The Colour Blue in Antiquity
Is your favourite colour blue? If so you are not alone, as a survey by Cheskin, MSI-ITM and CMCD/Visual Symbols Library found that blue was the favourite colour of around 40% of people worldwide. In our modern world it represents calm, serenity, stability, consciousness and intellect.
However, in prehistoric times blue was a colour that our early ancestors could see all around them but one that they could not use in their art. The first pigments used by prehistoric man were made from the natural organic materials they found in the world around them and were known as the earth pigments. They were reds, yellows, browns, blacks and whites made from ochre, ground calcite, charcoal from camp fires and burnt bones.
These early pigments were used to create the magnificent paintings in caves like Lascaux and Rocadour in southern France and the ancient aboriginal rock art in Australia. But although prehistoric man could paint wonderful images of animals, spirits and symbols they did not have a blue pigment, so could not add the sky, the sea or a river to their artwork.
The Earliest Blue Pigments
In early antiquity, the first blue pigments were produced from crushed gemstones such as azurite and lapis lazuli. So valued were these gemstones that an old Persian legend stated that even the sky was blue because the world was supported on a huge chunk of lapis lazuli.
Making these pigments was a very costly exercise as in ancient times lapis lazuli was mined in the high mountain passes of the Badakhshan region of Afghanistan. It then had to be transported great distances by camel train to be traded with the flourishing civilisations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Turkey, Greece and even deep into Africa.
These mines have been worked for over 6,000 years and are still producing some of the world’s finest lapis lazuli today.
Importance of Lapis Lazuli in Ancient Egypt
The Ancient Egyptians especially loved the vivid deep blue colour of lapis lazuli, which they called hsbd-iryt, and they started to associate it with royalty. It was thought that this special gemstone could help to guide the pharaoh successfully into the afterlife after the death of his mortal body.
The Egyptians also used crushed lapis lazuli as eye makeup. Beads and ornaments made from lapis lazuli have been found in graves dating from pre-dynastic times at Naqada in Egypt and it was to be widely used in jewelry, amulets and religious objects throughout the long history of dynastic Egypt.
Lapis lazuli jewelry has also been found in graves from the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia, Mehrgarh in Pakistan, and the Caucasus.
Invention of Egyptian Blue
The Ancient Egyptians widened the palette of available colours by starting to invent new pigments for use in their art. They were also the first to use the washing of a pigment to improve its purity and strength.
Around 2500 BC they found a way around having to use really expensive blue pigment made from crushed gemstones by inventing what is known as the world’s first synthetic pigment, Egyptian blue. This clear, bright blue pigment was made by grinding together lime, copper, alkalai and silica and heating it up to around 800-900 degrees centigrade in a furnace.
The heated mixture was then shaped into small balls of pigment. The Egyptians used it to paint the walls of their temples and tombs and to decorate papyri scrolls. It has the same chemical composition as the naturally occurring mineral cuprorivaite and was also used to make the blue faience the Egyptians loved to use to glaze beads and ushabti.
Blue in Ancient Egyptian Mythology
The use of colour has always been highly symbolic and in ancient Egyptian mythology blue was associated with the sky and the waters. Blue is the colour of the sky and represented the male principle, the sky deities, and the gods of heaven.
The depths of the deep blue waters represented the female principle and the deeper, hidden mysteries of life. It was believed that the very hair of the Egyptian gods was made from vivid blue lapis lazuli.
The great Theban god Amen was known as the hidden one and he could change the colour of his skin to blue so that he would be rendered invisible as he flew across the sky. Blue was associated with life and rebirth as the world was said to have risen from waters of the primeval floods on the day that the sun rose for the very first time.
New Technique for Detecting Egyptian Blue on Monuments
Production of Egyptian blue spread to Mesopotamia, Persia, Greece and Rome. The Romans built factories to produce the blue pigment they knew as ‘caeruleum’. As we wander around ancient sites today, marvelling at the temples, tombs and amphitheatres, we see walls, columns and ceilings bereft of colour.
But during antiquity, these ancient structures would have been gaudy with brightly painted frescoes depicting portraits of kings, gods and heroes. Only in a few isolated places have fragments of these painted decorations been preserved, but now scientists at the British Museum have perfected a technique that detects traces of Egyptian blue on ancient buildings and artefacts.
To do this a red light is shone on the artefact and if there is even the smallest trace of Egyptian blue remaining it will give off luminescence. This luminescence cannot be seen by the human eye, but can be picked up on a device that is sensitive to infrared light.
So far the experts have used this technique to detect the blue pigment on statues from the Parthenon in Athens, including the statue of the goddess Iris, and on wall paintings from the Theban tomb of Nebamen. Egyptian blue fell out of use at the end of the Roman Empire and the method for producing it was lost to history.
Han Blue - Ancient Chinese Pigment
The ancient Chinese also developed a blue pigment around 1045 BC called Han blue, which was very similar in chemical composition to Egyptian blue. The big difference was that the Egyptians used calcium, whereas the Chinese used the toxic heavy metal barium and even lead and mercury to make their blue pigment.
Some experts believe that the invention of these two pigments occurred totally independently of each other, while others suggest that the knowledge of how to produce Egyptian blue travelled down the Silk Road to China, where early Chinese chemists experimented and started using barium instead of calcium.
Blue in Ancient Greece
The Ancient Greeks believed that light, clear blue had the power to keep evil away and prevented evil spirits from approaching a house or a temple. In fact, you can still buy blue amulets in Turkey and Greece with an eye motif to hang in your home or on a baby’s cradle to ward off the evil eye.
On murals from the buried city of Akrotiri on Santorini dating from around 1700 BC, people are shown wearing bracelets, necklaces and anklets made of blue gemstones and the shaven part of the young people’s hair is painted blue. The Greeks had no specific word for the colour blue, as they categorised colours as either ‘light’ or ‘dark’.
So they would have used the word ‘kyaneos’ for any dark hue and ‘glaukos’ for any light hue. In fact, none of the civilisations of antiquity had a proper word for blue, even though the colour was so important to them. In his book ‘Through the Language Glass’ Guy Deutscher tells how the words for colour appeared in all languages in a certain order, with the words for white and black appearing first, then red, yellow and green with blue always being the last to arrive.
Tekhelet – Sacred Blue Dye of Ancient Israel
There was also a sacred blue dye used in the temples of Ancient Israel, where the Bible required the High Priests to wear blue fringes on their clothes and the veil of Solomon’s Temple was also dyed blue. However, archaeologists have up until now never located any textiles dyed with the pigment that was called tekhelet in antiquity.
Tekhelet, meaning blue in ancient Hebrew, was made from a secretion from a snail called Murex trunculus. These snails secrete a yellow liquid from a gland in their body. This liquid turns a blue colour when exposed to direct sunlight and our ancestors discovered they could use it to dye cloth.
But a breakthrough came in the search for tekhelet when an expert examined a scrap of material dating back to the time of the Roman Occupation of Judea. It is thought the fabric could have come from remnants of clothing discarded by Jewish refugees from the Bar-Kokhba revolt of 132-135 AD. This small piece of woollen textile had originally found in the 1950s but the presence of the sacred blue pigment was only detected during the recent re-examination.
Maya Blue - Early Mesoamerican Pigment
The ancient civilisations of the New World also developed an innovative azure pigment called ‘Maya blue.' It first appeared around 800 AD and was made from the naturally occurring clay called palygorskite mixed with dye from the leaves of the wild indigo plant.
It is a remarkable pigment because it is very resistant to weathering and does not fade over time. In pre-Columbian times Maya blue was used to paint murals, decorate statues and illuminate codices. New research has also shown that it could have also been used in religious ritual and painted on the bodies of those who had been sacrificed to the gods.
So the next time that you are wandering around the DIY shop looking at paint, just have a think about how lucky we are that there are now so many shades of blue available to choose from. Our early ancestors had to wait a long time to be able to paint with their favourite colour and even then it would remain throughout antiquity a very expensive pigment that was used to honour royalty and the gods.