Ancient Greece, coloured reality and white misunderstanding

Colour in antiquity, Dutch book cover

From the London News:

Greek ancient monuments receive splash of colour

Thursday 1st February, 2007 (IANS)

If ancient Greeks could take a walk along the many tourist stalls beneath the ancient Acropolis, they would be amazed to behold the countless marble miniatures of the popular site, all depicted in white.

Archaeologists said many of the ancient ruins looked completely different approximately 2,500 years ago, when the Parthenon was actually covered in brilliant shades of red, blue and green.

Now, a group of artists have taken the liberty to revive history with an exhibition of 21 coloured replicas of the ancient sculptures called Munich’s Gods in Colour at the National Archaeological Museum.

The exhibition, which runs until March 24, was presented for the first time at the Munich Glyptothek in 2004 before travelling to a number of countries for the past two years.

Archaeologists first discovered traces of colour on various sculptures during laser cleaning as part of ongoing restorations to the temple, built in 432 BC.

Weathering through the bleaching of the sun, blowing of sand and more modern pollution caused the colours to fade over time.

‘New research methods were developed in order to trace colour remnants on ancient sculptures.

This was followed by careful analysis in order to reproduce the initial colours with as much accuracy as possible.

When all this was achieved, colour was added to replicas of well-known Greek and Roman sculptures,’ said Museum Director Nikos Kaltsas.

‘It is a well known fact that both ancient Greek sculptures and temples featured colour, yet colour remnants on some works today cannot do justice to their original appearance,’ he added.

A portion of the Parthenon’s most intricate carvings are now housed in the British Museum in London, and Greece has repeatedly demanded that they be returned to the place of their birth.

Experts believe the Elgin Marbles may have been stripped of some of their remaining colour when they first arrived in London in the early 19th century, due to months of scraping with abrasive tools by museum officials convinced that the marbles had originally been pure white.

‘This exhibition confirms, once more, that what we know of the past is never really a given.

Archaeological research is constantly developing through the adoption of new methods, whose aim is to get closer, if not reach, the truth,’ Kaltsas added.

That exhibition was also in the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam.

The Parthenon Marbles (a name prefered by Greeks to a name honouring 19th century Lord Elgin whom they consider a robber) were also scraped with copper and caustic chemicals in order to become “pure white” in the 1930s, at the orders of Lord Duveen.

In fact, in ancient Greece, people, including priests and priestesses, wore colourful clothes.

Their sculptures and buildings were colourful.

Similarly so in Etruscan and Roman cultures.

However, textiles rarely survived thousands of years.

While Greek buildings and statues sometimes did, but often with their colours hardly surviving.

So, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries an image arose in Western Europe and North America of ancient Greece as a land of people in ‘pure’ white clothes, with ‘spotless’ white sculpture and buildings.

In that time, also racist ideologies evolved, intertwining ‘white race supremacy’ viewpoints with this misunderstanding of history.

At its sharpest in this was nazi Germany.

As seen in the aesthetics of the movie Olympia on the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, made by Hitler’s favourite film director Leni Riefenstahl.

Originally, temples both in Egypt and in Greece (with much inspiration from Egyptian examples), had been colourful.

However, usually building materials as used in Egypt, and climate as in Egypt, preserved the colours better throughout centuries than those used, and than the climate, in Greece.

That gave rise in Western racist theories to views counterposing “pure white Aryan European” Greek art to “gaudy barbarians” like Egyptians, Semitic Jews, etc.

While already in antiquity, Aristotle had pointed out, that Greece was so special not because of any supposed “arch-Europeanness”, but because it was the country in Europe closest to Africa and Asia.

It is to be hoped that the days of “ethnic cleansing” of antique art, like happened to the Parthenon Marbles, are over for ever.

Ancient statues weren’t white marble, but “a riot of colour and glitzy decoration.” It shows that we’ve imagined the ancient world all wrong, writes Natalie Haynes.

Colours in ancient Egypt: here.

Bringing colour back to ancient textiles: here.

Male nudity in ancient Greek art: here.

History of Olympic flame relay: here.

Leni Riefenstahl, mountains, and nazis: here.

20 thoughts on “Ancient Greece, coloured reality and white misunderstanding

  1. Hi homeyra, thanks for bringing this to my attention! These pages, as far as I see, do not have the subject of colours in ancient Persian art. But probably that might also have been an influence on ancient Greece, as there was Persian influence on Greek culture (and also the other way round).


  2. Thank you, homeyra! I copied and pasted those links. By the way, in Blogsome comments one can also make links. You have to type the HTML code yourself, while, for some reason, if you edit a comment you had made earlier, Blogsome provides HTML.


  3. As we all know, Greeks were Nubians but it is because of the White Lie that you pastey devils have usurped our proud African history for your greedy selves.


  4. Greek Archaeologists Find Hera Statue

    The Associated Press


    March 01, 2007

    It shows exactly the same technique and size, which led us to link the two statues beyond doubt.

    A 2,200-year-old statue of the goddess Hera has been found in a wall of a city under Mount Olympus, mythical home of Greece’s ancient gods, archaeologists announced Thursday.

    The headless marble statue was discovered last year during excavations in the ruins of ancient Dion, some 50 miles southwest of Thessaloniki.

    Archaeologist Dimitris Pantermalis said the life-sized statue had been used by the early Christian inhabitants of the city of Dion as filling for a defensive wall.

    He said the 2nd century-B.C. find appeared to have originally stood in a temple of Zeus, leader of the ancient Greek gods, whose statue was found in the building’s ruins in 2003. The statue of Hera stood next to that of Zeus in the temple, said Pantermalis, a Thessaloniki University professor who has headed excavations at Dion for more than three decades.

    ‘The statue represents a female form seated on a throne, and is made of thick-grained marble like the one of Zeus,’ he said. ‘It shows exactly the same technique and size, which led us to link the two statues beyond doubt.’

    Pantermalis said that, if confirmed, it would be the first time two statues of different gods have been located from a single temple in Greece. He said it was also possible that a statue of Athena, goddess of wisdom, could have stood in the temple of Zeus. He said he was hopeful that it might be found during future excavation.

    Dion was a major religious center of the ancient Macedonians. Alexander the Great offered sacrifices there before launching his victorious campaign against the Persian Empire in the 4th century B.C.

    Excavations so far have revealed temples, theaters and a stadium, city walls, a hotel, baths and streets with an elaborate drainage system, as well as many statues.

    The area was first inhabited during the Iron Age, and survived into early Christian times, when it was the seat of a bishop.

    Pantermalis will present the find on Friday, during a three-day archaeological conference that opened in Thessaloniki Thursday.

    Copyright 2007 The Associated Press.


  5. Etruscan origin riddle solved
    Mystery people came from Turkey, DNA says
    (ANSA) – Rome, June 19 – The ancient riddle of where the Etruscans came from has been solved, Italian scientists say. The Etruscans, who once dominated central Italy, were so different from the other peoples of Italy that their neighbours advanced various theories about their origins.

    Some said they were a very old race from their heartland in present-day Tuscany but some thought they came from as far away as northern Europe.

    The Greek historian Herodotus believed, however, that they had sailed to Italy from Anatolia, in what is now south-east Turkey, fleeing a long famine.

    Now a team from Turin university says Herodotus was right.

    Comparing DNA from people living in what was once the Etruscan heartland in present-day Tuscany with that of today’s inhabitants of Greek islands, the Middle East and other parts, a team led by Professor Alberto Piazza say they have found “a unique genetic component” shared only by central Tuscans and Turks.

    “We knew that the people of Volterra and other Tuscan towns were genetically different from those in neighbouring areas,” Piazza told an international genetics conference in Nice at the weekend.

    “Now we have found the precise genetic variant that appears to have clinched the question of their origins”. The discovery has been backed by another recent genetic study by the University of Piacenza which found that Tuscany’s cattle, famous for their uniquely tasty and hefty meat, were “60% similar” to Turkish breeds. The Etruscans are believed to have formed the first advanced civilisation in Italy, based in an area called Etruria, corresponding mainly to present-day Tuscany and northern Lazio.

    At the height of their power at around 500 BC – when Rome itself was subjugated – they spread to the foothills of the Alps and southward close to Naples.

    Modern knowledge of their civilisation is based largely on archaeological finds, since much of their language has yet to be deciphered.

    For many people the Etruscans have a romantic, mysterious aura and there is a raft of web sites devoted to them.


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