Earth pigments from the late Hellenistic pigment production site of Kos (EpiKos)


The geochemical analysis of ancient pigments and pigment raw materials is a new and promising direction in cultural heritage research that has recently been applied for elucidating pigment provenance and trade in antiquity (e.g., Spangenberg et al. 2010; Rodler et al. 2017; Tsantini et al. 2021). Even though red and yellow earth pigments (iron oxides) are considered among the most widely used ancient colorants, provenance studies have so far been limited to more prestigious or rare pigments. Earth pigments/ ochres are naturally occurring colorants (Siddall 2018) and mixtures of iron oxide and hydroxide minerals such as goethite and hematite with clays and quartz. These raw materials are widely available and earth pigments have been widely used for art and in various archaeological contexts.

EpiKos investigates the provenance of and trade in earth pigments from the well-documented late Hellenistic pigment production workshop on the island of Kos (Kostomitsopoulou Marketou et al. 2019). This island is located at the eastern edge of the Aegean Volcanic Arc and two magmatic episodes occurred at ~3.5 Ma and ~161 ka, which were significant for the petrologic evolution of Kos (Allen 2001, Kokkaliari and Iliopoulos 2019). A galena mine was operated on Mt. Dikaios in the 20th century and iron mining might have been carried out in antiquity on the neighboring Mt. Christou. Numerous red and yellow raw pigment lumps were excavated as part of a structure identified as a 1st century BC pigment production workshop and agora (Kostomitsopoulou Marketou et al. 2019).

The pressing questions we aim to answer with EpiKos are: can we trace the provenance of earth pigments (through geochemical analysis)? How can we best approach generating a(n earth) pigment-specific reference database as part of a comprehensive methodology for provenance studies?

Through trace element and Pb-isotope analysis (by MC-ICP-MS in collaboration with Prof. Sabine Klein and Dr. Moritz Jansen at Deutsches Bergbau-Museum Bochum, Leibniz-Forschungsmuseum für Georessourcen), EpiKos compares locally available resources with processed pigments from the Koan workshop to test a local provenance hypothesis.

Piece of yellow earth pigment from the Koan workshop
Photo by A. Kostomitsopoulou Marketou.

Fieldwork: planned for September 2022
Analytical work: soon thereafter



Allen S.R., 2001. Reconstruction of a major caldera-forming eruption from pyroclastic deposit characteristics: Kos Plateau Tuff, eastern Aegean Sea. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research 105, 141–162.

Kokkaliari M. and Iliopoulos I., 2019. Application of Near-Infrared Spectroscopy for the Mineralogical Identification of Rocks from Kos Island, Aegean Sea, Greece. Bulletin Geological Society of Greece 55, 290-308.

Kostomitsopoulou Marketou A., Kouzeli K. and Facorellis Y., 2019. Colourful earth: Iron-containing pigments from the Hellenistic pigment production site of the ancient agora of Kos (Greece). Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 26, 101843.

Rodler A.S., Artioli G., Klein S., Fink-Jensen P. and Brøns C., 2017. Provenancing ancient pigments: lead isotope analyses of the copper compound of Egyptian blue pigments from ancient Mediterranean artefacts. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 16, 1–18.

Siddall R., 2018. Mineral pigments in archaeology: their analysis and the range of available materials. Minerals 8(5), 201.

Spangenberg J.E., Lavrič J.V., Meisser N. And Serneels V., 2010. Sulfur isotope analysis of cinnabar from Roman wall paintings by elemental analysis/isotope ratio mass spectrometry – tracking the origin of archaeological red pigments and their authenticity. Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry 24, 2812–2816.

Tsantini E., Minami T., Ontiveros M.Á.C., Takahashi K. and Melgarejo J.C., 2021. Sulfur Isotope Analysis to Examine the Provenance of Cinnabar Used inWall Paintings in the Roman domus Avinyó (Barcelona). Minerals 11, 6.

PI: Alexandra S. Rodler, Austrian Archaeoloigcal Institute, Austrian Academy of Sciences
This project was funded by the Dr. Emil Suess-Erbschaft and Hlauschek-Legat