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  • Camille Basso

The Parthenon marbles may have been coloured, reveals a new study

A recent study published in Antiquity reveals that the Parthenon marbles may have been coloured and decorated with complex patterns. Scientists analysed these objects using non-invasive methods, revealing numerous coloured pigments on the marble. This discovery confirms several theories put forward by archaeologists in recent years.

Photographie des Marbres du Parthénon, exposés au British Museum
Photographie des Marbres du Parthénon, exposés au British Museum

The Parthenon Marbles are sculptures created in the 5th century BC to decorate the temple dedicated to the goddess Athena in ancient Greece. Since 1816, most of the Parthenon marbles have been preserved at the British Museum in London. These emblematic works have fascinated archaeologists ever since they were discovered. Over the decades, many of them have suspected that the marbles were originally painted. But no previous study had found any traces of coloured pigments.

In 2023, scientist Giovanni Verri of the British Museum's Conservation and Research Department used a visible induced luminescence (VIL) technique to study the famous Parthenon marbles. "In 2007, I developed this imaging technique capable of mapping the presence of a pigment called Egyptian blue," he explains in his report, published in Antiquity. "The Parthenon sculptures were one of the main candidates for testing whether the VIL could find any surviving traces. And that's what happened." The results of its analysis "exceeded expectations, revealing a great wealth of surviving paintings".

The LIV method revealed large quantities of Egyptian blue on 11 of the sculptures, as well as a figure carved into the marble. Traces of white and violet pigments were also discovered during the study. The Egyptian blue pigment, composed of copper, calcium and silicon, was created over 5,000 years ago. Used in particular by the Greeks and Romans, it was generally used as a colour base and mixed with other pigments. On the Parthenon marbles, this pigment enabled scientists to distinguish the legs of Cecrops - the mythical founder of Athens - and the waves emerging from the chariot of Helios - god of the Sun. For its part, the purple pigment has aroused the curiosity of scientists, as it does not correspond to the pigment usually used in Antiquity. The pigment used in the Parthenon sculptures is thought to be of animal or plant origin, while the purple of ancient Tyre is derived from the grinding of certain species of sea snails.

According to Giovanni Verri, the purple pigment found on the marbles corresponds to a colour mentioned in several Egyptian treatises written in Greek. "They explicitly state that they could produce purple colours of indescribable beauty and that it was worth keeping the recipe secret. A well-kept recipe. We haven't discovered it yet," he explains in his report. What's more, the study reveals that the Parthenon sculptures were painted on the back, where the colours would have been hidden once the marbles had been installed.

A significant influence in ancient Greece

When it was built in the 5th century BC, the Parthenon was one of the most imposing buildings in ancient Greece. Considered a temple and a treasure - the place where the Greeks stored their valuables - it overlooked the city of Athens from the Acropolis and established the city's supremacy. In fact, "the use of colour could also have been intended to help the viewer identify the figures from a distance, for religious or even political purposes", says Verri. Nevertheless, his team also believes that the colouring of the Parthenon marbles undoubtedly influenced sculpture in the Hellenistic world. "It is likely that the painting of the Parthenon sculpture was inspired by tradition while introducing innovative elements", concludes the author of the study.


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