A Colorful Past

Curator Alex Nagel standing at table, posters of project behind, laptop in front.
Curator Alex Nagel at the Smithsonian Congress of Scholars tent, Folklife Festival, July 2, 2012

London native Rohan Ayinde Smith is currently an intern in the Freer|Sackler Archives. This post takes him out of the Archives and onto the National Mall.

The Smithsonian staff picnic boiled away on Monday, July 2, from 11 am till 2 pm, and saw a host of Smithsonian employees ambling, somewhat laden by heat, across the Mall with ice-cold smoothies in hand and sweat patches pooling on their backs. I sat watching this from the relative cool of the 2012 Smithsonian Congress of Scholars (SCOS) research tent, thinking how lucky I was to sit in adequate comfort, above ground (unlike the F|S offices), and without having to stare at a computer for hours.

However, if I thought my day was going to be as easy as sitting around people-watching, I was grossly mistaken. From about 11:30 am there was a steady stream of traffic to and from our table, with people asking a vast array of questions about the pigment project that Alexander Nagel, assistant curator of Ancient Near Eastern Art at Freer|Sackler, has been working on for the past six years. Alex has been collaborating with a team of colleagues in Persepolis (Iran) to determine the original colors of the site through documenting small traces of pigments found there. These pigment marks have not only been found in Persepolis, but also at other ancient sites such as Pasargadae (also in Iran) and Palmyra (Syria).

In the SCOS research tent we spoke about the recent findings and discussed what they illuminate about these ancient sites. Ultimately, we explained, the pigments allow us to understand what these cities would have looked like. They give us insight into a culture that we used to think was very pristine and whitewashed, allowing us strip away that fallacy and build an extremely different picture of these cities—one that is covered in vibrant colors. From painted monuments to frescoes, the grand buildings on these sites were decorated elaborately. It is a grand shift in the way we view ancient civilizations and may change many of our perceptions of the past.

One of the most interesting pieces we discussed was a stone relief excavated at Palmyra that had traces of pigments on it. The relief, which is part of the F|S collection,  is one of about 5,000 found at the site, all representations of the people in the tombs they were guarding. The color present on this relief is again evidence of how vibrant these cities would have been; even the dead were housed in elaborately painted tombs.

As the day went on, Alex and I were faced with a number of interesting questions, observations, and suggestions. It was rewarding that people took so much interest. They were fully engaged and particularly fascinated with the notion that the past was so much more colorful than some had believed. Of the many questions that were asked over the course of the day, the ones that popped up most frequently were those related to the conservation of the pigments; whether  the colors used were part of a grander, interlinked scheme that crossed cultures and civilizations; and whether there was going to be an effort to restore these sites to their former painted state once ample evidence was collected.

Regarding conservation of the pigments, Alex explained, it would do more damage to try to apply something to conserve them than just leaving them as they have been for the past 2500 years. Instead, glass covers have been put in front of many of the places where significant pigmentation has been found so it cannot be touched. As for whether these colorings are indicative of a cross-cultural exchange, we explained that many of the materials used to color the palaces and monuments at Persepolis, at least, were garnered locally, and that the copper compound used to make blue and the ochre used to make red could both be found in Iran. This does not indicate a cross-cultural exchange, but equally does not rule it out.

The most controversial issue was the question of whether the sites would be repainted. There seemed to be two camps of people in regard to this notion. There were those who thought it would be atrocious to dream of doing such a thing, and there were those who thought it was a necessary step in the restoration process. It was intriguing to see the dialogue develop over the course of the day and see what different people had to offer on the topic.

Personally, I feel that to restore the sites back to their original colors would interfere too much with the course of history. It is part of the historical record that the colors have disappeared. As a result, we should respect that passage of time and be content that, with today’s technology, we are able to recreate the sites with digital technology and possibly even build 3D models in full color. To do anything more would just be out of line.

What is your opinion?


  • I believe that the life of an object or an architecture does not end with the era in which they were made. The beauty of the piece is that it shows the passage of time. Beyond it’s history, it will tell a story of what it has been through. As a Persian with a background in art history, archives and museum studies, as much as it is painful to see Persepolis in the it’s current state, I believe it tells a story. And in its current form, it is authentic to its current time and place in history. So, I believe it should be left alone. At the same time, I love the idea of a 3D model next to it. It would be great to see what was the original form of the palace!

  • At least attempt to return to the original color. I recall when the Old Executive Office Building in Washington, DC was being restored and the same question came up. Everyone was so used to the blanched white walls, no one could imagine the original colors of blues, pinks, emeralds to match the ornate brass, mahogany doors and Tiffany skylights. Once the interior was painted the original colors, it was as though the building came back to life. One couldn’t image why anyone would white wash the interior to start with. Give integrity back to the original design planned by the designers and architects, so that we have an honest starting point to study.

  • Thanks so much, Keri and Sanam! I do agree. As for the Old Executive Office Building here in Washington DC, this is so interesting and most people would really not know about this debate. Thanks so much! As for Sanam, a 3D model or an info-panel close by the monuments on the original state or color scheme would be so good. Though it has not been the case with the Acropolis Parthenon in Athens, the British Museum has a nice reconstruction of some color schemes in the gallery next to the Parthenon. The British Museum has also one on Persepolis near the plaster casts from the site giving at least an idea of the original. But then, you have discussions about whether this is how it originally looked like and what is the evidence for it. My favorite one is the series of painted plaster casts the British Museum has in the upper Egyptian galleries: Although made in the 19th century, this gave visitors a great idea about the colorful past of ancient Egypt. Would be great to have more public discussions about it or invite local DC Technology experts for some input how to best proceed from the museum side. Thanks both, again, for commenting!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *