Ancient Colors

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When people from prehistory created the first works of art on the walls of caves, they used the colors that they found around them. Almost all of the early cave art is drawn in black or dark red. 

As time progressed, humans figured out how to create more colors and they began using them in more and different ways.

However, some colors were very difficult to create and those who could do it became fabulously rich.

Learn more about colors in the ancient world and how early humans developed dyes and paints in this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The first artwork created by human beings might have been someone who took a burning stick from a fire and scratched out an image on a rock. 

The black soot from the stick was the first proto-writing instrument and the first form of art.

If you have ever doodled something with a charred stick on a rock, you might have realized that it isn’t very permanent. The first good rain will wash it all away. 

Eventually, in another sitting around the fire session, someone mixed charcoal with some animal fat from their recent hunt and created something which was more permanent. 

When they drew with this substance, especially inside of a cave, it didn’t wash away. It was sort of the worlds’ first pigment.

You can still see these charcoal drawings in cave paintings around the world.

However, if you have ever seen images of cave paintings, you might have noticed that black isn’t the color that most often used. The reddish-brown color most cave paintings are done in is called ocher. 

Ocher comes in several different colors including shades of yellow, red, orange, and brown.

Ocher is also known as the mineral hematite, which is really just a form of iron oxide, or in common parlance, rust. 

Ocher is found all over the world and as such we can find ocher paintings almost everywhere there were humans. We’ve found these paintings in the Amazon, in Australia, in Europe, in Africa, and in Asia. 

The other primitive color which early humans used was white. This would be found in substances like chalk or other forms of calcium carbonate.

Reddish-brown, black, and white is a pretty simple color pallet. 

As humanity developed agriculture, a division of labor developed which allowed for specialization. This allowed for the development of armies, priests, kings, and of course artists. 

People began discovering more colors in nature. These colors were harder to find than just burnt wood and hematite.

A much deeper red was discovered in the form of Vermillion or Cinnabar. Cinnabar is chemically known as mercury sulfide and it is really toxic. If you ever hear anything about an ancient mercury mine, they weren’t mining a liquid, silvery metal. They were mining cinnabar. 

The oldest known use of cinnabar goes back almost 9,000 years to ancient Turkey. 

A proper blue was first developed, as far as we can tell in ancient Egypt. They developed what is known as Egyptian Blue, which is chemically known as calcium copper silicate. 

Egyptian blue is more of a light blue, and it isn’t really a deep blue. 

There were other blues that were developed. The most popular was probably Indigo which comes from the plant by the same name. It was used by Greeks and Romans and it is still in use today.  Indigo is basically the color of blue jeans and is a deeper blue than Egyptian Blue.

The use of indigo made Egyptian Blue fall into disuse for centuries and it was later rediscovered during the renaissance. 

A similar type of blue was also developed in the Americas called Maya Blue. 

Azurite was another blue that was used by Egyptians. It is a very deep blue copper mineral, but much harder to find than a pigment like indigo. 

Yellow usually came from the plant saffron. It played double duty as a spice as well as a pigment or a dye. 

You might have noticed that there are a few basic colors that I haven’t listed yet. 

One of the colors that there wasn’t a simple source of was green. You might think this is really odd given how much green exists in the world in the form of plants and chlorophyll. 

The Egyptians used a crush malachite to create green and the Greeks also created a substance called verdigris, which is created by putting copper plates in hot vinegar in a sealed pot. 

However, neither of these was really dark green.  Green was often created by just mixing yellow and blue. 

There was one other color which was really really rare. It was so rare and so expensive that it was really the genesis for this entire episode. 


There isn’t a whole lot of purple in nature.

The Chinese had a color known as Han Purple, but it wasn’t really purple. It was just a really dark blue. It was a form of deep azurite which was similar to what the Egyptians used.

The ones who created a true purple dye were the Phoenicians. 

The Phoenicians were creating purple dye at least 3500 years ago. In fact, some people think the world Phoenician means “purple”. 

The secret to purple dye was the mucus of predatory sea snails of the Murex family. Different species of snails would produce different shades of purple. 

These snails are found only in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea and the primary place of production was the Phoenician city of Tyre, which is today in the nation of Lebanon. 

The name of this purple was Tyre Purple, but it also went by royal purple, imperial purple, and Phoenician purple.

Its association with royalty came from the simple fact that the dye was so expensive to produce that only royalty could afford it. 

Purple dye was said to be worth its weight in silver. 

In ancient Rome, magistrates would wear a toga praetexta, which was a white toga with a purple stripe. A conquering general on the day of his triumph would get a wear a toga picta, which was a solid purple toga with a gold stripe.

Eventually, laws were enacted which prevented anyone but the emperor to wear purple. 

The color purple even became synonymous with the Emperor. To don the purple, meant to rise to the position of Emperor. A child of an emperor was said to be born in the purple.

Perhaps it was appropriate that an artist named Prince, had purple as his favorite color. 

The creation of purple dye was a closely guarded secret because of how expensive the process was.  Thousands of snails had to be harvested, then they had to be removed from their shells, and a tiny gland removed. The juice of the gland was placed in a vat and left in the sunlight where it would change colors.

To get purple, the process had to be stopped precisely, or else it would just turn into red, which wasn’t as valuable.

Overall, the ancient world was far more colorful than most people realize. 

The ruins we see today are the same color as the stone they were made from. The Parthenon in Athens is white, and the temples in Egypt are a sandstone beige. 

However, in their heyday, all of these buildings were brightly colored. Mostly, they were just simple, basic colors like red, blue, yellow, white, and black, and maybe with some gold leaf. 

If you look closely in some temples, you still might be able to see traces of the original paint. I remember visiting the Kom Ombo temple in Egypt. I looked up at the ceiling and I could see traces of color where it had been painted. The underside of the ceiling was the most protected part of the building from the elements, and it was the last place where the original color remained. 

Moreover, all of those white marble roman or greek statues you might have seen in a museum were also almost always painted. When they were discovered, or rediscovered during the middle ages and the renaissance, all of the paint had been removed by time and the elements, so everyone just thought that they were supposed to be white. 

However, they have found some statues with original paint, and on many statues, they could find extremely tiny flecks of paint in the crevices of the statue. 

Today, we don’t really think much about colors. We have every possible color we can think of in the form of paint and dyes. 

However, thousands of years ago, dyes and pigments were a really big deal given how difficult it was to produce. 

Since humans first made a drawing of their hands on the wall of a cave, color has been an important part of humanity.