Pigment sample - ROM2018_16270_3


Pigment sample

Geography: Excavated at Deir el-Bahri, Egypt
Date: c. 1550-1069 BC
Period: 18th-20th Dynasty, New Kingdom
7.5 × 4 × 2.5 cm
Yellow Pigment: 3.5 × 2.7 × 2 cm
Object number: 906.18.34
On view
Gallery Location:Galleries of Africa: Egypt

Surviving Ancient Egyptian pigments remain bright and vivid after thousands of years because most were manufactured from naturally occurring minerals whose colours are not subject to fading or, usually, colour change.  Though recent scientific examinations have revealed that the choice and mixture of minerals were more sophisticated than previously thought, the basic method was to grind the chosen minerals, often with fine quartz sand, and natron, mix with a binder such as resin, and sometimes to bake the resulting lumps. The sample of pigment would have to be ground again, often by apprentices, until it was as fine as sifted flour, and then mixed with an agent or medium such as vegetable gum, beeswax, honey, or milk or egg.

Pieces of pigment like these have often been found in the tombs of artists, and on sites where they were perhaps lost or mislaid. These  two pieces were wrapped in linen tied with twine, perhaps to facilitate painting large areas of background. The red here is red ochre, a naturally occuring ore of iron.  It has a great advantage in painting on stone or plaster as the iron stains the underlying surface and so the red pigment is often the last one to be abraded or otherwise lost.  

Yellow ochre was readily available in Egypt, but the yellow in this instance was orpiment, a bright yellow arsenic sulphide that was probably imported from Persia. It does not seem to have been available in Egypt before the New Kingdom. Unlike red and yellow ochre, orpiment will fade in the presence of light. The pollutant gases ozone and nitrogen oxide also contribute to the fading of oripment's intense yellow. Indeed, the many areas of white on this sample are evidence of the oxidation of the arsenic sulphide, resulting in the production of white arsenolite.

For readers interested in a more strictly scientific exploration of Egyptian pigments, W.V. Davies, editor, Colour and Painting in Ancient Egypt, British Museum Press, 2001, is highly recommended.

Object History: Excavated by the Egypt Exploration Society, 1905-1907
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