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Was antiquity really so tacky?

Many Greek sculptures were painted garish colors. Credit: Stiftung Archäologie, Munich

Many Greek sculptures were painted garish colors. Credit: Stiftung Archäologie, Munich

The ancient Greeks did it, and now the Phoenicians too.

Over the past few years, it’s become increasingly clear that many of the white marble statues from Greece’s golden era were originally painted in garish colors.

The discovery of pigment residues on a multitude of classical era sculpture has been a boon for lovers of kitsch and a downer for pretty much everybody else.

Yeah yeah, I know it’s good to know The Truth, and it is fascinating that they had such bad taste but, well… Sigh.

So it turns out that the Phoenicians, an ancient Semitic seafaring civilization who traveled around the Mediterranean from about 1500 BC to 300 BC, also painted and gilded their carvings.

The Phoenicians invented an alphabet later adopted by the Greeks. One wonders if the Greeks also got their predilection for painting sculptures from the Phoenicians?

This lion's face had traces of iron painted around its mouth, nose and eyebrows, but nowhere else. The iron most likely corresponds to red iron oxide pigments.

This lion’s face had traces of iron painted around its mouth, nose and eyebrows, but nowhere else. The iron most likely corresponds to red iron oxide pigments.

A team of French and German researchers analyzed the surface of several Phoenician ivory sculptures held at the Badisches Landesmuseum Karlsruhe, in Germany, and found metal traces corresponding to ancient pigments and (gold) gilding. These metal traces are invisible to the naked eye, but can be detected using a technique called X-ray fluorescence.

Ina Reich, the lead researcher of the Analytical Chemistry paper reporting the discovery, says she’s also found the same type of metal residues on Phoenician pieces at the Louvre–work which will be published elsewhere in the future. (I wrote a more science-y news article on the discovery here.)

For the lovers of nanoscience out there, here’s a teaser: Reich also mentioned that some of the traces of leftover gold from Phoenician gilding had formed curious gold nanoparticles on the surface of the ivory after spending centuries underground.

Reich is currently analyzing the gold nanoparticles, which she says would be impossible for forgers to emulate and thus may be a new cool new way to authenticate Phoenician ivory.

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