Color in a New Light – Origins, Trade and Cultural Significance of Ancient Pigments


Fascination with color

Like the present, the ancient world was fascinated by color. Early on, people used natural materials as pigments to color architectural elements, works of art or even everyday objects and utensils. Unlike dyes, pigments are practically insoluble in solution and are suspended as solid particles.

Wall paintings at Ephesos (Foto: A. S. Rodler)

Origin and processing of pigments

Some materials used to make pigments were precious and may have been traded over long distances, others were widely available. Yet little is known about where these materials came from and where they were processed. Not only the nodes along the way from mine to artwork are still in the dark, but also the sources of pigment raw materials. This is remarkable because certain materials were used consistently and over long periods of time, which could indicate standardized production and procurement patterns. Moreover, ancient writers mention a preference for specific materials from specific regions.

New approach within archaeology

The Project „COLOR IN A NEW LIGHT – Origins, Trade and Cultural Significance of Ancient Pigments” (HUE) pursues an important new approach in archaeology: the analysis of the origins and production technologies of pigments are expected to deepen our understanding of cultural and technological change and connections through trade.

For this purpose, a pigment-specific reference database and analytical tools will be established with this project for evaluating the origin of pigments that were widespread in the Greco-Roman world, both spatially and temporally. These include both common and rare as well as barely processed pigments (ochre, cinnabar, orpiment) and highly processed multi-component pigments (lead pigments, Egyptian blue). The reference database and toolset will be tested for sites in central Italy, western Turkey, and Aegean islands within a narrow time window (1st century BC – 1st century AD) for several important nodes of the ancient pigment industry as well as for an extended time frame up to 1300 BC. The study examines how de-/centralized and dis-/connected the trade in pigments for readily available and expensive materials was and how this was organized at the intersection of different pyrotechnologies.

Project Goals

The goals of this project include developing a comprehensive approach to assessing the origin of raw materials, trade, and technological developments of pigments in antiquity and with this, the significance of color in cultural contexts. At its core, this project develops an open access database and uses the collected data to evaluate pigments as carriers of cultural information as well as for the visualization of color networks.

PI: Alexandra S. Rodler
HI: Austrian Archaeoloigcal Institute of the Austrian Academy of Sciences
Duration: 5 years
Project ID: 101078382