Ancient Pigments - Our Colorful Past

Colors Used by Ancient Artists

Ancient pigments were created by all cultures at least since the early modern humans used ochre to stain themselves, to paint walls and objects, some 70,000 years ago in South Africa. The investigations of pigments have led to some interesting conclusions about how pigments were manufactured and what roles they played in prehistoric and historic societies. 

Vermillion (Cinnabar)

Red Lady Tomb at Palenque
The Maya capital of Palenque included the famous "red lady" burial, a royal personage whose body was coated with cinnabar, accounting for the vermillion interior of the sarcophagus. Dennis Jarvis

Cinnabar, also known as mercury sulfide, is a highly toxic natural mineral found in igneous deposits all over the world. The first documented use of the brilliant vermillion color to date is at the Neolithic village of Çatalhöyük, in what is today Turkey. Traces of cinnabar have been identified within burials preserved at the 8,000-9,000-year-old site.

This vermillion-coated stone sarcophagus is the famous Mayan ​​Red Queen tomb at Palenque.

Egyptian Blue

Faience Hippopotamus, Middle Kingdom Egypt, Louvre Museum
Faience Hippopotamus, Middle Kingdom Egypt, Louvre Museum. Rama

Egyptian blue is an ancient pigment manufactured by the Bronze Age Egyptians and Mesopotamia and adopted by Imperial Rome. First used circa 2600 BC, Egyptian blue decorated many art objects, pottery vessels and walls.


Saffron Harvest in Herat, Afghanistan
A woman holds a stigma of Crocus To separate Sativus, the saffron crocus, during the saffron harvest near the village of Goriyan in Herat, Afghanistan on November 08, 2010. Majid Saeedi / Getty Images News / Getty Images

Saffron's intensive yellow color has been prized by ancient cultures for some 4,000 years. Its color comes from the three stigmas of the crocus flower, which must be plucked and processed within a brief window of opportunity: two to four weeks in the autumn. Domesticated in the Mediterranean, probably by the Minoans, saffron is also used for its flavor and aroma.

Chinese or Han Purple

Han Dynasty Terracotta Soldier at Bejing Olympics
A terracotta warrior is displayed at the 'China's Memory -- 5,000 Years Cultural Treasure Exhibition', one of the five grand exhibitions held to mark the upcoming Olympics at the Capital Museum on July 21, 2008 in Beijing, China. China Photos / Getty Images News / Getty Images

Chinese purple, also called  Han Purple, was a manufactured purple pigment invented in China about 1200 BC, during the Western Zhou Dynasty. Some archaeologists believe that the Zhou dynasty artist who invented the color was trying to imitate a rare of jade. Chinese purple is sometimes called Han Purple because it was used in painting the terracotta soldiers of the Qin emperor during the first century BC.

Cochineal Red

Detail of Paracas Cloak Depicting Avian Characters. Wan Kayan Cemetery, 250 BC-200 AD
Detail of Cloak Depicting Bird-Styled Characters. Wan Kayan Cemetery, Paracas 250 BC-200 AD. National Museum of Archaeology, Lima. Ed Nellis

Cochineal red, or carmine, was first produced by crushing the bodies of a pregnant beetle, by the textile workers of the Paracas culture of highland Peru, at least as long ago as 500 BC.

Ochre or Hematite

Iron Oxide Outcrop, Alligator Gorge, Flinders Range, South Australia
Iron Oxide Outcrop, Alligator Gorge, Flinders Range, South Australia. John Goodridge

Ochre, a natural pigment which comes in shades of yellow, red, orange and brown, is the first pigment used by humans, in the Middle Stone Age of Africa, at least 70,000 years ago. Ochre, also called hematite, is found all over the world and has been used by nearly every prehistoric culture, whether as paint on cave and building walls, staining of pottery or other types of artifacts or part of a burial ritual or body paints.

Royal Purple

Charles of Bourbon, later Carlos III of Spain, Dressed in Royal Purple
Charles of Bourbon, later Carlos III of Spain, dressed in Royal Purple. Oil painted by an unknown artist in 1725, and currently hanging in the Palacio Real de Madrid. sperreau2

A color somewhere between blue-violet and red-purple, royal purple was a dye made from a species of whelk, used by the royalty of Europe for their clothing and other purposes. It was probably first invented at Tyre during the Imperial Roman period of the 1st century AD.

Maya Blue

Line of Maya Musicians at Bonampak, Mexico
The vibrant turquoise color of the background for these musicians at Bonampak is a form of Maya blue. Dennis Jarvis

Maya blue is a bright blue pigment used by the Maya civilization to decorate pottery and wall mural paintings beginning about AD 500. It was also very important in some Maya ritual contexts.

Working with Pigments at Blombos Cave

Red Deposit in Abalone Shell from Toolkit 1 at Blombos
The nacre and inside of the Tk1 abalone shell (Tk1-S1) after removal of the quartzite grindstone. The red deposit is the ochre rich mixture that was in the shell and preserved under the cobble grinder. [Image courtesy of Grethe Moell Pedersen

The earliest evidence for the processing of color pigments for ritual or artistic comes from the early modern human site of Blombos cave in South Africa. Blombos is a Howiesons Poort/Stillbay occupation, and one of the middle Stone Age sites in South Africa that include evidence of early modern behaviors. the residents of Blombos mixed and prepared a red pigment made of crushed red ocher and animal bone.

Maya Blue Rituals and Recipe

Mayapan Tripod Bowl, Chichen Itza Well of the Sacrifices
Mayapan Tripod Bowl, Chichen Itza Well of the Sacrifices. John Weinstein (c) The Field Museum

Archaeology research in 2008 revealed the contents and recipe of the ancient color of Maya blue. although it had been known since the 1960s that the bright turquoise color Maya blue was created from a combination of palygorskite and a tiny bit of indigo, the role of the resin incense called copal was not known until researchers from Chicago's Field Museum completed their studies.

Upper Paleolithic Cave Art

Chauvet Cave Lions
Photograph of a group of lions, painted on the walls of Chauvet Cave in France, at least 27,000 years ago. HTO

The glorious paintings that were created during the upper Paleolithic period in Europe and in other locations were the results of human creativity and the input of a wide range of colors, created from natural pigments mixed with a wide variety of organic substances. Reds, yellows, browns, and blacks were derived from charcoal and ocher, blended to make fabulous lifelike and abstract representations of animals and humans alike.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Ancient Pigments - Our Colorful Past." ThoughtCo, Jun. 8, 2021, Hirst, K. Kris. (2021, June 8). Ancient Pigments - Our Colorful Past. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Ancient Pigments - Our Colorful Past." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).