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Colourful Parthenon Sculptures

Classical Greek marble sculptures today appear crisp and white. But they weren’t always that way, according to a new study, which found the famous 2,500-year-old Parthenon sculptures were painted.

How the Parthenon frieze looked when originally decorated with paint
How the Parthenon frieze may have looked when originally decorated with paint | Credit: X @elginism

By using a non-invasive imaging technique, researchers at the British Museum - where nearly half of the sculptures controversially reside - found traces of paint on 11 out of 17 figures and from a section of frieze on show in the museum, according to a study published in the journal Antiquity.

Paint often does not survive on archaeological finds, particularly in cases such as the Parthenon sculptures that date back to between 447 and 438 BC and were continuously exposed to the environment.

According to the study, infrared light has helped identify a blue paint known as "Egyptian blue" - a popular pigment of its time that was made using calcium, copper and silicon. The bright blue was highly valued for its rarity and was commonly saved for royalty or depictions of gods and goddesses.

The researchers also detected a purple colour that was not found through the imaging process but by the human eye, reports CNN. The hue, which they named “Parthenon purple,” is particularly unique, the study said, because researchers found that it was not made using shellfish - the common ancient Mediterranean recipe.

“This is a big deal because it challenges the traditional Western idea that classical art was just plain white marble and shows how important color was to ancient Greek artists. … These findings help us understand the creative process behind, as well as the meaning of the Parthenon and its sculptures,” said Michael Cosmopoulos, a professor of archaeology and Greek studies at the University of Missouri - St. Louis.


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