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Color in a New Light - Origins, Trade and Cultural Significance of Ancient Pigments

Project description

Pigments as carriers of cultural information

Ancient artists created impressive paintings and adorned buildings, statues and walls with vibrant colours, using commonly available, rare and valuable pigments. However, little is known about the raw materials and techniques used, as well as the trading practices. Funded by the European Research Council, the HUE project aims to fill this knowledge gap. It will conduct research on the production, organisation and cross-craft interactions involved in creating these artworks. The project will shed light on the cultural and technological developments and connections that arose from the trade of pigments and raw materials in the ancient Mediterranean. This will be achieved through the development of an open-access database and the use of the collected data to evaluate pigments as carriers of cultural information.


The ancient world was fascinated by color. People processed certain raw materials to use them as pigments. Their material qualities and provenance mattered. Yet little is known about where these materials came from: some might have been broadly available, others rare and traded far. Along the way from resource to artwork much is still unknown.

A plethora of mineral pigments was used in the past; materials were processed ranging from powdered cinnabar to pyrotechnological multi-component materials. They came together to color walls and sculpture alike and now enable the understanding of interaction across production technologies, trade networks and cultural relations in a new way.

So far, identifying the provenance of pigments relies on metal reference. But metals and pigments are not the same. It is thus essential to develop a pigment-specific reference database paired with a proper toolset to push this new avenue in archaeological science to its full potential. Among other pigments, Egyptian blue serves as a cornerstone indicator of cross-craft interaction between metal- and glass work – HUE probes material provenance and production technology by looking at the Mediterranean from the Bronze Age to the Roman period until the 1st century BC-AD, a time of great political reorganization and significant change in the organization of pigment production.
HUE analyzes raw and processed pigments from original artifacts, workshops and trade nodes to bridge the gap from resource, market and workshop to art.

The results are not only relevant for polychromy research, but also for an archaeological evaluation of workshops, discussion of market- and trade network theories and people-environment interaction. The PI has already shown the significance of this approach in pilot studies. Supported by a network of international specialists, new light will shine on ancient pigments to reveal the cultural significance of color in economic and technological developments.


Net EU contribution
€ 2 374 358,75
Other funding
€ 0,00