for younger readers
You can see from their vivid wall paintings and their wonderful jewellery that the Egyptians loved bright colours. The temples, tombs and other monuments that we may visit today might appear rather dull but if you look inside, up under the roof or in sheltered corners where the walls have been protected from the wind and the sand you will see the remains of painted surfaces and colourful relief carvings. The massive pylons of temples such as Karnak and Luxor are decorated with scenes of Pharaoh defeating his enemies in battle, though it is difficult to make out the details since the original colours have disappeared. You have to imagine these scenes as they were intended to be, brightly coloured against a plain white background, looking more like we would expect of a cartoon story book. We can visualise what the colours must have looked like when they were first painted by comparing these scenes with others from tombs that have not suffered from the same effects of nature. Egyptian painters used mainly mineral pigments, which tend not to decay over time like colours made from plant sources. Various yellow, red and brown colours were obtained from ochres, forms of iron oxide, which were common throughout Egypt. A more lemony yellow came from orpiment, a naturally occurring sulphite of arsenic. White was made from limestone or gypsum (calcium carbonate or calcium sulphate), or from a mineral known as huntite (a magnesium calcium carbonate). Black was carbon-based, using the charcoal from burnt plant materials or bone, or the soot scraped from an oven or a cooking pot. Green was
A painting from the tomb of Horemheb in the Valley of the Kings, where the bright colours are still well preserved. Photo: RP.
more of a problem. Even though there were several compounds of copper, such as malachite (copper carbonate), which gave a green colour, these tended to oxidise to a brownish tone. Blue was the most elusive colour. There is some evidence that a cobalt pigment was used for colouring pottery during the Amarna Period, but this was unusual. Most blue colouring had to be artificially made by a method similar to the manufacture of glass or glazes. This blue pigment, known as ‘Egyptian Blue’, was a copper calcium silicate or frit. Depending on how the frit was ground, it provided a range of blues. The finest powdered frit gave a pale sky-blue colour while coarser grains gave a deeper shade. When mixed with one of the yellow pigments, Egyptian Blue produced a variety of greens. The Egyptian painter’s palette of colours was pretty much the same as the colours preferred for jewellery.
Instead of using clear gem stones, such as rubies or emeralds, the Egyptian jeweller worked with the deep, mainly opaque, colours of semi-precious stones like carnelian and jasper (red), turquoise (light blue), amethyst (purple) and malachite (green), which were easier to find and much easier to cut and polish. Gold, of course, represented the colour yellow. One stone that was not found in Egypt but which was very popular was lapis lazuli, a rich blue mineral, somet i mes flecked with gold-coloured metallic particles. This stone was imported into Egypt from as far away as
ANCIENTEGYPTDecember 2007/January 2008