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Aspects of Colour in Ancient Egypt

By Barbara A. Boczar. Published in Egyptological Journal

Articles, Edition 6, on 3rd October 2012
The discussion of colour within any culture is complex, encompassing many
broad themes and topics around the aspects of colour, including, for example,
the perception of colour, colour terminology, colour symbolism, the use of
colour in artistic and non-artistic endeavours, and the types and composition
of the materials that produce the colours (see: Jones and MacGregor 22,
pp!"-#$ %l Goresy 2, pp!&'-("$ )aines "'*(, pp!2*'-2'2+! ,t is posited that
because of the basic neurophysiological properties of the human eye, most
humans biologically perceive colour in the same ways (Jones and MacGregor
22, p!-+$ however genetic differences in each population, such as colour
blindness, can modify this perception! The ways that different cultures
express colour, either materially or linguistically, can vary from culture to
culture, can vary with the material and symbolic complexity of the social and
cultural environment and can vary over time (see )aines "'*(, pp!2*'-2'2$
)erlin and .ay "'-', p!"-$ /carre 22, p!2#+! This variation also could, of
course, reflect in some way rare or not so rare genetic differences in
populations, such as colour blindness! 0ne well-1nown, if not universally
accepted, attempt to understand variations across cultures and time was made
in "'-' by )erlin and .ay who proposed a scheme for the development of
colour terms in a culture that depended on between two and eleven 2basic3
colour terms, whereby an increase in the number of colour terms in a
language potentially correlated with increased cultural complexity, or cultural
evolution (evolutionary /tages , (red and blac1+ through 4,, (eight to eleven
terms++ ()erlin and .ay "'-', pp!"&-#(,"&+!
5olour played an essential role in the artistic, symbolic and cultic aspects of
ancient %gyptian life6 it was an important part of an ob7ect or person$ it could
provide symbolic meaning$ and it was an integral part of artistic
representations such as 7ewellery, painted materials, dyed materials such as
linen, and pottery (8avies 2", p!xiii-xiv$ 8avid "''*, pp!#*,#'$ 9ee and
:uir1e 2, pp!"";-""' +! 5olour was a particularly important part of ancient
%gyptian painted media and was used on a range of artistic supports,
including plastered walls, stone sculptures and reliefs, wooden coffins,
papyrus manuscripts, and others! (8avies 2", pp!xiii-xv$ 9ee and :uir1e
2, pp!"";,""'+! 5olour terms were used in texts from at least the 0ld
.ingdom ( )aines "'*(, p!2*#+! )aines ("'*(+ reviewed the progression of
colour palettes and colour terms in ancient %gypt and proposed that colour
palettes used in the 0ld .ingdom through the <ew .ingdom correlated with
the )erlin and .ay evolutionary scheme for colour terms evolving from, 2/tage
43 in the 0ld .ingdom (blac1, white, red, green, yellow, blue+ through 2/tage
4, in the Middle .ingdom (blac1, white, red, green, yellow, blue, brown+ to a
partial 2/tage 4,,3 in the <ew .ingdom (blac1, white, red, green, yellow, blue,
brown, grey, pin1 and others+, while colour terminology remained static at a
2/tage ,,,3 (blac1, white, red, green+ during those periods ()aines "'*(, p!2*#-
2*'+! 5aution in this interpretation is re=uired, however, because the colour
palette for paints and gla>es may have been constrained by resources and the
true colour palette in, for instance, 7ewellery may have been somewhat
This paper discusses three colour aspects in ancient %gypt during the time
period of the 0ld (ca!2(*&-2""; )!5!+, Middle (ca!2---"-( )!5!+ and <ew
.ingdoms (ca!"(&'-"-' )!5!+ (dates according to 8odson 2&, pp!2*;-2'"+6
the two aspects of colour, colour palettes used in painted artistic
representation, with, here, specific attention to the colour palettes used in wall
paintings and painted reliefs, and colour terminology, discussed in )aines
("'*(+ and a third aspect, the materials used to create pigments for paint! The
paper follows each of these aspects through the 0ld, Middle and <ew
.ingdoms, and then discusses the potential relationships among these colour
aspects! )ecause of the complexity of this sub7ect, and on-going revision of
research conclusions in this area, this paper provides a broad view of on this
topic! 0ther aspects of colour, such as a specific attention to hieroglyphics,
textile media and dyes, the effects of varnish or binding media on colour, and
other topics or time periods are not detailed in this paper!
?lthough colour symbolism will not be discussed in detail here, it is important
to recognise that the use of colour in a symbolic way in ancient %gypt provides
important bac1ground to the discussion of colour aspects, as the use of any
specific colour pigment, colour palette or colour term may have been based on
an underlying symbolic framewor1 (see generally @il1inson "''&, pp!"&-
"2(+! The sub7ect of colour symbolism is complex and is based on
information interpreted from texts, ob7ects, paintings, and other sources (see
@il1inson "''&, pp!"&-"2(+! @il1inson ("''&, pp!"--"" + has provided
symbolic associations for the 2basic3 ancient %gyptian colours of white, blac1,
red, blue, green and yellow some of which are6
white can represent ritual purity, sacredness, southern %gypt (2white
5rown3+ and can be associated with white sacred animals$
blac1 can represent night, death, resurrection and fertility$
red can represent life and regeneration, anger, death and destruction$
blue can represent the heavens, the primeval flood, the <ile river, and
the god, ?mun-Ae$
green can represent life, growing things, and resurrection$ and
yellow can represent the sun, the eternal, and can be associated with
the flesh and bones of the gods!
5ombinations of opposing or related colours may have been important in the
categori>ation of opposing ideas$ for example6 red and yellowBwhite for man
and woman (@il1inson "''&, p!"""+! /ome colours may have also have been
symbolically interchangeable, for example, blue and blac1 for the
representation of the hair and beards of the gods (@il1inson "''&, p!"""+!
0f additional importance to the discussion of colour is the recognition of the
challenges associated with studying ancient colour! ?s many authors note, the
understanding of colour aspects is hampered by a number of obstacles,
including the degradationBweathering of colourBpigmentsBsupport media over
time, the different ways of examining and documenting coloured materials,
the paucity of written records containing colour terms and the associated lac1
of available preserved colour materials and texts from discrete historical eras
(9ee and :uir1e 2, pp!"&,";$ /trudwic1 2", pp!"2--"#;$ :uir1e 2",
p!"*-+, and our inherent bias towards our own cultural perception! 0n-going
improvements in sampling and identification technologies, continued data
collection on colour use on support media, and continuing attention to
linguistic terminology can effect the understanding of the way that colours
were used both practically and symbolically in ancient %gyptian artistic and
literary life, and result in continuing changes and ad7ustments to ancient
%gyptian colour theories (8avies 2", p!xiii$ 5olinart 2", p!#-
&$ see references in %l Goresy 2, pp!("-(2$ see @arburton 2;, pp!22'-
Primary Materials in Paint Pigments
Crior to the Aoman Ceriod in ancient %gypt, paint pigments were almost
always inorganic substances, either minerals or synthetic chemicals (9ee and
:uir1e 2, p!"&+! Generally most pigments used in the 0ld, Middle and
<ew .ingdoms were derived from or synthesi>ed in %gyptian locales,
although a small number may have been imported (%l Goresy 2, p!-;+!
Terms for some pigments (though not for blac1 or white+ can be found in <ew
.ingdom offerings lists and in <ew .ingdom administrative documents
(,versen "'((, pp!2--2;$ :uir1e 2" pp!"*'-"'$ Gardiner "'#(, p!&'$ Darris
"'-", p!"-2+!
5arbon6 5arbon was used primarily in the form of soot to create blac1
pigment throughout the 0ld, Middle and <ew .ingdoms$ no other material
has been found to create any significant amount of blac1 pigment during this
time period (9ucas "'-2, p!##'$ 9ee and :uir1e, 2, p!"*+!
5alcium carbonate and calcium sulphate (gypsum+6 These two minerals were
the primary materials used to produce white pigment throughout this time
period, with gypsum the more common (9ucas "'-2, p!#&'$ 9ee and :uir1e
2, p!""&+!
Duntite (magnesium calcium carbonate+6 This mineral was used to produce a
very bright white pigment, and was the primary pigment used for white on
wall paintings, ceramics and other media in the <ew .ingdom (Deywood,
2", p!*+! Aesearchers have found pure huntite on wooden statues from the
0ld .ingdom and Middle .ingdom ob7ects, indicating that huntite was
available for the production of pigment through these time periods, although
the %gyptian source(s+ for this pigment have not been specifically identified
(Deywood 2", pp!(-;+!
)9E% ?<8 GA%%%<
/ynthetic materials (2frit3+6 /ynthetic material, or frits, were used to produce
blue pigments (2%gyptian )lue3+ from the &
8ynasty and green pigments
from the <ew .ingdom (9ee and :uir1e 2, pp!"',""2$ /chiegl et al! "''2,
p!*(-+! The frits were multiphase materials that were made by heating silica,
lime, copper (or a copper ore such as malachite or copper wollastanite+ and an
al1ali, and then ground to produce pigments (9ee and :uir1e 2,
pp!"',""2+! 8ar1 and light blue varieties of blue frit (xsbD, a term also used
to describe lapis la>uli and possibly other blue stones+ could be produced by
varying the amounts of the initial chemicals, the microstructure of the product
andBor the final particle si>e after grinding (9ee and :uir1e 2, p!"'$
Darris "'-", p!"&'+! Green frit (Ssyt, wAd+ was made with similar
ingredients as blue frit, but with a different composition$ it has been suggested
that it was intentionally made only from the <ew .ingdom onward, although
some researchers have proposed an earlier date for its use (9ee and :uir1e
2, p!""2$ Darris "'-", pp!"-"$ /chiegl et al! "''2, p!*(-$ CagFs-5amagna
and 5olinart 2#, p!-(-+!
Malachite (wAd+6 Malachite was powdered and used as eye paint until the
middle of the 0ld .ingdom, and so was available for use as a pigment in %gypt
from that time on (?ston, Darrell and /haw 2, p!&&$ 9ee and :uir1e 2,
p!""2$ Darris "'-", p!"-"+!
A%8 ?<8 G%990@
,ron 0xide (0chres+ (sty+6 0chres were derived from %gyptian clays
containing metal oxides and included hematite and limonite$ ochres are
perhaps the oldest pigments 1nown from ancient %gypt (%l Goresy 2,
p!(#$ 9ee and :uir1e 2, pp!""#-""(+! /everal forms of ochre containing
variable amounts of iron oxide have been used for red, yellow and brown
pigments (5olinart 2", p!"$ 9ucas "'-2, pp!#&&,#&--#($ 9ee and :uir1e
2, pp!""#-""($+!
Aealgar (Awt-ib+6 Aealgar, an arsenic sulphide was used to create a bright
red-orange pigment while its light-induced brea1down product, pararealgar,
is an orange-yellow in colour! )oth were present primarily from the
8ynasty onward (Darris "'-", p!"-2$ 9ee and :uir1e 2, pp!""&+! The
mineral does not appear to be found in %gypt (9ee and :uir1e 2, p!""&+!
0rpiment ( qnit +6 0rpiment is also an arsenic sulfide that was used to
produce an intense golden yellow pigment! 0rpiment may fade to white on
exposure to light (9ee and :uir1e 2, p!""($ Darris "'-", p!"-"+! 0rpiment
has been found on a Middle .ingdom coffin, but has not been found in
significant amounts in ancient %gypt before the <ew .ingdom and was most
li1ely imported from outside of %gypt (9ee and :uir1e 2, pp!""(,""-$ %l
Goresy 2, p!(&+!
Jarosite6 Jarosite, initially thought to be a degradation product, has been
identified as a light yellow pigment used from the 0ld .ingdom onward
(5olinart 2", p! &+!
The information set out above, as summari>ed in Table " (including
information from %l Goresey 2, Table, p!-*+, shows that materials
available for use as painting pigments in the 0ld, Middle and <ew .ingdoms
included carbon blac1, red and yellow ochres, green malachite, blue frit, light
yellow 7arosite, white calcium carbonate, white gypsum and bright white
huntite! )right yellow orpiment may have become available to artists in the
late Middle .ingdom and used through the <ew .ingdom, while pure bright
red realgar appeared to be only available during the <ew .ingdom! (see Table
"$ 9ee and :uir1e 2, pp!""(,""- %l Goresy 2, p!-;--*+! Green frit was
possibly only produced during the <ew .ingdom (9ee and :uir1e 2, pp!
TABLE I. Principal Paint Materials Available in the Old, Middle and New
Pigent "o#rce Old Kingdo Middle Kingdo New Kingdo

Calcium carbonate and


Blue Frit




Orpiment ()

Green Frit


a!ailable during the time period
() at least one use "ound in the time period# but not generally used
li$ely not generally a!ailable during the time period# but research is ongoing
% &ee also 'l Goresy ()))# p*+,*
Painting Colour Palettes
The choice of colours in ancient %gyptian painted art could have resulted from
a variety of considerations, including the pigments that were available at the
time, and the natural, aesthetic and symbolic representations that the artist
wished to exhibit ()aines 2", p!"&(+! ,n general, pigments were painted
solidly across a surface$ shading and texture or patterns were used more rarely
()aines "'*(, p!2*($ 9ee and :uir1e 2, p!"*+! 5olour palettes may have
differed with each support media6 that is specific colours or pigment materials
may have been used only, for example, on wood or on stone, for either
practical (ability of the pigment material to bind the media+, symbolic or
aesthetic reasons (9ee and :uir1e 2, p!"*+!
The core colour palette for painted support media throughout the 0ld, Middle
and <ew .ingdoms consisted of red, yellow, blue, green, brown (ochre-based+
blac1 and white (9ee and :uir1e 2, p!"";+! )aines ("'*(+ suggested that
the 0ld .ingdom palette consisted of blac1, red, white, green, yellow, blue
and, sparingly, grey, while that of the Middle .ingdom is similar to that of the
0ld .ingdom with the possible addition of brown as a specific palette colour
()aines "'*(, pp!2*--2*;+! ,n the <ew .ingdom, )aines suggests that the
colour palette added pin1 as a specific colour, and blue could be split into
2strong3 blue and light blue ()aines "'*(, p!2*;+! ?lthough green paint
produced from malachite has been found on a Middle .ingdom coffin, and
perhaps a few other instances, green as a paint colour may not have been used
generally until the <ew .ingdom (9ee and :uir1e 2, pp!"""-
""2$ but see CagFs-5amagna and 5olinart 2#, p!-(-+! ,t has been suggested
that variants on these hues that may have been produced through mixing or
layering of pigments or other painting techni=ues were brown, grey, orange,
and pin1 (see references in 9ee and :uir1e 2, pp!""",""#+! Hor example
pin1 could possibly have been a combination of red ochre and white, or a light
red ochre ()ryan 2", p!''"$ seereferences in 9ee and :uir1e 2,
pp!""",""#+! Hrom at least the late Middle .ingdom onward more intense
shades of red (realgar+, white (huntite+ and yellow (orpiment+ were added to
the palette, some of which may have been mixed or layered with ochres to
create additional shades of colour (9ee and :uir1e 2, pp!""(-"";+! Cure
orpiment appears to have been used only on <ew .ingdom royal sarcophagi
and non-royal funerary manuscripts, as compared with the use of mixed
orpiment on temple reliefs (9ee and :uir1e 2, p!"*+!
,nvestigations into the degradation of pigments in ancient %gypt have
suggested that almost all 0ld and Middle .ingdom examples of green
pigments, and thus green colour, at the very least on wall paintings, were in
fact the result of the degradation of %gyptian blue frits from blue to green
(/chiegl et al! "''2, p!*(-$ 9ee and :uir1e 2, p!""$ but seeCagFs-
5amagna and 5olinart 2#, p!-(-+! Thus, in 0ld and Middle .ingdom wall
paintings, ob7ects that were thought to be painted in 2natural3 green could
have actually been painted a light blue (/chiegl et al! "''2, p!*(-$ 9ee and
:uir1e 2, p!""+! Dowever, discussions surrounding the material
composition, degradation on specific media, and time period of occurrence of
green and tur=uoise coloursBpigments are on-going (/chiegl et al! "''2$
CagFs-5amagna and 5olinart 2#+! ,n addition, as noted above, bright
yellow (the pigment orpiment+ may fade to white, and, when layered with
ochre, may degrade so that only the ochre is observed (see 9ee and :uir1e
2, p!""(-""-+! ,n a li1e manner, bright red (realgar+ may degrade with
exposure to light (9ee and :uir1e 2, p!""&+! ?ll of these physical changes
to pigments would result over time in colour palettes that may not be 2true3 to
the ancient palette, when viewed in modern times!
@all scenes decorated tombs and temples during the 0ld, Middle and <ew
.ingdoms, and could be painted on plaster that had been applied over mud
bric1 or stone, or the scenes could be carved in relief in stone and then have
pigment applied ()ryan 2", p!''&$ Mc5or=uodale 2, p!($ )entley 2,
p!"#+! ?s was found in the core colour palettes for all artistic support media,
the overall colour palettes used for these wall paintings and reliefs during
these periods would have included blac1, red, yellow, white, blue, and possibly
pin1, brown, grey and green ()aines "'*(, p!2*-$ %l Goresy 2, p!-*$ 9ee
and :uir1e 2, pp!""--"";+! )ac1ground colours appeared generally blue-
grey or grey in the 0ld .ingdom, deep cream or light blue-grey in the Middle
.ingdom and white, or a rich yellow in the <ew .ingdom (8avies "'#-c, p!xl+!
)right white (huntite+ appeared first on wall paintings, to any great degree,
only in the <ew .ingdom, in contrast to its apparent use on at least some
wooden and other media in the 0ld and Middle .ingdoms (Deywood 2",
pp!(-;$ %l Goresy 2, p!(#+! ,n wall paintings and reliefs, in contrast to
other artistic media, pure bright yellow (orpiment+ appears to be only found
in its pure form in paintings in the tomb of Tuthmosis ,4 (<ew .ingdom+, but
is found applied with yellow ochre in many <ew .ingdom wall paintings and
reliefs (%l Goresy 2, pp!(&,(($ 9ee and :uir1e 2, p!"*+! ?s noted
above, malachite green has not been found in paintings on stone media during
these time periods$ the colour green found on these representations was most
li1ely a type of green frit or other synthetic pigment, or possibly a degradation
of blue frit (/chiegl et al!! "''2, p!*(-$ 9ee and :uir1e 2, p!""$ CagFs-
5amagna and 5olinart 2#, p!-(-+
?lthough it is difficult to compare specific differences in colour palettes
among wall paintings or reliefs due to the differences in pigment degradation
rates, in rates of weathering of the artistic supports, and other considerations,
it is important, when discussing colour, to at least have a sense of how colours
were presented on any specific medium! Three wall paintings are shown in
Higures ", 2 and # dated from the 0ld, Middle and <ew .ingdoms
respectively, painted on a layer of plaster over straw and applied to bric1, a
wash over roc1, and a wash upon a mud and straw coating over roc1,
respectively! ,n order to reduce comparative variables these figures represent
reproductions from a single source, painted from the originals by the same
copyist (8avies "'#-c+! Aeviewing Higures "-#, it is clear that it is not a simple
tas1 to fit a single painting within a colour palette categori>ation, and must be
reviewed using rigorous standardi>ations (see /trudwic1 2", pp!"2--"#;+! ,n
addition, as discussed in this paper, the greens seen in the 0ld and Middle
.ingdom paintings, found primarily in the colour of the vegetation, may
originally have been blue, reducing the present day perception of the colour
palette for these paintings, and any red, yellow or white colours that may have
been painted with huntite, orpiment, or realgar may have disappeared due to
Colour Terminology
The translation of ancient colour terms is a complex tas1, as the modern
conception of colour is overlaid on what was perceived in ancient times
(:uir1e 2", p!"*-+! ,n addition, there is a limited availability of texts with
colour words, texts which may not have reflected the language of the ma7ority
of the population (:uir1e 2", p!"*-$ @arburton 2;, 2#(+! Moreover,
many demotic texts have not been fully translated and any difference between
the formal and vernacular colour vocabularies may not yet have emerged!
Dowever, it appears that words for colour in ancient %gypt existed from the
millennium )5 and did not appear to change appreciably throughout the
0ld, Middle and <ew .ingdoms ()aines "'*(, p!2*#+! The number of colour
words in ancient %gyptian has been postulated to be anywhere from four to
more than ten in number (/chen1el 22, p! 2""$ see Tables ", 2 and # in
@arburton 2;, pp!2#"-2#2+!
,n ancient %gyptian texts, there are two words commonly translated as
2colour3, inm and iwn$ inm may also denote the material or substance as
seen (colour or s1in+ and iwn the =uality (smoothness+ (:uir1e 2", p!"*;+!
,t is generally agreed that terms translated as %nglish colour terms existed,
and that there were at least four basic abstract
terms6 km(blac1+, HD (white+, dSr (red+ and wAD (green+ (and may
include sAb, for variegated+, all of which appear to have been used as
ad7ectives and verbs in written texts (/chen1el 2;, p! 2""$ )aines "'*(,
p!2*#$ :uir1e 2", p!"**+! ?ll of these words have additional meanings in
ancient %gyptian6 km (dar1+, HD (bright+, dSr (a number of meanings+
and wAD(fresh+, indicating that the translation into colour must be made in
the context of the text (:uir1e 2", p!"**+! ,t has been argued that the term
for green (wAD+ may also extend to blue or green-blue (,verson "'((, p!-+!
The most noticeable linguistic discrepancy is the lac1 of a term for yellow, a
colour commonly found in artistic representations throughout this time
period (:uir1e 2", p!"*-+!
? term generally thought to translate as blue (xsbD+, also translates as the
material lapis la>uli ()aines "'*(, p!2*-+! ,t has been suggested
that xsbD may even denote 2dar1 blue3 while the term for the material
tur=uoise (mekft+ may denote 2light blue3 (Table #, @arburton 2;, p!2#2+!
,n addition, of the 2basic3 colour terms, two may also refer to a mineral6 HD,
silver and wAD for malachite3 (Darris "'-" pp! &","2,"#+! )ased on these
and other translations, it has been suggested that the number of basic colour
terms should reflect available mineralBmaterials terminology (@arburton
2;, p!2#2+!
)lac1, white, red and green are the primary colour terms found in 0ld, Middle
and <ew .ingdom texts ()aines "'*(, p!2*#+! ? brief non-exhaustive review
of the 0ld .ingdom Cyramid Texts (2CT3+ as translated by Haul1ner ("'-'+
and other 0ld .ingdom texts collected and translated by /trudwic1 (2;+
show that terms, as translated for blac1, white, red and green are well
represented6 for example blac1 1nife and blac1 eye paint (CT, Etterances
*,2'+, white teeth, green eye-paint and green boat (CT, Etterances "2(,
&&,--;+, and red 7ars (CT Etterance 2&&+! Dowever there appear to be only a
few words in the text for lapis la>uli andBor tur=uoise that might be associated
with abstract colour terms for blue (see for example CT Etterances 2&-,#(2$
/trudwic1 2;, p!##+! There are references to gold that may be translated as
2golden3 and there are references to the stones, tur=uoise and lapis la>uli (see
for example CT Etterances #"',#2-$ /trudwic1 2;, pp! *',"#;+! ? similar
non-exhaustive search of the Middle .ingdom 5offin Texts (25T3+ translated
by Haul1ner ("';#+ and Middle .ingdom literature translated in 9ichtheim
("';(+ finds a similar range of colour terms, also with words translated as
tur=uoise, lapis la>uli, gold and golden (see for example Haul1ner "';#, 5T
/pells ',"#2, ";#, ('&, '2#,'2&,'#&,'&$ 9ichtheim "';(, p!"(2+! .uehni
("'*+ has reviewed the <ew .ingdom )oo1 of the 8ead (as translated by %!
?! @allis )udge ("*'(, )ell publication6"'-++ for colour words and finds ten
direct uses of colour terms including white (white leather+, red (red demons+,
green (green stone+, and blue (blue of the s1y+, and notes that a review of the
literary usage of colour terms in ten secular literary tales from the -
to the
dynasties shows colour terms including red, blue, and white, although
terms were also found for malachite, lapis la>uli, tur=uoise and gold as
precious materials (.uehni "'*, p!";+! Thus the number of colour terms
from the 0ld .ingdom through the <ew .ingdom was limited, was not as
broad as the range of colours used in artistic palettes at the time, and did not
change significantly over time! (:uir1e 2" p!"*-$ )aines "'*(, p!2*'-2'"+!
Conclusions: Colour Aspects in the Old Middle and !e"
?s noted above, )aines ("'*(+ reviewed the evolution of two colour aspects in
ancient %gypt, colour paint palette and colour terminology, in order to arrive
at a proposed evolutionary scheme for colour in ancient %gypt ()aines "'*(,
pp! 2*#-2*'+! Dowever, a third aspect of colour, the materials that ma1e the
paint pigments, is e=ually as important to the understanding of colour culture
and evolution during the 0ld, Middle, and <ew .ingdoms (9ee and :uir1e
2, p!"&$ :uir1e 2", p!"'"+! ?s new scientific techni=ues have been
used to assess colour in the last twenty-five or so years, new pigments used
during the time period of the 0ld, Middle and <ew .ingdoms, have been
identified, and new degradation patterns of 1nown pigments have been
discovered, leading to the suggested expansion or, in some cases limitation, of
ancient %gyptian colour palettes during different eras (see %l Goresy 2, -;$
/chiegl et al. "''2, p!*(-$ 9ee and :uir1e 2, pp!""--"";+! ,n addition, an
assessment of materialsBpigment terminology has led to the proposed
expansion, by at least one researcher, of basic colour terminology
(see @arburton 2;, p!2&2$ see also /chen1el 2;, pp!22,22(-22-+!
9oo1ing at colour materials, palettes and terms, one could hypothesi>e that
the availability of different pigment materials during different time periods
informed colour palette choices, and that the availability of pigments, colours
and artistic colour choices gave rise to colour vocabularies ()aines 2",
p!"&($ @arburton, 2; 2#*,2&2+! Dowever, the relationship among these
three aspects of colour is complex! ,f we generally loo1 at the progression of
these aspects from the 0ld through the <ew .ingdoms as presented here, we
see that most materials for principal paint pigments were generally available
to artists throughout this period, with the possible exceptions of green frit,
orpiment and realgar, all of which may have been used primarily during the
<ew .ingdom ( see %l Goresy 2, p!-*+! Dowever, when we loo1 at the use
of the materials in the colour paint palettes of a variety of artistic
representations, we find that any analysis becomes difficult! The first
consideration is how we visually classify colours used in painting! Aigorous
colour classification procedures must be used to allow any comparisons of
visual analyses (/trudwic1 2", pp!"2--"#(+! ? second consideration is the
determination of whether the colours are 2true3 to those used in ancient
times$ what the researcher is seeing today is not necessarily the ancient
reality, and the determination of visible colour palettes must be supported by
materials analysis (9ee and :uir1e 2, p!"&+! Hor example, as noted in
this paper, the degradation of blue frit, orpiment and realgar to different
colours create uncertainties in ancient %gyptian colour palette analysis! ?
third consideration is the apparent use of particular pigments in particular
ways on specific artistic support media at particular historical time periods$
artists may have focused on the surface, such as stone, wood , papyrus, rather
than intended colour symbolism or the contemporary palette and binding
media when applying paint (9ee and :uir1e 2, pp!"","";+! ?gain,
material analysis must support colour palette analysis (9ee and :uir1e 2,
?s noted in this paper, while the number of available pigments and thus the
colour palette may have changed during the time period reviewed here, the
number of terms for colour appeared to remain the same! /carre (22+ and
Jones (22 + have suggested that material culture, that is the production of
pigments and the use of colours, may precede linguistic description and
categori>ation$ that societies may have, as noted by Jones, 2material-colour
vocabularies3 rather than broader linguistic colour vocabularies (/carre 22,
p!2#"$ Jones and MacGregor 22, p!;+! Cerhaps only religiously symbolic
colour terms were used in the texts that are available to us, andBor that
ancient %gyptian terms for brightness, texture, and pigment materials were
more important than 2basic3 colour terms (Cinch 2" p!"*2$ :uir1e 2",
p!"*;,"'"+! Dere again, the materials used to create pigments may become an
important component of the terminology aspect of colour$ colour terms may
have originated from material associated terms such as 2malachite-li1e3 for
green material (see /chen1el 2;, p!2"#+! ?s noted, @arburton, in fact,
ma1es a case for the use of words derived from words for metals and semi-
precious stones as 2basic3 colour terms (@arburton, 2;, pp!
2#*,2&2$ see /chen1el 2;, 22(-22-+!
The study of colour in ancient %gyptian art and texts is fascinating and
complex! The on-going research into colour use and theories regarding these
three aspects of colour, as outlined here, tend to blur the lines of bright-line
hypotheses regarding the evolution of ancient %gyptian colour use or colour
terms, and new insights into the degradation of pigments from one colour to
another potentially change those currently suggested symbolic connotations
that are even partially based on visual colour analysis! Hor all of these colour
aspects, the symbolic underpinnings of colour use in ancient %gypt must
eventually be considered and applied to colour theories! The development of
new scientific and linguistic methodologies, and the correlation of other
aspects of colour with those discussed here, should provide continued insight
into the use of colour in ancient %gypt!
Figure 1. Meidum Geese frm t!e Mastaba f "efermaat and #tet in t!e
$gy%tian Museum in &air

'ird in A(a(ia )ree

Figure 2. )irds in an ?cacia Tree! )eni Dasan, Tomb of .hnemhotep! 8yn!
I,,, about "'2-"' )!5! Esed with permission, courtesy of the 0riental
,nstitute of the Eniversity of 5hicago! ?lso reproduced by 8avies ("'#-a,+
Clate ,$ 8avies "'#-c, pp!&-(.
*ser +t $n,ys t!e &l f His Garden. )!ebes- )mb f *ser +t- Dyn. .#.-
1/1/-1010 '.&.

Figure 3. Eserh- Jt %n7oys the 5ool of Dis Garden! Thebes, Tomb of Eserh- Jt,
8yn! I,I, "#"#-"2'2 )!5! (8avies "'#-b, Clate 9III4,,$ 8avies "'#-c,
pp!"-;-"-'+! Esed with permission, courtesy of the 0riental ,nstitute of the
Eniversity of 5hicago!

Image Credits
Higure "! Chotograph by Aobert Enger!
http6BBcommons!wi1imedia!orgBwi1iBHile65airoMuseumGeese-'*-"!7pg! This
file is licensed under the 5reative 5ommons ?ttribution-/hare ?li1e #!
Enported, 2!( Generic, 2! Generic and "! Generic license!
Higure 2!
Higure #!

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