In Focus: How the belt of a goddess revealed the true colours of the Parthenon marbles

For nearly 200 years the Parthenon marbles held onto the secret they were suspected of keeping. However, research, original thought and a few gambles completely changed the academic community's perception of some of the world's greatest treasures. Alexandra Fraser takes a closer look.

What does one think of when they draw up a picture of Ancient Greece in their mind?

For most, including several of my Classics graduate cohort, it’s wooden ships on stony beaches, narrow streets crowded with with long, pale togas and bone-white temples glowing in the sun.

The Elgin gallery in the British Museum, housing remnants of the Parthenon's west pediment.

The Elgin Gallery in the British Museum, housing remnants of the Parthenon’s west pediment.

It’s one of the first things children learn about the ancient world and it’s no wonder why it sticks in our minds so vividly, especially in a country where we’re surrounded by reminders and imitations, from colonnaded buildings to artefacts themselves in our national museums.

Whether they should still be there or not is a different matter entirely, but I digress.

 Afternoon view at Oia Town (northern part of the Santorini) with sun in the background, Santorini Island, Cyclades, Greece

Modern Greece (at least the parts that most tourists see) lends itself to reinforcing this perception. Bright white churches rise from cobbled streets, set in relief against cobalt waves. White clothing abounds to block out the heat of the midday sun. It’s an elegant colour palate, highly Instagramable, known throughout the world as belonging to that corner of the Mediterranean.

That’s one of the reasons why it came as such a shock to the unsuspecting parts of the academic community when traces of Egyptian Blue, an ancient pigment that fell out of fashion around 800AD, were found on the belt of Iris on the Parthenon marbles.

The remains of the statue of Iris in the West pediment frieze on the Parthenon.

The remains of the statue of Iris in the West pediment frieze on the Parthenon.

You can see her on the west pediment of the Parthenon gallery in the British Museum, witnessing the competition between Poseidon and Athena that, according to myth, gave Athens its name. Truncated by time, her arms and legs are missing, along with he wings that were inserted into her shoulders.

Her head is thought to be the Lamborde head in the Lourve, Paris and her clothing is draped around her torso as if she’s in flight (artistry which helped to identify her as the winged messenger goddess), secured by a belt absolutely chock-a-block full of Egyptian blue traces.

The ancient dye emits near-infrared radiation when excited by visible light, a discovery which allowed Dr Giovanni Verri, working with the marbles in the British Museum at the time, to reveal the traces on the sculpture.

Reconstruction of the facade of the Parthenon, Acropolis of Athens, engraving from Greece, Pictorial, Descriptive, and Historical, 1841, by Christopher Wordsworth (1807-1885).

Reconstruction of the facade of the Parthenon, Acropolis of Athens, engraving from Greece, Pictorial, Descriptive, and Historical, 1841, by Christopher Wordsworth (1807-1885).

It wasn’t exactly breaking news to those who study ancient artefacts, but it was the first discovery of undeniable proof that the Parthenon friezes were coloured. Classicists have actually known for more than two centuries that the Ancient Greeks and Romans painted their statues, although it appears that Hollywood had been dodging their phone calls.

No one appears to have told Tennessee either, who reproduced the giant ivory and gold statue of Athena and the walls inside their Parthenon recreation in technicolour glory, but neglected to take a tin of Farrow & Ball’s Charlottes Locks to its exterior.

The re-creation of the 42-foot statue Athena in the Parthenon replica built in Centenial Park, Nashville.

The re-creation of the 42-foot statue Athena in the Parthenon replica built in Centenial Park, Nashville.

Nevertheless, the fact is undeniable; statues, temples and all that seems to be innocently pure marble was once painted bright, gaudy colours.

The ancient playwright Euripides knew it, having his Helen lament her beauty thusly:

If only I could shed my beauty and assume an uglier aspect
The way you would wipe colour off a statue

It was in 2009 when Dr Verri identified the first traces pigment on the Parthenon marbles, despite extensive former research failing to find even a hint of colour on any of the surviving fragments. Since then, the Greeks have found similar traces on their own fragments, although tensions over where the marbles should be permanently housed prevents too much collaborative research.

egyptian dyes

A selection of Egyptian dyes and spices.

It’s hardly surprising when you think of the origins of what is probably the most famous ancient building in the world. The Parthenon was commissioned by Pericles, Athen’s greatest general, as a celebration of the Grecian victory over the Persians. It was big and gaudy, a demonstration of Athenian wealth, an insult to those they had conquered in battle. Subtle shades wouldn’t do.

 The British Museum, London. Parthenon sculptures. These fragments are known as the Elgin Marbles.

Responses to the polychromatic discovery are, at best, mixed. The discovery seems to have been entirely ignored by the world of classically-influenced materials. ‘Bring back our pure-white perceptions, false though they may be’ the masses cry, looking at the white busts in their foyers with new eyes. ‘I had no idea.’ Our interiors editor remarks to me. ‘How fascinating.’ He pauses and adds, ‘They look better as just marble’.

Time, 2. Pericles, 0.


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