Alexandria's founded by Alexander

Alexandria's founded by Alexander the Great (by year BC): 334 Alexandria in Troia (Turkey) - 333 Alexandria at Issus/Alexandrette (Iskenderun, Turkey) - 332 Alexandria of Caria/by the Latmos (Alinda, Turkey) - 331 Alexandria Mygdoniae - 331 Alexandria (Egypt) - 330 Alexandria in Areia (Herat, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria of the Prophthasia/in Drangiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Caucasus (Begram, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria of the Paropanisades (Ghazni, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria Eschate or Ultima (Khodjend, Tajikistan) - 329 Alexandria on the Oxus (Ai-Khanoum OR Termez, Afghanistan) - 328 Alexandria in Margiana (Merv, Turkmenistan) - 326 Alexandria Nicaea (on the Hydaspes, India) - 326 Alexandria Bucephala (on the Hydaspes, India) - 325 Alexandria Sogdia - 325 Alexandria Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 325 Alexandria Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria on the Indus - 325 Alexandria Xylinepolis (Patala, India) - 325 Alexandria in Carminia (Gulashkird, Iran) - 324 Alexandria-on-the-Tigris/Antiochia-in-Susiana/Charax (Spasinou Charax on the Tigris, Iraq) - ?Alexandria of Carmahle? (Kahnu)

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Ancient Greece in full Technicolor

Greek statues and temples in full Technicolor? A very shocking thought, that is obvious but it is much closer to the truth than one would expect initially.

The first colour reconstruction I ever saw was a corner of the Alexander Sarcophagus at the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul and honestly I thought it was rather exaggerated. The colours were simply too bright, too blunt, too plain and did in no way match my concept of Greek perfection. It wasn’t until I unexpectedly stopped at the rarely visited Macedonian Tomb of The Judges and the Tomb of the Palmettes that I was entirely taken by the charm and exotic feeling of the bright yet delicate polychromy.


A few years ago, I saw the painstaking reconstruction work done by the team of Prof. Vinzenz Brinkman on TV and their ensuing display at the Liebieghaus in Germany. For more than 25 years they analyzed the pigmentation of antique sculptures using digital methods whereby the originals were left untouched. New technical photographic methods using UV-light and –reflectography enabled them to disclose the painted parts of the statues. Even those areas where no pigment had survived could be revealed thanks to the chemical and mechanical transformations on the surface of the stone over the centuries. Based on those discoveries, they applied the matching colours on copies of existing statues. It was an absolute mind-blowing and a true eye-opener.

I lost track of these precious objects till last summer when while visiting Die Rückkehr der Göter in Cologne, Germany, I found the catalogue “Bunte Götter” (Gods in Colour) revealing that the collection of polychrome statues had grown considerably as it travelled around the world from one museum to the next, from one city to the next. Meanwhile several of the most colourful pieces have made the headlines and personally, I had great difficulty in making my choice from the superb pictures in the above-mentioned catalogue. I can’t wait to see them for real!

One of my favourites is the figure of an Archer, identified by some as Prince Paris of Troy, made around 500 BC and once part of the west pediment of the Temple of Aphaia on the island of Aegina (Greece). I can’t get enough of the vibrant colours, the patterns of his pants, the livelihood of his presence. The Persian horseman from the Acropolis in Athens shows the same patterns in the rider’s pants (today we would speak of leggings, wouldn’t we?) but he looks somehow less appealing because his horse is left blank because its original colour could not be defined with certitude. Another statue fitting the same time-frame is that of Athena with striking (and at first sight, rather unreal) green coloured snakes at the edge of her cape. And then there is the so-called Peplos Kore (approx. 530-520 BC), whose original condition revealed traces of red, blue, yellow and green pigments. A close scrutiny with modern technology brought this young girl to life, dressed in a ritual garment embroidered with animals, moving her to the state of godliness rather than that of an ordinary girl. This proves that the new techniques lead to new discoveries as well.

This is an entirely new way to look at early Greek marble sculptures and ornamentation. Who would have expected such magnificent dresses, such bright details, or such colourful statues decorating the ancient Greek temples, tombs and maybe even houses? I remember the circle of Kore as it stood in the old Acropolis Museum where I marvelled at the traces of colour in their hair and their painted earrings, wondering what they must have looked like new. Well, now I know.

Polychrome paintings were not limited to early Greek statues alone, of course, although they may be the most rewarding examples. The technique was applied widely, covering pediments, friezes, walls and ceilings of temples and tombs, decorating theatres and other public places, terracotta statuettes like those of the well-known Tanagra type, sarcophagi and even mummy portraits. The practice continued all the way through the Greek classical period and Hellenistic times, as is proven by the famous Alexander Sarcophagus from Sidon; and copied by the Romans as shown by the impressive head of Emperor Caligula from ancient Rome.

I can’t wait till they’ll tackle Alexander the Great. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see the true colour of his hair and if he really suffered from heterochromia (one blue and one brown eye according to Peter Green)? That will be the day!

A selection of this polychromic artwork can be admired on this link: "Gods in colour".

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