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Colours of Ancient Egypt – Red

By Anna Pokorska, on 4 December 2018

This is the third post in the Colours of Ancient Egypt series; here you can read the introduction, and here all about the colour blue.

Red was an easy colour to obtain in ancient Egypt as naturally red minerals, or clays, were abundant. In fact, they were already used as pigments for painting in pre-historic times. Of the earth pigments, as they are often called, ochre was used for red colouring. Like others, it is an iron oxide but gets its red shade from a mineral hematite, which can be naturally present in varying quantities. Another way of obtaining the pigment is by heating the more common yellow clay to produce what is called ‘burnt ochre’.

Painted wooden stela showing man Ihefy adoring hawk-headed Horus (Petrie Museum, UC14695).

In ancient Egyptian painting we find the red colour often used to distinguish gender, as men’s skin was often painted red[1]. We can see an example of that in this painted wooden stela from the Petrie Museum.

Less obviously, red ochre was also popular in cosmetics such as rouge and lip colour. In fact, those pigments are still found in beauty products today due to their ready availability, stability and non-toxicity. However, perhaps the most surprising application of these materials is actually medicinal. The Ebers Papyrus, one of the oldest and most important medical texts from ancient Egypt (dated 1550 BC), prescribes ochre clays as a cure for any intestinal or eye problems.

However, minerals were not the only source of red colourants. Ancient Egyptians were also able to tint their textiles using madder or kermes carmine dyes. The former was derived from the root of a madder plant, rubia tinctorum (see below).

Madder plant (Image: Franz Eugen Köhler).

It was one of the most widely used natural red dyes until the development of synthetic equivalents in the 19th and 20th century. In fact, some madder-dyed cloth was even found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. On the other hand, kermes carmine was made from wingless insects found on certain species of European oak trees. Like madder it was used both as a textile dye and a lake, which is a pale pigment obtained by precipitating a dye onto an inert colourless substrate such as chalk. Kermes’ deep crimson shade made it a very popular colourant for centuries.

So far, I’ve mainly talked about pigments and dyes used for decoration, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention at this point one of my favourite objects in the Petrie collection:

Fragment of a composite statue from Amarna: right ankle and heel, in red jasper (Petrie Museum, UC150; Photo: Anna Pokorska).

This is a right ankle and heel in red jasper, part of a full-size composite statue from Amarna, dated to the 18th Dynasty. I’ve often stopped in front of it imagining what the statue would have looked like whole. I have to admit that I previously assumed the sculpture to have been entirely made of red jasper, which, in my mind, looked incredible. However, that was not the case; only the exposed flesh would have been carved from red jasper (thus depicting a male figure), while the rest of the statue was likely made from Egyptian alabaster, limestone or wood. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has fragments of a king’s head made of the same material and dated to the same period. In fact, some of the fragments come from the Petrie collection which makes me wonder if they were perhaps part of the same statue.

Fragmentary head of a king in red jasper, from the 18th Dynasty (Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY).

We may never know. But one thing is certain: even though we’ve since been able to create many synthetic red colourants of various shades, natural red pigments used by the ancients remain as popular as ever.

 

[1] Lorelei Corcoran, Color Symbolism, in ‘The Encyclopedia of Ancient History’, Edited by Roger S. Bagnall, Kai Brodersen, Craige B. Champion, Andrew Erskine, and Sabine R. Huebner, Blackwell Publishing Ltd. (2013), pp. 1673–1674

Colours of Ancient Egypt – Blue

By Anna Pokorska, on 16 October 2018

This is the second in the Colours of Ancient Egypt series; if you want to start at the beginning, click here

The colour blue has already featured in a couple of posts in this blog (e.g. check out Cerys Jones’ post on why the Common Kingfisher looks blue) but it seems impossible to me to discuss colour, especially in Ancient Egypt, and not start with blue. Arguably, blue has the most interesting history of all the colours, which can be attributed to the fact that it is not a colour that appears much in nature – that is, if you exclude large bodies of water and the sky, obviously. Naturally occurring materials which can be made into blue colourants are rare and the process of production is often very time-consuming. In Ancient Egypt, pigments for painting and ceramics were ground from precious minerals such as azurite and lapis lazuli; indigo, a textile dye now famous for its use in colouring jeans, was extracted from plants.

 

Left: two pieces of azurite (Petrie Museum, UC43790); Right: lapis lazuli (Image: Hannes Grobe)

However, all the above-mentioned colourants presented issues which limited their use. Azurite pigment is unstable in air and would eventually be transformed into its green counterpart, malachite. Lapis lazuli had to be imported from north-east Afghanistan (still the major source of the precious stone) and the extraction process would produce only small amounts of the purest colourant powder called ultramarine. Finally, indigo dyes can fade quickly when exposed to sunlight.

And yet it seems that the Ancient Egyptians attributed important meaning to the colour blue and it was used in many amulets and jewellery pieces such as the blue faience ring, lapis lazuli and gold bracelet or the serpent amulet from the Petrie Museum collection (below).

From left to right: blue faience ring with openwork bezel in form of uadjat eye (Petrie Museum, UC24520); lapis lazuli serpent amulet (UC38655); fragment of bracelet with alternative zig-zag lapis lazuli and gold beads (UC25970).

Therefore, the race to artificially produce a stable blue colourant began rather early. In fact, the earliest evidence of the first-known synthetic pigment, Egyptian blue, has been dated to the pre-dynastic period (ca. 3250 BC)[1]. It was a calcium copper silicate (or cuprorivaite) and – although the exact method of manufacture has been lost since the fall of the Roman Empire – we now know that it was made by heating a mixture of quartz sand, a copper compound, calcium carbonate and a small amount of an alkali such as natron, to temperatures over 800°C.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fragment of fused Egyptian blue (Petrie Museum, UC25037).

This resulted in a bright blue pigment that proved very stable to the elements and was thus widely used well beyond Egypt. In fact, its presence has recently been discovered on the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum due to its unusually strong photoluminescence, i.e. when the pigment is illuminated with red light (wavelengths around 630 nm) it emits near infrared radiation (with a max emission at 910 nm).

After its disappearance, artists and artisans had to make do with natural pigments and, being the most stable and brilliant, ultramarine became the coveted colourant once again. In fact, during the Renaissance, it is reputed to have been more expensive than gold and, as a result, often reserved for the pictorial representations of the Madonna and Christ. And so, the search for another replacement was back on. But it wasn’t until the early 1700s that another synthetic blue pigment was discovered, this time accidentally, by a paint maker from Berlin who, while attempting to make a red dye, unintentionally used blood-tainted potash in his recipe. The iron from the blood reacted with the other ingredients creating a distinctly blue compound, iron ferrocyanide, which would later be named Prussian blue. Naturally, other man-made blue pigments and dyes followed, including artificial ultramarine, indigo and phthalocyanine blues.

However, it wasn’t quite the end of the line for Egyptian blue, which was rediscovered and extensively studied in the 19th century by such great people as Sir Humphry Davy. And not only are we now able to reproduce the compound for artistic purposes, scientists are finding more and more surprising applications for its luminescence properties, such as biomedical analysis, telecommunications and (my personal favourite) security and crime detection[2].

References:

[1]  Lorelei H. Corcoran, “The Color Blue as an ‘Animator’ in Ancient Egyptian Art,” in Rachael B.Goldman, (Ed.), Essays in Global Color History, Interpreting the Ancient Spectrum (NJ, Gorgias Press, 2016), pp. 59-82.

[2] Benjamin Errington, Glen Lawson, Simon W. Lewis, Gregory D. Smith, ‘Micronised Egyptian blue pigment: A novel near-infrared luminescent fingerprint dusting powder’, Dyes and Pigments, vol 132, (2016), pp 310-315.

Question of the Week: Why does the Kingfisher look blue?

By Cerys R Jones, on 25 September 2018

The Common Kingfisher is one of Britain’s most colourful native birds and a personal favourite of mine. Despite the name, the Common Kingfisher isn’t actually all that common. I’ve only been lucky enough to see one in the wild and it was a brief encounter; I still vividly remember the bright blue flash of its feathers. Although these creatures are known for their striking colours, the blue feathers down the back of the Kingfisher are actually brown.

The bright blue colour you perceive is due to a phenomenon called structural colouration. Structural  colouration is seen throughout the animal kingdom and makes creatures appear much more colourful than they actually are. So while the coloured pigments in the kingfisher’s feathers are brown, you actually view them as a brilliant blue.


The brightly coloured Common Kingfisher (Image: Avijan saha)

Structural colouration, first described by Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton, is when the observed colour of an object is not due to the pigment but rather caused by some interference effects instead. The structure of the object itself causes a different colour to be perceived than what would typically be observed by the pigment. Structural colouration can result in iridescent colours – i.e. colours that are dependent on the viewing angle – or non-iridescent colours, when the colour remains constant regardless of the viewing angle. Examples of iridescent colours are the feathers of a peacock, which are also pigmented brown but appear blue due to the structural colouration, and the setea (or spines) of the sea mouse. The nanostructures of the setea of the sea mouse and peacock feathers are regular and so reflect the light in the same direction. This means that the bright colour is only perceived at a certain angle.

The setea of the sea mouse appear red, green and blue to act as a warning to potential predators. The sea mice in the Grant Museum are some of my favourite specimens in the museum and are often unfortunately overlooked by visitors. Their interesting name likely derives from the fact that they look like drowned mice when washed up on shore, but their Latin name, Aphrodita, comes from the Ancient Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, supposedly due to their resemblance to female anatomy…

The Sea Mouse specimen in the Grant Museum, G15 (Author’s own photo)

In contrast, the kingfisher’s feathers are an example of non-iridescent structural colouration. The blue stripe appears blue regardless of the angle of the viewer. This is because the structures are randomly oriented and so the reflections of the light are not angled in the same direction. The blue-and-yellow macaw similarly displays bright blue feathers that are due to non-iridescent structural coloration. These feathers also contain the brown-black pigment melanin that is present in those of the kingfisher.

Let that be a lesson that you can never trust your eyes – at least, not when it comes to structural colouration! Next time you visit the Grant Museum, look out for our kingfisher taxidermy specimen, the sea mice and any other brightly coloured creatures that may be cleverly appearing more colourful than their pigments might suggest!

To read more about this phenomenon, check out this paper.

Colours of Ancient Egypt – Introduction

By Anna Pokorska, on 18 August 2018

When viewing exhibitions of objects from ancient Egypt (or any ancient civilisation for that matter) we are used to seeing the beige and grey appearance of bare stone. Indeed, we have come to appreciate the simplicity and purity of ancient sculptures, reliefs and carvings, perpetuated by the numerous plaster casts made and distributed both for research or as works of art in their own right (case in point – the Plaster Court at the Victoria and Albert Museum).

However, this is quite far from the truth. In fact, colour was not only common but of great symbolic importance in Egypt. This is hardly surprising as we use colour to communicate every day even in the modern era (with the most obvious and striking example of the traffic light system, or the wearing of black in many cultures to signal mourning). Although some traditional meanings will have changed over the centuries and varied between cultures, the principle still remains and is widely studied and exploited in a fascinating way in such fields as psychology, marketing and advertising. But I digress…

Let us return to ancient Egypt. To date, many attempts have been made to restore the original colours of artefacts. One such example is the virtual restoration of the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York where experts have a created a colour projection to be overlaid on top of the damaged hieroglyphs. An article on the whole project, called Color the Temple, can be read here.

Some people object to these types of intervention, sceptical of how well they recreate and represent the work of the artist, especially if little physical evidence of the original colours in a particular artefact exists. And indeed, we must always be careful when it comes to any type of restoration to take it only for what it is – someone else’s idea of what the object would have originally looked like (often dependent on the restorer’s skill). Although they might still have a way to go, I personally find these virtual restoration techniques intriguing and full of potential. They certainly help my imagination and understanding of the ancient Egyptian civilisation.

But we can find authentic and undamaged examples of colour even in the Petrie Museum collection. One of the first objects one sees when entering the main exhibition is a limestone wall block fragment from the pyramid of King Pepy I at Saqqara, its beautiful hieroglyphs tinted in green (below).

Wall block fragment from the pyramid of King Pepy I at Saqqara. (Petrie Museum, UC14540)

Painted wooden stela of Neskhons, wife of the High Priest of Amun Pinedjem (II) making an offering to Osiris. (Petrie Museum, UC14226)

 

While on the other side of the display is a painted, rather than carved, wooden stela of Neskhons, wife of the High Priest of Amun Pinedjem (II) making an offering to Osiris (above).

Egyptian artists would have had at their disposal mostly pigments made from grinding common (as well as some not-so-common) minerals and earths. Hidden away in the Petrie Museum storage is a drawer full of exactly those kinds of pigments (below).

Pigment drawer in storage at the Petrie Museum. (Photo: Anna Pokorska)

 

The yellowed typed note reads:

‘The pigments used by the ancient Egyptians for their paintings have been analysed and are mostly made from naturally occurring minerals, finely ground, or from natural substances.

Black – some form of carbon, usually soot.

Blue – originally azurite, a blue carbonate of copper found locally. From the IVth Dynasty on artificial frit was used composed of a crystalline compound of silica, copper and calcium.

Brown – generally ochre, a natural oxide of iron.

Green – powdered malachite (a natural ore of copper), and an artificial frit analogous to the blue frit described above.

Pink – an oxide of iron.

Red – red ochre, a natural oxide of iron.

White – either calcium carbonate (whiting) or calcium sulphate (gypsum).

Yellow – yellow ochre, an oxide of iron and less often orpiment a natural sulphide of arsenic.

The pigments were pounded in to a fine powder, mixed with water to which a little size, gum or albumen was added to make the whole adhesive.’

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), this subject is too broad and interesting to fit into a single blog post and I’ve decided to explore it further, perhaps expanding beyond Egypt and the ancient times. We shall see where this journey takes me, but I hope you will join me as I investigate individual colours in my future posts.

 You can now read about the colours blue and red.