Classical Greek sculpture in its original painted state

When we think of Greek statues and buildings of the classical period, we tend to imagine white marble. But scientists in recent years have discovered that it is in fact most likely that many of the buildings and statues were painted and probably adorned with jewelry.

Original Greek statues were brightly painted, but after
thousands of years, those paints have worn away. Find out how shining a light
on the statues can be all that’s required to see them as they were thousands of
years ago.

Although it seems impossible to think that anything could be
left to discover after thousands of years of wind, sun, sand, and art students,
finding the long lost patterns on a piece of ancient Greek sculpture can be as
easy as shining a lamp on it. A technique called ‘raking light’ has been used
to analyze art for a long time. A lamp is positioned carefully enough that the
path of the light is almost parallel to the surface of the object. When used on
paintings, this makes brushstrokes, grit, and dust obvious. On statues, the
effect is more subtle. Brush-strokes are impossible to see, but because
different paints wear off at different rates, the stone is raised in some
places – protected from erosion by its cap of paint – and lowered in others.
Elaborate patterns become visible.

Ultraviolet is also used to discern patterns. UV light makes
many organic compounds fluoresce. Art dealers use UV lights to check if art has
been touched up, since older paints have a lot of organic compounds and modern
paints have relatively little. On ancient Greek statues, tiny fragments of
pigment still left on the surface glow bright, illuminating more detailed

Once the pattern is mapped, there is still the problem of
figuring out which paint colors to use. A series of dark blues will create a
very different effect than gold and pink. Even if enough pigment is left over
so that the naked eye can make out a color, a few thousand years can really
change a statue’s complexion. There’s no reason to think that color seen today
would be anything like the hues the statues were originally painted.

There is a way around this dilemma. The colors may fade over
time, but the original materials – plant and animal-derived pigments, crushed
stones or shells – still look the same today as they did thousands of years
ago. This can also be discovered using light.

Infrared and X-ray spectroscopy can help researchers
understand what the paints are made of, and how they looked all that time ago.
Spectroscopy relies on the fact that atoms are picky when it comes to what kind
of incoming energy they absorb. Certain materials will only accept certain
wavelengths of light. Everything else they reflect. Spectroscopes send out a
variety of wavelengths, like scouts into a foreign land. Inevitably, a few of
these scouts do not come back. By noting which wavelengths are absorbed,
scientists can determine what materials the substance is made of. Infrared
helps determine organic compounds. X-rays, because of their higher energy
level, don’t stop for anything less than the heavier elements, like rocks and
minerals. Together, researchers can determine approximately what color a millennium-old statue was painted.