The Color of Things: Debating the Role and Future of Color in Archaeology

According to David Batchelor, author of Chromophobia (2000) color, though bound up with the fate of culture has been systematically marginalized and degraded in academic studies. Color would not easily fit into current intellectual debates on social constructs, has become increasingly anti-disciplinary. On the other hand, anthropologists, conservation specialists and archaeologists have increasingly realized that pigments and dyes constitute an integral part of the environment of both, early and modern societies (e.g. Jones and MacGregor 2001).

"The Color of Things" will gather scholars from various academic disciplines in order to discuss the need for theoretical frameworks when integrating color in material culture studies. How did color become so marginalized in academic studies? How does our current thinking about color reflect and prejudice our understanding of the past and present? Is color a useful tool to reconstruct patterns of identity, interaction and influence? How is color detectable in the material record and how far do colors and colored artifacts materialize voices?

The workshop seeks to explore a wide range of current approaches to color, and demonstrate how results achieved through interdisciplinary research can form an integrative part of general science. Papers illustrating research methodologies and considering the role of color in material culture are very welcome and are not limited to period or region. Short video clips will introduce institutions important for anyone interested in the archaeology related to colors, pigments and dyes. While the first part of the session will be in a discussion-based format with 20-30 minute papers, the second part is aimed towards a more general discussion. Though papers focus on examples from the ancient Near East, Central Asia, Egypt, and Mediterranean Europe, comparative studies will be included.


Color, Perception and Value: New Perspectives on Early Glass
Chloe Duckworth (University of Nottingham)

The Late Bronze Age in Western Asia and in the east Mediterranean witnessed an explosion in the use of vitreous materials and the first widespread production of glass. The unique properties of glass rapidly came to the fore, most notably in vessel production. The perception of glass itself was, however, intimately bound up in its color and brilliance, reflecting early links with attributed properties of semi-precious stones.

Archaeometric studies thus far have focused on the chemical and isotopic composition of early glass in order to compensate for lack of evidence of production sites and provenance. However, archaeologists have not previously been able to answer vital questions about the origins of the various colorant-opacifiers. This paper introduces the application of ToF-SIMS, an analytical technique capable of identifying the colorant-opacifiers added to ancient glass. Case studies from Egypt, Mesopotamia and Greece will be introduced, contrasts analyzed in the light of epigraphic and archaeological evidence for the value of glass, its color, visual properties and relationship with other materials. It emerges that color was a vital factor in the inception and development of glass as a material; initially in terms of the impetus behind production and later as the unique properties of glass became appreciated. The framework of analysis presented will be useful to developing wider methods of considering color and its role in the perception, value and production of artifacts, having wider resonance in improving our understanding of technological choice and social value of materials, in particular new or artificial ones.

Color Symbolism in the Ancient Near East: The Royal Tombs of the Cemetery of Ur
Martina Zanon (Università Ca' Foscari, Venezia, Italy)

The symbolic meanings of colors have been studied for a number of modern and pre-modern cultures, but only rarely for those of Ancient Near East. This paper focuses on various classes of colored artefacts from Mesopotamia from the 3rd to the 1st millennium BCE: mural paintings and glazed materials, but also inlays of pieces of jewellery. I will first examine the existent Mesopotamian literary texts, in order to try to ascertain possible symbolic meanings attributed to different colors. The 242 composite jewellery finds excavated in the sixteen Royal Tombs of the Cemetery of Ur of mid-3rd millennium BCE are made of cornaline (red), lapis-lazuli (blue), ivory (white), glazes (red), shell (white), limestone (white) and bitumen (black), and are differently combined with metals such as gold, silver, electron and bronze. Blue and red (lapis-lazuli and cornaline) are frequently coupled in the jewellery. Were they representing the union of different opposites: feminine and masculine gender (creating the concept of fertility), or the two fundamental elements of Mesopotamian culture: the divine and the human worlds, elite above all, the royal power beneficiated by god that mediate the two worlds? These two colored stones are frequently associated with gold and silver. Brightness of colors is an aspect that needs more attention and investigation. Luminous colors, as metals or precious stones, are synonymous of holiness, pureness, beauty, so they can be assimilated to the divine world. The blue/red/metals triad corresponds to the prehistoric basic triad black/white/red, where black is substituted by blue that we consider a kind of dazzling black, and metals can be considered the substitute for luminous white (or even red).

An Archaeology of the Aesthetic: Examination of the Güzel Taş from Fistikli Höyük
Jayme L. Job (State University of New York, Binghamton)

An analysis of the güzel taş (“beautiful stones”) from the Early Halaf site of Fistikli Höyük in southeastern Turkey present an opportunity to explore concepts of cognitive and color archaeology.  As naturally-occurring manuports, the stones merit collection and consideration by archaeologists, although their recognition within the archaeological record is itself a matter of investigation.  The majority of the colored stones feature no evidence of use, and appear to have been collected by the nearby Euphrates River and transported to the site for purely aesthetic reasons.  Likewise, suggestions of ad-hoc usage of many of the stones imply that traditional Western models of a strict functional-aesthetic dichotomy do not appear to apply to this early Near Eastern society. Cognitively, both archaeological recognition and early classifications concerning aesthetic and functional value are involved in both past and present treatment of the stones. Conversely, by employing models of color archaeology, the idea of an archaeological aesthetic is both questioned and maintained.

Colorful Images of the Greek Neolithic
Stella Katsarou-Tzeveleki (Hellenic Ministry of Culture, Ephorate of Palaeoanthropology-Spelaeology of Southern Greece)

In this paper I discuss the variability of color in Greece in the 6th and 5th millennia BCE. In this period we witness an increased contribution of color to the formation of material culture, ranging from the careless monochrome pottery surfaces to the shiny polished and homogeneously monochrome pots, and to the polychrome patterned surfaces. Color serves here as both, a critical chronological and cultural marker: the Middle Neolithic man prefers light red monochrome surfaces and red-on-light patterns, while his successors change towards dark shiny monochromes and white- or polychrome-patterned dark backgrounds. Equally, the designs are chronologically and geographically variable: Middle Neolithic red designs vary from central Greece (weaving-inspired) to southern Greece (abstract linear) and the Aegean islands (weaving-inspired linear), while variations of colorful designs on dark backgrounds are more generally homogenized over the southern Greek peninsula in the next period. To what degree, however, had the availability of raw substances and firing procedures influenced the formation of color aesthetics? Why were monochrome vases chosen on one occasion and a polychrome of the same shape on another? Since colored designs are a kind of material ‘script’ and color is the means of writing this script and visualizing the material ‘language’ of symbols, how does color complement or strengthen the meaning of a visual code?

Seeing Red: Color as a Ritual Cue on Egyptian Female Figurines
Elizabeth A. Waraksa (University of California, Los Angeles)

At least six standardized types of nude female figurines, ranging in date from the New Kingdom to the Late Period (ca. 1550-664 BCE), have been excavated by the Johns Hopkins University from the temple precinct of the goddess Mut at Karnak. These figurines, with their characteristic torso-level breakage, frequent refuse context, and conspicuous red coloring, have been recently identified as components of magico-medical rites to protect and heal.

This paper will detail the materials and techniques used to produce female figurines like those found at the Mut Precinct, focusing in particular on the red pigment present on many figurines. This red coloring is a trait not previously investigated for this class of object and, indeed, is one that frequently goes undetected or un(der)reported. This paper will also address the terminological issues that arise when one attempts to gather data on the coloration of Egyptian ceramic figurines. Lastly, the implications of this color study for our understanding of the ritual function of Egyptian female figurines will be discussed. Using archaeological, textual, and material data, it is argued that these objects, formerly typically identified as votive “fertility figurines,” had a wider and more active magico-medical use, and that the red hue of the figurines signaled that the objects – at a crucial stage of their use – were malevolent and ultimately to be destroyed.

Polychrome: More Than (One) Color
Susanne Ebbinghaus (Harvard University)

Recent research on the coloration of ancient Greek and Roman marble sculpture and architecture has finally restored color to the domain of Classical art, popularly perceived as perfectly white. The degree to which these monuments were colored, however, is still disputed. At issue is not color but polychromy, no hard and fast category but a relative term defined by current norms and values. With the ready availability of colors in the 19th and 20th centuries, the colorful came to be seen as cheap and commercial. Understanding the rationale behind the coloration of ancient monuments requires consideration of ancient views of polychromy, which may be reconstructed in part on the basis of written and visual evidence. As in other cultures, the ancient Greek term for “polychrome” or “variegated,” poikilos, was used like a color term, to describe animal skins, scales, and feathers, and colorful, often Eastern dress. Figuratively, the term had both positive and ambiguous connotations, denoting dazzling craftsmanship as well as a cunning mind. In Greek sculptural representations, a high degree of polychromy appears to have been the preserve of deities, Archaic aristocrats, and Eastern barbarians. Contrary to the Greek cliché, Neo-Assyrian and Achaemenid Persian sculpture also shows carefully measured, status-conscious application of polychromy, with highly patterned garments reserved for the king and other outstanding figures. While the Greeks apparently did not invent white sculpture, they may be credited with inventing the prejudice against the overly colorful as part of the trope of oriental decadence, long influential in Western thought.

Reading Between the Figures: Colored Words on Athenian Vases in the 20th century
Amy C. Smith (University of Reading)

Graffiti and letters incised or scratched onto the pots played an important role in the decoration of Archaic and Classical Athenian vases from ca. 580 to 340 BCE. They are relatively well studied and understood as evidence of economy and society. But the vast majority of words on Athenian vases are painted onto the surface with the same red, brown, black or even white clay slip that was applied before the firing of the vase. Some dipinti are illegible or meaningless ('nonsense inscriptions'), but the vast majority comprise artist signatures, 'kalos' names, character labels, and speech bubbles.

The recent exhibition Colors of Clay has brought overdue attention to the widespread use of added color in the ceramic arts of Athens. Yet even in that context the painted words are almost ignored. This paper considers the reasons for the relative inattention of 20th century scholars to dipinti on Attic vases. It will also investigate the artist's choices with regard to colored text. Were letter colors and forms chosen to improve legibility, the perceived value of each art work, or simply the efficiency of the artist's work flow? How did the placement of dipinti in relation to the overall composition affect the product and the viewer's experience of it? What do changing styles (especially with regard to color choices) tell us about the relative importance of such words in the society that created them?

The Polychromy of Iberian Sculpture and the Conflicting Presentation in Archaeology
Dirk Paul Mielke (German Archaeological Institute, Madrid)

As all pre-modern sculpture ancient Iberian sculpture was polychrome. However, the study of polychromy concerning Iberian sculpture has been of only minor importance thus far, although the masterpiece of Iberian culture, the enigmatic Lady of Elche, discovered by chance in 1897, bears abundant traces of paint residues. If considered at all, the existence of polychromy was stated, yet there was hardly any reflection about the significance of the coloration, both in archaeological publications as well as in exhibitions. Here, the view on Iberian sculpture concentrates on a monochromatic dimension, in connection with a major focus on the form. In this context, Iberian sculpture obtained novel relevance attaching more importance to modern sociological aspects, therefore differing from the original signification. In order to study the integration of sculpture into sociological processes of its period, this paper will focus on both the context and the original presentation of ancient Iberian polychrome sculpture.

Color Power: Exploring Color and Status in Early Chorasmian Elite Mural Art
Fiona Kidd (Department of Archaeology, University of Sydney)

The monumental building complex at Kazakly-yatkan in ancient Chorasmia, modern Uzbekistan, provides a unique opportunity for the contextualized study of color in elite ritual contexts in 1st century BCE Central Asia.  Color at Kazakly-yatkan was produced using various media and techniques. Polychrome mural art and relief sculptures, gold leaf, moulded copper alloy, painted columns and stone column bases suggest that a planned program of visual art decorated the complex.  A ‘portrait’ gallery comprising at least 27 bust portraits painted on the eastern façade of a corridor surrounding the central building of the complex raises several critical issues in scholarly approaches to color. Torques depicted on the personages indicates that members of the elite were shown.  However, diversity in headdress type, costume color and ornamentation style suggests that the individuals were differentially ranked. Other significant characteristics in the use of color associated with the portraits such as the ubiquitous red ears, and the distinguished use of yellow suggest that color, rather than being a question of personal choice or taste, represents a significant category of enquiry in the pre-Islamic Iranian world.  To what extent is it possible to define the role of specific colors in elite ritual contexts?  How can personal choice and taste account for the use of color in such contexts? Through a contextualized study of the portraits and their associated color traits, this paper will explore how color can materialize voices in elite contexts in the pre-Islamic Iranian world.

Color on Hellenistic Sculptures and Terracotta Figurines - Polychrome additions and what they tell us
Clarissa Blume (Ruhr University Bochum/University of Heidelberg, Germany)

Ancient Greek sculpture was not colored simply in order to be beautified. In fact, the polychrome coat added important information to the sculpted stone. This information can define elements that are also given in shape, but it can also display something completely new. Polychromy can add, for instance, the color of the skin, hair and eyes; it can give characteristic ornaments to garments; and it can display the material to be depicted, such as gold for jewellery or a transparent silk fabric for a mantle.

In consequence, for both the ancient observer and for us nowadays, the polychrome additions of ancient sculpture hold information of high significance to their interpretation. The presentation will show this impact through some examples from the Hellenistic period, such as a grave stele with a horse and a groom which had been painted: The dark violet color on the groom?s complexion informs the observer that this servant of the deceased honoured with this stele was foreign and exotic. Indeed, this important message is conveyed to the observer solely by the coloring.

Colored History: The European Polychromy Debate of the 19th Century and the Contribution of Spain
María Ocón Fernández (Freie Universität, Berlin)

Color constitutes an important reference point of the past and the present. At the same time, polychromy belongs amongst the phenomena of multiplicity, pluralism, and mass culture that have become integral parts of our material culture and current world views. For nineteenth century architects, the reference to the colorful image of antiquity was a general premise for their theoretical understanding and their own practise. With the emerging European polychromy debate, color mutated from an "uncertain grandeur" (A. Prater) to the intrinsic key. Not only a bastion of European culture, but the traditionally accepted "white Classicism" (Winckelmann) associated with the images of Europe and its antiquity would be completely revised.

On the basis of the European polychromy debate of the nineteenth century, this paper will address the following questions: Could the question about the phenomenon of 'European Identity' be answered by examining the inception of polychromy in European architectural history? How does the interpretation of multicolors as a 'conjugative element' stand within the nineteenth century polychromy debate on a European level? How would the contribution of Spain, with the background of its specific historical experience and in the face of the current conflict between Western culture and Islam, be viewed? The role of Archaeology, which was just being established as a discipline at the time, will be given special consideration in this context of interdisciplinary discourse.

Response and Discussion:

David Batchelor, Author of “Chromophobia” (2000) and “Colour” (2008) (Royal College of Art, London)

Suggested Readings:

Batchelor, D. (2000). Chromophobia. London: Reactions.  
Jones, A. and G. MacGregor (2001). Colouring the Past: The Significance of Colour in Archaeological Research. Oxford: Berg.
Young, D. (2006). "The Colours of Things" in: C. Tilley, W. Keane, S. Kuechler, M. Rowlands, P. Spyer, eds., Handbook of Material Culture. London et al: Sage Publications.
Panzarelli, V. et al. eds. (2008). The Color of Life: Polychromy in Sculpture from Antiquity to the Present. Malibu: Paul Getty Publications.