The Secret Hues of Phoenician Art

By: The Scribe on Monday, May 27, 2013

phoenician plaqueThree thousand years ago, the Phoenicians created intricately carved ivory sculptures, featuring various figures and symbols that have helped add to our knowledge of these ancient sea-faring people.

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.

phoenician ivory colorAnd the sculptures that weren’t brightly colored? Those were gilded.

“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!


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