Marble of a Different Color: New Discoveries on the Parthenon Sculptures

ATHENS – The smooth, white opacity of Greek statuary has become iconic, but in recent years, museum and archaeological research has grown to explore other possibilities for the original condition of statues and temples. A breakthrough has been made this week at the British Museum, where technicians were able to uncover the original colors used to decorate the Parthenon Sculptures.

The Parthenon, the famous temple of Athena that overlooks Athens atop the Acropolis, is the most visited site in Greece. The marble sculptures researched by the team at the British Museum originally formed the decorative border along the edifice, with exquisite details. The research was carried out by King’s College London, the British Museum, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Using cutting-edge digital imaging technology and scientific instrumentation, the team examined the sculptures at a microscopic level and uncovered several main colors, including a uniformity of style. This might even point towards a uniformity of colors used on temples built in the same period, and therefore this research could help discover the true colors of other classical era temples such as Poseidon at Sounio, or Artemis at Brauron.

Special imaging techniques reveal the areas where microscopic amounts of Egyptian blue pigment still remain. Photo: Katarzyna Weglowska; via ©Trustees of the British Museum


“The addition of color to the finished surfaces of sculptures and buildings was the last step in a long production process, and the study of polychromy is a critical point that can provide information on the original appearance, role, and significance of monuments in antiquity,” said  Giovanni Verri. Alongside Hero Granger-Taylor, Ian Jenkins, Tracey Sweek, Katarzyna Weglowska, and William Thomas Wootton, among others, the research concluded that the style of carving was differentiated to detail linen vs. leather vs. wool, as well. Previously overlooked etchings or dotted lines along the carved clothing of the statues now are understood to represent specific materials.

The discoveries of the paints used may be the most exciting conclusions of this project. The research confirmed the use of Egyptian blue. A pigment created with calcium, copper and silicon, its origins date back to 3,000 BC, and has been found in Greece, Rome, and Egypt. White and purple paint were also used, although not the shellfish-based purple famously traded by the Phoenicians of the Mediterranean. This purple’s origin remains unknown, although ancient texts do refer to a man-made purple pigment that might be this one.

Bust of Athena (unrelated to the current research). Copy of votive statue of Kresilas in Athens (ca. 430–420 BC) . [public domain]

The paint was used directly onto the carved surfaces, and it is discernible and conclusive that the paint is contemporary to the buildings’ original construction, not a later addition. The carving seems to be the real discovery, as the paint exemplified techniques embodied by the sculptors’ attention to detail.

It would be remiss not to mention the Parthenon Marbles in the context of their history with the British Museum. While this research is important and exciting, the British Museum has failed to return the Parthenon Marbles to Greece despite many requests and even promises by the UK Prime Ministers over the years.  The museum has also evaded having a Greek team on this project. The nuance of archaeological research aside, the lack of Greek participation in the research suggests another possible oversight stirring the long-running tensions around the Parthenon Marbles.

As a reminder, the marbles were taken by Lord Elgin in the 19th Century to the UK.  Since then, the Greek and the UK governments have engaged in talks of returning the stolen artifacts to Greece. The excuse often given for why Britain should retain the sculptures is that they are safe there; but as TWH Weekend editor Eric O. Scott reported on the latest scandals at the British Museum revealing multiple thefts have gone unnoticed at their location, it is high time to retire that notion.

Meanwhile, the Acropolis Museum reserves the Parthenon Hall, an entire museum floor, to return the sculptures. This museum has won several awards, including being selected as one of the top 25 museums to visit in the world by TripAdvisor. And yet its famous marble sculptures reside in the United Kingdom instead. While Greeks are certainly excited to learn of the colors used on the sculptures, the Acropolis Museum was awarded the Keck Award by the International Institute for Conservation (IIC) in Vienna for its conservation and restoration of the Caryatids, and the Acropolis Museum would well take on the continuing research for this colorful project.

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