The Phoenicians were Semitic traders, and perhaps best known for inventing an alphabet that was later adopted by the Greeks… and eventually, by us! The Phoenicians were also known for their control of purple-dye pigment across the Mediterranean during 1500-300 B.C… and evidently their eye for color extended beyond brightly hued robes.
Despite being displayed in museums around the world for centuries, a number of Phoenician carvings examined by researchers in France and Germany have shown traces of metal that are invisible to the naked eye. These 8th-century B.C. sculptures have metal traces that were often used in colored pigment in antiquity—including the Egyptians’ copper-based blue, and iron-based hematite.
These metals aren’t naturally found in ivory or in the soil surrounding the once-buried ivory carvings, and have helped to confirm what some scholars have long suspected: the Phoenicians painted their carvings with bright, gaudy colors.
“Knowledge of an object’s original appearance can help us understand why it was so visually powerful to ancient viewers,” says Benjamin Porter, an archaeologists at the University of California (Berkeley). Looking at the Phoenician carvings this way may help to further the examination of ancient sculptures from other cultures.
Who knows—we may soon learn that the ancient world was far more colorful than we’ve previously believed!