When archaeologists began excavating the Acropolis in the 1880s, they were surprised to uncover large deposits of well-preserved statues from the pre-Classical period. Once unearthed, the sculptures showed signs of having been burnt prior to their collective mass burial. A connection was made to events recorded by ancient historians: After the Persians sacked Athens in 480 BC, the Athenians returned home and, in a sacred gesture to their gods, piled dirt over the charred remains of the temple and religious icons that had adorned the highest reaches of their city.
Ironically, the systematic burial of those statues – most of them of nude young men, koroi, or robed young women, korai – guaranteed their very survival, for it ensured that they would escape centuries of exposure to the elements and looting by invading barbarians and imperialists. Their discovery also provided more than just an intriguing corroboration of the historical narrative. It shed light on an essential but poorly understood feature of ancient Greek sculpture: the paint that covered it. The natural pigments used to decorate ancient statuary are particularly susceptible to the corrosive effects of light. Only a small amount of excavated material still preserves traces of these pigments. Most statues probably began to shed their paint during antiquity, with successive centuries eliminating all but the faintest hints of color.
This is precisely where the Archaic finds from the Acropolis differed: They were buried so shortly after commission and remained tucked under ground for so long that the ancient paint never fully disintegrated. The torching of Athens had another unintended but fortuitous effect: the Persians’ fire actually seared onto the marble statues the outlines of the robes that had been draped over them the day Athens was sacked.
The “Archaic Colors” exhibition at the Acropolis Museum, which runs to December 31, aims to recreate the visual experience of seeing these ancient Acropolis statues exactly as they appeared in antiquity – fully colored, bedecked with jewelry and inlaid with eyes of precious stone. The display integrates computer simulations and a few attempts at experimental archaeology. Large TV screens filter through proposed reconstructions of Archaic art, while small squares of painted Parian marble scattered throughout the exhibit give an idea of what fresh paint would have looked like on recently quarried marble. “Archaic Colors” displays 24 different pieces of statuary, but three works are particularly notable: the Peplos Kore, the Persian Rider and the Chios Kore.
The exhibit presents a helpful corrective to the lay impression of ancient Greek sculpture: that it was ghostly white and minimalist in decoration. This was far from the case, and it is generally believed that most ancient Greek statues, inscriptions, stelai and temple decorations were covered in bright, polychromatic hues.
The prospect opens up exciting new avenues for research. As the exhibit information boards explain, color held a vital place in the ancient Greek mind: Pythagoras and his followers believed that each of the four primary elements had their own complementary color, while ancient doctors assigned various shades to particular diseases and ailments. Different hair and skin colors were even thought to betray certain attributes in a human or a god. In Homer’s epics, Menelaus is “tawny-haired,” which likely suggests martial prowess; goddesses tend to be “white-armed,” an allusion to radiance and youth.
While art historians have meticulously traced the progression of ancient Greek chisel and sculpting techniques, little work has been done with color. With improvements in spectroscopic analysis and high-resolution photography, it will soon become possible to reconstruct the coloring of Greek marbles from the later Classical and Hellenistic periods. It would be intriguing to examine how (or if) the art of marble painting parallels the rise in artists’ technical skill and the surge in naturalism associated with those periods.
“Archaic Colors” takes an important step in providing the viewer with a more accurate depiction of the sculptures that would have confronted the Greek temple-goer. But it is just one step, and many more would be required to truly begin to approximate the experience of the ancient pilgrim. Ancient Greek statues would not only have been painted; they would have been sticky with honey and ox blood, caked with ash and incense, and bristling with bronze eyelashes, gold ornaments and even small umbrellas to ward off birds. Greek temples themselves would have fumed with the smoke of burning meat and reeked with the stench of carrion and cattle feces. On the whole, Greek ritual was not just polychromatic – it was also highly sensory and civic in nature, something not unlike a city-wide barbecue. These too are important details, for they signify just how momentous a shift Christianity would eventually pose – a religion that was bookish and introspective by comparison.
Acropolis Museum, 15 Dionysiou Areopagitou, Acropolis, tel 210.900.0900.
For details on the museum and the show, www.theacropolismuseum.gr