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The true colour of the Parthenon Sculptures

There have been a few articles recently about how traces of the original paint [1] have been found on the Parthenon Sculptures. Whilst this may come as a surprise to the general public, I am not entirely sure why this is suddenly being touted as a new discovery. Despite the traditional image of white Greek sculptures, for many years it has been known that they were in fact painted originally [2]. If you are allowed access to the Parthenon itself & know where to look, in areas that have been sheltered from the elements there are still clear traces of decorative painting (ok – this isn’t on the sculptures themselves – but the fact that they were coloured it isn’t a huge leap of the imagination, based on the amount of other pieces of evidence that indicate this).

One of the biggest controversies surrounding the British Museum’s treatment of the Elgin Marbles stems from the cleaning of them under the instruction of Lord Duveen [3]. For this reason, the fact that this news has appeared at the same time as the opening of the New Acropolis Museum [4] seems more than coincidental – part of a concerted effort by the British Museum to show that despite their botched & widely condemned efforts to clean the sculptures, there are still traces of paint there (presumably with the added implication that there aren’t traces on the ones in Athens).

From:
Discovery News [5]

Blue Paint Traces Found on Elgin Marbles
Rossella Lorenzi, Discovery News
June 25, 2009 — The Elgin Marbles, the subject of one of the oldest international cultural disputes, were originally coated with shades of blue, a new imaging technique has found.

Some of the 17 figures and 56 panels from a giant frieze that once decorated the Parthenon have revealed traces of an ancient pigment known as Egyptian blue.

The original artifacts were chiseled off in 1801 by Lord Elgin, then the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, and have long been a point of contention between London and Athens.

Perhaps the earliest artificial pigment, Egyptian blue was first employed in Egypt and Mesopotamia around 2500 B.C. The use of this bright crystalline material spread throughout the Mediterranean world and was widely used until around 800 A.D.

A new technique developed by Giovanni Verri, a physicist in London’s British Museum, takes advantage of the fact that Egyptian blue, when exposed to red light, appears to glow when viewed through the lens of an infrared camera.

Verri applied the technique with his portable detector onto the marble works and the parts that were once painted blue lit up.

His technique exposed the ancient pigment on a number of figures within the collection of Elgin Marbles. He found Egyptian blue on the belt of Iris, the winged messenger goddess. A blue wave pattern was also present on the sea from which Helios, the god of sun, rises with his chariot on the east pediment.

“The ancient pigment also appears on the drapery of the goddess Dione, on the east pediment. There, the pigment was clearly applied in stripes, probably to represent precious embroidery bands on the robe,” Verri said.

Although scholars have long suspected that the Parthenon, like many other sculptures of antiquity, was once brightly colored, no evidence has previously been found to support this belief.

“This study provides the first scientific evidence of painted color on the sculptures from the Parthenon,” Verri told Discovery News.

The finding coincides with the opening of the new Acropolis Museum in Athens, an event which HAS brought an increased pressure on Britain for the return of the Elgin Marbles.

Housed in a striking modern building at the foot of the Acropolis, the 130 million-euro ($181 million) museum is Greece’s answer to the British claim that there is nowhere in the country to house the Elgin Marbles.

According to Ian Jenkins, the senior curator in the British Museum’s Department of Greece and Rome and the author of the “Parthenon Frieze”, the discovery is “a dream come true.”

“This is a huge breakthrough in our understanding of the original look of the Parthenon sculptures,” Jenkins said.

“Today the whole world can see the most important sculptures of the Parthenon assembled, but some are missing. It is time to heal the wounds on the monument by returning the marbles that belong to it,” Greek president Karolos Papoulias said at the opening ceremony.

While giving a “warm welcome” to the opening of the Acropolis Museum, the British Museum reaffirmed its position: “The new museum does not alter the Trustees of the British Museum view that the sculptures are part of everyone’s shared heritage and transcend cultural boundaries.”

However, the new discovery might open new possibilities for a constructive debate.

“We look forward to further discussion of its implications for mutual understanding of the Parthenon sculptures, both in Athens and in London,” the British Museum said in a statement.