibition, Roberts thought she might find some trace of a very expensive pigment called Tyrian purple in the painted image of the subject’s robe, which only the wealthy elite of the time were allowed to use in their clothing. But, says Roberts, “Even that person of status probably wanted to do things affordably.”
This portrait of a mummified woman was painted at nearly life size on a wood panel. Additional wrapping would have secured the panel to the mummy’s head, with the portrait facing the mummy’s body. Photo of the portrait and color reference by Carrie Roberts. Pigment photos by Randal Stegmeyer.
The prized Tyrian purple dye required painstaking extraction from the glands of Mediterranean snails, an effort considered worth the cost, labor, and putrid smell of the manufacturing process, for its reliable brightness. “You know how we now have associations with some colors—red means stop, green means go,” says exhibition co-curator Cathy Person. “I wanted to know if any colors signified something to Romans culturally.
“Like purple being a wealthy color, because you have to crush thousands of little sea snails to make even an ounce of the dye for a purple robe. We see people ‘cheating’ to make their clothes look purple by combining blue and red dyes, and people making knock-off blue dyes with pigeon dung.”
Roberts adds, “I’m interested in understanding what people were willing to do to get their hands on color—how out of their way they were willing to go, the compromises they were willing to make, and what the identity of these pigments can tell us about the world that these people lived in.”
Imagining bleached statues in their original colorful state isn’t straightforward. What evidence we have of their color literally is spotty, incomplete. All but the tiniest remnants of color have been lost or even deliberately washed away by early archaeologists. The color that remains could be just a misleading first layer that ancient artists covered with gold leaf or other hues. What Roberts sees on a statue might be just one component in a color combo whose other shades naturally faded more quickly when exposed to the elements.
“It’s hard to describe how exciting it’s been to find the colors we found on the Bacchus head,” says Roberts. “Not just because of the discovery, but because it contributes to our understanding of an object that we’ve had since 1974.
“Other objects in the collection we’ve had for almost 100 years, and technical analysis can really change how we look at things, even after that long,” she continues. Maybe in another few hundred years, museum curators of the future will find new techniques to expose answers to the questions we’re still asking.
“Some people say, ‘What good is it to hold onto all this old stuff? They’ve been excavated, interpreted, and published already.’” Roberts shakes her head. “But that was the best and biggest surprise moment for me—the moment I saw luminescence on that object.”
Exhibition events open to the public February 8–May 26:
- February 10, 2:00–3:00 p.m. – Curator tour. Curators will walk visitors through the exhibition on a guided tour.
- March 20, 4:00–7:00 p.m. – Panel discussion with expert speakers. Leading scholars will talk about their color research. The panel will include an archaeologist, art historian, and conservation scientists. (Galleries open at 4:00–6:00, reception at 4:30–5:30, discussion at 5:30–7:00.)
- April 27, 1:00–2:00 p.m. – Dye demonstration. A volunteer docent will lead a free workshop on making natural dyes using materials from your own backyard. Participants will receive a kit to take home and try themselves.
- May 5, 2:00–3:00 p.m. – Curator tour. Curators will walk visitors through the exhibition on a guided tour.