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Egyptian blue on the Parthenon sculptures

A new technique unveils ancient colour at the British Museum. © Trustees of the British Museum. Created by British Museum.

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Video transcript

Ever since the Parthenon sculptures first went on show in the British Museum at the beginning of 1817 there's been this fascination this quest to discover its ancient colour But it's kept its secret for nearly two hundred years now The travellers who in the Enlightenment went to Athens were able to see more even than we see today of the evidence for painting the architecture And naturally they speculated that the sculpture that was framed by the architecture was painted too But from that time until now there hasn't been a single scrap of evidence to prove that the sculpture from the Parthenon in the British Museum were coloured Of course what archaeologist want to do is to make discoveries and in the British Museum so deep are the collections that there are always the possibility for those eureka moments I was doing regular imaging and I was using a particular kind of light There was something which was glowing which was beyond the levels I was expecting for that specific case And so I realised that was luminescence from Egyptian blue so it was possible to use those lights to excite this glow in the dark effect Egyptian blue was widely used across the Mediterranean So the Greeks used it, the Romans used it and the Egyptian used it It's a pigment which has a very special property It absorbs visible radiation and it re-emits infrared radiation And the images will show Egyptian blue as glowing white On this head there are traces of polygramy or paint on the cheek and the sides of the eyes We cannot see all the pigments that were originally present on the sculpture with the naked eye But we could use this methodology which is capable of identifying Egyptian blue even if it's present only in very minute traces The same technique which we used on this unidentified head from the temple of Artemis in Ephesus was used to reveal the presence of Egyptian blue on the Parthenon sculptures I think there is a collective conspiracy in each generation to forget that ancient sculpture was painted We forget it because the Renaissance forgot it When they found sculpture in excavations in Rome where paint had faded and contemporary sculptors chose to carve marble without paint Ours is a culture that still shares the arts and craft movement aesthetic of truth to materials we can't bare the thought that one takes marble and polishes it to a sheen and then obscures its white pure surface with coloured paint But that is what was done in Antiquity We find colour on the backs of some of the sculptures which is curious considering they would never have been seen once they were placed in position on the bottom shelf of the pediment but then it's also curious that the sculptures were carved on their backs when the wouldn't be seen A not impossible explanation is that the sculptures like the building were a great votive offering to deity and by representing the gods and the worshipers there was an act of religious communion with them So one could say that out of reverence for the gods colour was added to the finish where perhaps it wasn't to be seen There is a reference in Plutarch to Pericles taking the visitors while the great works were being undertaken and showing them the carvers in the workshops and I think we can imagine a privilege viewing of the sculptures before they went up onto the building never to be seen at such close quarters again until Lord Elgin removed them and turned them back into a privileged viewpoint Iris the goddess of the rainbow and of the upper air is touching down from flight her tunic presses itself flat against her belly and her breast and flutters out at the edge and is contained by a belt above the waist a belt which now, only now we understand is blue I confess that after long years of looking and not finding I began to doubt that the sculptures were painted at all then suddenly there is the belt of Iris glowing away full of Egyptian blue and everything changes