Does admiration for white marble antiquities derive from racism?

July 24, 2017 • 9:30 am

There is seemingly no end to the number of trivial items that Regressive Leftists consider offensive, especially Regressive Leftists in academia, for academics need to somehow have their Offense advance their careers. And so we get academic papers on the patriarchy of glaciology, the racism of white pumpkins and pumpkin lattes, the cultural appropriation and racism of Pilates, the sexism and white privilege of yogurt, and the “othering” and “gender-shaming” of invasive squirrels in California. This stuff is useful for academics because the humanities, at least, are largely left-wing and Regressive to boot. So such papers, which would be laughed at by serious scholars, are gobbled up by journals.

Of course there’s still sexism and racism in American society, but this kind of trivial Pecksniffery endangers the legitimate social enterprise of instantiating equal rights and opportunities for all. But who cares when you have a paper to write and a career to make?

So onto this week’s Ridiculous Offense. This one’s not an academic paper, but an article in Hyperallergenic by an academic, Sarah E. Bond, an assistant professor of Classics at the University of Iowa. I don’t often see classicists turning out this kind of piffle, but I don’t read much in that field.

The title of her piece is “Why we need to start seeing the classical world in color,” and it’s about the Greco-Roman practice of polychromy–of painting their marble statues and buildings, so that what we see today is sometimes now how sculpture looked when it was made.

Bond’s title could be interpreted in two ways. The good way is that we need to realize that the ancients appreciated and saw their architecture and sculpture in color. (We’re only now starting to realize this as we find traces of color using various arcane technical methods.)  The Parthenon, for instance, which all visitors admire as a white marble temple, actually looked like this originally:

And here’s a Roman relief that still retains some color, reproduced in Bond’s article:

(From article): Large polychrome tauroctony relief of Mithras killing a bull, originally from the mithraeum of S. Stefano Rotonodo (end of 3rd century CE), now at the Baths of Diocletian Museum, Rome (photo by Carole Raddato/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Here’s a color reconstruction of an archer from the West Pediment of the Greek Temple of Aphaia as it looks now, with the color weathered off  the white marble, compared to a reconstruction:

(From article): The Archer from the western pediment of the Temple of Aphaia on Aigina, reconstruction, color variant A from the Gods of Color exhibit (photo by Marsyas/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 2.5)

Now I happen to like the colorless, weathered sculpture better, as, I think, do most people.  There’s something about the monochrome of the white marble that makes me appreciate the artistry more, as it does for the sculpture of Michelangelo, Bernini, and other Renaissance and Baroque artists.  The color seems to me both unnecessary and garish, but of course Greek and Roman statues were more than just art in their time: they were objects of veneration, and were meant to tell stories.

Bond’s job, and the second meaning of her title, though, is to tell me that my “aesthetic disgust” at colored ancient sculpture (I’m not disgusted by it, for crying out loud; I just don’t like it!), comes from my white supremacy, and that I’m privileging the white marble because I privilege my white skin.  I am not making this up:

Acceptance of polychromy by the public is another matter. A friend peering up at early-20th-century polychrome terra cottas of mythological figures at thePhiladelphia Museum of Art once remarked to me: “There is no way the Greeks were that gauche.” How did color become gauche? Where does this aesthetic disgust come from? To many, the pristine whiteness of marble statues is the expectation and thus the classical ideal. But the equation of white marble with beauty is not an inherent truth of the universe. Where this standard came from and how it continues to influence white supremacist ideas today are often ignored.

Most museums and art history textbooks contain a predominantly neon white display of skin tone when it comes to classical statues and sarcophagi. This has an impact on the way we view the antique world. The assemblage of neon whiteness serves to create a false idea of homogeneity — everyone was very white! — across the Mediterranean region. The Romans, in fact, did not define people as “white”; where, then, did this notion of race come from?

She then goes into a long disquisition on the racism of scholars beginning in the 18th century, and, although the idea of white superiority was indeed ubiquitous among European academics then, she doesn’t connect it in any meaningful way with our aesthetic preference for white marble. She simply asserts that our aesthetics somehow derive from the racism of people like Joachim Winckelmann, Pieter Camper, and others—including biological white supremacists who measured skulls and brains to arrive at their preconceived notions that whites were superior to all other “races.”

And indeed, she’s correct, but trivially true, when she says this:

Too often today, we fail to acknowledge and confront the incredible amount of racism that has shaped the ideas of scholars we cite in the field of ancient history. For example, I recently, came across Tenney Frank’s disturbing article “Race Mixture in the Roman Empire” while looking through an edited volume. First published in The American Historical Review in July 1916, the article sees Frank attempting to count extant inscriptions (mostly epitaphs) in order to gauge whether “race mixing” contributed to the decline of the Roman empire. It was then reprinted without comment in Greek historian Donald Kagan’s1962 collection of articles on the fall of Rome.

But we all know such things now; evolutionary biologists are especially aware of the racism that permeated evolutionary theory right down through the mid-20th century.  But, adds Bond, this racism still affects people’s attitudes towards art (and the accessibility of art to people of color):

How can we address the problem of the lily white antiquity that persists in the public imagination? What can classicists learn from the debate over whiteness and ancient sculpture?

First, we must consider why we are such a homogenous field. According to the Society for Classical Studies, the leading association for Classics in the United States, in 2014, just 9% of all undergraduate Classics majors were minorities. This number decreases the higher into academia you go. Just 2% of tenured full-time Classics faculty were minorities, according to the study.

Do we make it easy for people of color who want to study the ancient world? Do they see themselves in the ancient landscape that we present to them? The dearth of people of color in modern media depicting the ancient world is a pivotal issue here. Movies and video games, in particular, perpetuate the notion that the classical world was white. This is an issue when 70% of my students tell me that games such as Ryse: Son of Rome (which uses white statues to decorate the city of Rome and white Roman soldiers as lead characters), as well as films like Gladiator (which has a man from New Zealand playing the Spaniard Maximus) and the 300 (which has xenophobic depictions of Persians) led them to take my courses.

As far as I know, apart from African slaves, the classical world was “white” in the sense of comprising Europeans, who had various skin tones depending on their origin. You can see that variety of skin tones in any recent movie about the Greeks or Romans (see “Gladiator” again). Seriously, are Spaniards not considered “white”? If the classical world mostly comprised races usually lumped as Caucasians, what on earth is she talking about?

But of course Bond’s goal is not to enlighten us about art, but to chastise us for racism, and so we “have to change the narrative”:

If we want to see more diversity in Classics, we have to work harder as public historians to change the narrative — by talking to filmmakers, writing mainstream articles, annotating our academic writing and making it open access, and doing more outreach that emphasizes the vast palette of skin tones in the ancient Mediterranean.

I’m still puzzled about how apprehending the “vast palette of skin tones” among mostly Caucasian people is somehow going to get rid of racism. After all, are dark-skinned Spaniards, Greeks, and southern Italians the object of racism? Not to the scholars that Bond cites, who were all concerned with whites versus blacks. Seeing painted Roman and Greek sculpture won’t dispel that kind of racism.

But what Bond fails to consider is that aesthetic preference for non-painted sculptures—and they’re not just white—may be innate or even derived from cultural norms that have nothing to do with racism. Did Renaissance architects and sculptors use white marble because they were racists? If so, was Shah Jahan, a Mughal, a racist because he built the Taj Mahal in white marble? If so, why did the Mughals also build many forts and palaces in red? Why do we admire the Red Fort, the Red City of Petra, or the originally non-polychromed Sphinx of Giza? Many South Indian temples and sculptures are black, and are much admired by art lovers. When some South Indian Temples are painted, many of us see thm as garish and not as appealing. Here it’s not the white we admire, but the purity of any uniform color, which doesn’t distract us from the artistry of the sculptors. After all, that’s why we appreciate classical bronze sculpture, which is definitely not white. Finally, I have a suspicion that white marble was used because it’s plentiful and easy to work, not because sculptors were looking for any rock.

I suggest, then, that Bond has rejected alternative and better supported hypotheses for our aesthetics in favor of her own Regressive-Left confirmation bias, which is to see racism behind art appreciation. But she has not convinced me that I’m a racist because I prefer my Elgin Marbles sans pigment.

h/t: Barry

116 thoughts on “Does admiration for white marble antiquities derive from racism?

  1. “We’re only now starting to realize this as we find traces of color using various arcane technical methods.”

    Um, no. Back when I was in high school (class of ’72) we learned this – not exactly news.

    1. People were reporting remnant colour on freshly-excavated statues (i.e., not colour that could have been added by, metaphorical, Vandals. Or Visigoths.) well back into the 1850s, they just weren’t collated very well until considerably more recently, with such reports individually being considered a local aberration, rather than a representative trend. It’s just one of those bits of the subject which have been around for a long time, but whose significance is only more recently starting to come to prominence.

  2. As for me, I prefer the vibrant versions primarily because I want, as much as I can, to experience original versions of art.

    Does that make me “woke”?

    1. Unless we find actual pigment on the statues, we can’t know if an y colourisation is authentic. Having said that, it is relatively easy, these days, to experience the original colour (or our best guesss at it) through the wonders of computer technology.

      1. True, that. But we have some evidence and almost any serious attempt to replicate lends a character that is closer to what the artists intended.

        This is true for ancient art from other parts of the world as well. Thinking of Mesoamerican pyramids as large gray stone structures misses that they were covered with stucco and painted vibrant colors.

      2. There are reports from the early periods of archaeology of finds being cleaned “thoroughly” to “remove staining”. But imaging and non-destructive testing techniques are improving all the time. If mineral pigments were used, and not abrasively removed, we (specifically, one of my classmates who works at the Royal Laboratories for History of Art and Archaeology in Oxford) geologists can tell you what the colour (hue) from that mineral was originally. Organic dyes … a bit harder. Over the road to the chemistry labs.
        Saturation (how much white was seen with the pigment) is harder. Let the artists argue that one. That is one of the few uses I can envisage for advertising people : they do know how to attract people’s attention, and project messages. If they say “saturated primary colours”, I wouldn’t be inclined to waste lung power arguing with them.

  3. So is this why people hate, for example, Birds of Paradise so very much? And coloured candy? And make-up, colourful shirts and black costumes?

    1. Coloured candy? don’t you know that eating Skittles, Smarties and M&Ms is oppression?
      On the other hand, confining yourself to Milky Bars is white supremacy, so best not eat any sort of sweets.

      1. i’d guess that the only acceptable Regressive Left snack would be to nibble on some sackcloth and ashes…

  4. My guess is that many people prefer the non-painted statues because that’s what they’re accustomed to. The “new” colouration may just seem somehow wrong because our eye is trained by our lifelong exposure to these works in their unpainted form….so unpainted seems more “right”.

    I personally like the new painted depictions. It seems this is what the artist must have intended when he made them. I think it gives us a better understanding of the period this art represents.

    Of course any connection between either preference and racism is rubbish.

      1. “Colourless” is a wavelength-intensity relationship which is different for bichromats, trichromats and the rare tetrachromats (without travelling outside the Homo Sapiens gene pool). Quite how many alleles of the four main colour vision photoreceptors there are, and what degree of effect they have on individual colour perception, I’m not sure. But that’s why my working toolkit includes a set of colour references, so we can disagree exactly about which colour we think something is.

    1. “I personally like the new painted depictions”

      I have seen some fabulous “paintings with color spots” of ancient workshave having lost their colors since eons, like cathedral fronts (c.f., Reims) or boats (c.f., Vasa). Painting with light-spots is a true art in itself.

    2. In my opinion, you can admire the artistry of the sculptor more easily on the ”all white” statues. I’m thinking about the “David” in Florence. His body is stunning and I can’t imagine that color would enhance it in any way.

      1. That one was carved in the recent past, at a time when the belief really was that “classical” sculpture was done only with the stone, without paints. It’s a millennium or more too late to be relevant to the colouring of “classical” sculpture.

        1. It was the first piece that came to mind. So sorry it’s ”irrelevant.” Were you not able to understand my point?

  5. I look forward to the reply from her friend whom she vilified. Shaming all of us because she disagrees with a friend is just silly. Does her friend also prefer minimalist architecture? Does her friend never wear anything fancier than jeans and a plain white t-shirt?

    And why should the “ancient” European world be portrayed as anything other than what it was? If she worries that her students won’t see themselves in her lectures then perhaps she should include some art from India, China and Africa.

  6. I had a history teacher in high school back in the 60’s who challenged the common suggestion or notion that the white marble and columned buildings of Washington DC represented a great example of our roots and connection to the founders of Western civilization, in that the Greek and Romanesque architecture would surely seem welcoming to a citizen of one of those empires if they were transported in time to the present. He laughed as he strongly suggested that the first words that might come out of the mouths of a Greek or Roman time traveler might be…. “it’s not finished” or “when will you finish it?” He said this because such a traveler would have noticed that everything was white, and the Greeks and Romans literally painted everything in bright colors…. right down to the flesh tones and pubic hairs of the nudes throughout the empires.

    1. Aside from the classical architecture of the buildings, I would hope your history teacher would mention that most of early Washington DC was built by slaves in the slave state of Virginia. The racism was the culture and it was the only way to get the job done at the time.

      1. My teacher’s name was Walter White, you’ve got to love that name (Breaking Bad linkage as well as his last name being the topic of this discussion). He was a naturalized citizen from the UK being orphaned during the bombing of Coventry. Not only did he mention issues of slaves in the building of America, but he always emphasized that slaves did the building of the great temples of the Greek empire, as anyone not a citizen was a slave, no matter the color of the skin. You had to be born of a Greek to be a citizen. While Rome was a bit less racist in that you could become or awarded citizenship despite your place of birth or heritage.

        1. But of course, you were never a citizen of Rome if you were a woman, no matter what your status. The Ancient world was kind of shitty when it came to egalitarianism or human rights. It always amuses me when people idealize it. We are lucky to live here and now not there & then.

          1. This isn’t true. Women could be citizens of Rome (freeborn or otherwise) though they could not vote or (officially) hold public office.

            I recommend Mary Beard’s “SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome”. Beard is good writer and her history is very enlightening.

            1. Or even better, Marguerite Yourcenar’s “Hadrian” an erudite and very readable “autobiography” of Hadrian. Of course it is fiction. Hadrian did write an autobiography but it is lost; Yourcenar tried to imagine what it was. She was a consummate historian and a superb writer. In it are some very powerful and real life women citizens.

            2. I guess I think of women as citizens as being able to participate in public life of the citizenry (ie: going to the Senate, voting on things in the Senate, holding public office. The only thing women got out of this is they could be executed more nicely and they had some protections the riff raff didn’t. Oh and they could marry a Roman citizen.

      2. Careful. Slaves were involved in the construction of some of Washington’s oldest buildings including the White House and the Capitol, but most who worked on them were not slaves.

        The way you worded it is the way I’ve seen it worded often; slaves built Washington D.C. This leaves the impression that the early* buildings were built mostly or even exclusively, by slaves. Slaves were used in some construction projects but only as laborers. The skilled craftsmen, carpenters, masons, etc who did most of the construction were not slaves. It was, in fact, pay disputes that delayed many of the construction projects, sometimes for years.

        *of course most of the iconic building in Washington were built after the civil war.

        1. Yes, when I say built with and by slaves I am referring to the initial building from 1795 to 1801 before Adams moved in to the partially finished White House. First of all there was a dead line and lots of pressure to get things done and they were not going well. The recruitment of people did not produce the required numbers to get it done. Therefore, lots of slave labor was brought in to the project. Much of this is known because they have some of the records showing payments, 385 payment to slave owners during this period. The slave labor did all kinds of work including masonry, carting, rafting, plastering, glazing, painting and also cut much of the stone in the quarry work. Slaves were involved in building the white house and the capital. Is that too much exaggeration?

          1. No it is no exaggeration. I’ apologize if you thought I was accusing you of it. I have run across the claim of slave built Washington many times but the claim is usually made just that way without clarification. It leaves the impression that it was slave labor alone that was responsible, when in fact it was not.

          2. The recruitment of people did not produce the required numbers to get it done. Therefore, lots of slave labor was brought in to the project.

            It just struck me – the image that American slave history has on this side of the Pond mirrors our own slave-holding history as overwhelmingly agricultural. But obviously there would also have been slave-owners who kept them for simple physical grunt labour too, and rented them out to contractors. No?
            Or was the capital value of a slave so low that they weren’t worth renting out as muscle or sex organs?

            1. Renting out slaves was a common thing. Virginia/Maryland is where nearly half of the slaves were at this early period, approx. 350 thousand of the 700 thousand slaves. This is before big cotton. Big slave owners often rented out slaves but the really big benefit was the collateral for loans. All the big slave owners were able to borrow tons of money against their property (slaves). So there you have the golden deal, labor to do the work and collateral to borrow all the money you needed. That is why Jefferson and guys like him could not give it up…they were addicted.

              1. One thing I might mention is that although there may have been more slaves in the south,
                there were no states in the country at that time that didn’t have slaves.

                After the Civil War (or War of the Rebellion),
                blacks supposedly were freed but many were still similar to serfs in that they were sharecroppers tied to land owned by others. (They were not the only ones, as numerous poor whites also were sharecroppers.) Later on, there was a form of “slavery” that was based on using, loaning or renting out prison laborers.

                Another thought is, that although slaves here at that time were predominantly black or brown,
                slavers throughout the world in prior centuries captured slaves from all over without consideration of color, so whites were slaves also.

                And, although indentured servants may not have been considered slaves, effectively they were for whatever period of time they contracted for, such as seven years.

  7. People like the white marbles more because during the Renaissance Italian artists who admired Roman and Greek sculpture (from Michelangelo to Bernini) created statues in white marbles. At those times nobody knew that the original Roman and Greek statues were colored.

    We’re just used to seeing them in white, and so seeing them colored looks weird, especially since there’s a long tradition of white marble statues (from the Renaissance to Neoclassicism with Canova).

    1. Add to that that artists of the period were extremely knowledgeable and selective about the types of marble they used. Certain “species” were valued more than others for their particular luminance and veining characteristics which contributed to the simulation of the human form.

      The crystalline nature of marble creates, in certain lights, a glowing quality that contributes to the “aliveness” people sense when viewing such statues.

      Polychrome realizations are a beautiful and wonderful addition to our knowledge of the period, but assuming Renaissance artists were racists because they didn’t paint over their very carefully considered pieces is foolish and blinkered. And, perhaps… bigoted.

      1. The tedium of endless Carrara marble in modern sculpture is not what was used in antiquity. Just looking around the Athenian Parthenon a couple of years ago, with it still being in reconstruction mode, and I could identify at least 4 different “marble” types without being allowed to touch them. My art sensibilities were not even considering the use of veining ad mineral banding to emphasise the forms sculpted into the “living rock”, but I can see that it’s possible. In fact, I look up to the bookshelf where there’s a lovely piece of mica schist which the wife picked up because of it’s fleshy texture in the rainfall. And she normally barely looks at rocks, let alone observes them.

  8. Racism has nothing to do with that. The Italian artists who created the new white marbles were the distant descendants of the Greeks and Romans who created the ancient statues. It wasn’t pale Vikings who decided that the colors had to go…

  9. I like the color *much* better. The white is so lifeless…it makes the people of the time seem so different from us.

      1. Michaelangelo sculpting in 1500+several CE didn’t have the same artistic context as a classical sculptor in +/-500 CE. “David” was never intended to be painted.

        1. One of my Classics professors said that most Ancient Greek buildings were gaudy. She told us to think of how Greek restaurants look on the inside (sorry Greeks).

  10. If you ever visit Okinawa, Japan you will notice that everything is made of concrete. The buildings and all the houses are constructed of this white or at least light colored material. Some are painted and some not but it has nothing to do with racism, it is a matter of affordability.

  11. Minor correction – fourth paragraph, now = not. Also, I believe that the Xian terracotta figures were also originally colored – will they go after brown next?

  12. White marble and its poor country cousin limestone is common in sculpture because of the relative availability and properties of the medium to the artist. Try carving gray basalt or granite.

  13. I prefer the weathered sculpture, not because it’s white but because it is in an unmodified form. It’s not like someone has come along and scrubbed off the colors.
    A color duplicate rendition is fine, but I’m much more impressed by the originals, warts an all.

  14. I prefer white marble and no depictions of humans (abstract). Does that make me a racist Muslim? Good grief.

  15. Quora had a question on whether the game of Chess is racist because white goes first. Some of the answers were hilarious, and most (but not all) people saw the notion of Chess as a racist game as ridiculous on its face.

    But I can totally see “Chess as White Supremacy” as a paper coming from a regressive left scholar.

  16. Well … white marble carves nicely, relatively easily, with fine grain, and provides an excellent base for any color one would want to apply.

    We appreciate it because the original colors were gone when we saw (essentially all of) these sculptures.

    I like the simplicity of the plain, white marble because it most effectively shows off the from and texture of the sculpture, the three-dimensional aspects of what we love in sculpture. (I love bronze sculpture as well, sans colors — does that mean I am racist against whites?) (And, I’m sure, I like the plain marble because it’s what I am used to as well.)

    I do not see how colors could possibly improve the aesthetic impact of this:

    … or this:

    … or this:

    I like the plain marble for the same reason that I often find black and white photos more arresting than color ones. It’s the medium stripped to its essentials.

    1. Just to be clear, the first image – “The Veiled Lady”- is not from the Ancient world. It was made by Raphaele Monti around 1850. It is part of a collection at an English estate (can’t think of the name now).

      I have a very nice photo book at home with a number of these, which is why I am familiar.

        1. Chez Devonshires? The family, amongst other things, responsible for the first measurement of the Gravitational Constant.
          Every time we’ve been there, it’s been absolutely bogged. But they do regular sculpture exhibitions in the gardens, even when the buildings are bogging with tourists.

          1. Indeed. We loved it. It was not packed when we were there (late June a couple of years ago).

            A very, very pleasant outing. High point of our UK trip for my wife, I think: It was used as Pemberley in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice (best film rendition yet, in my opinion).

            I have to say I was most impressed by the sheer number of stately country homes (mostly in the NT) in England. You can hardly swing a cat (pardon the expression) without hitting a lovely stately home in England.

      1. None of those are of Roman or Greek provenance.

        First: The Monti, “Veiled Vestal” 1847

        Second Michelangelo: 1501-1504

        Third: The Femme Voilée by Antonio Corradini (1688 – 1752), so likely early 1700s, can’t find an exact date.

  17. I actually don’t see her making the allegation of racism because people prefer a certain statue. I’ve always found the Ancient Greeks garish in the paint jobs they did of their cities and statues though some statuary isn’t too bad. But, the eyes were all painted on, etc.

    I think the idea of showing the Greek and Roman statuary and temples as they were is important though because it’s just how it was. I think it’s also important to understand colour and race in the Ancient world…it’s actually a very racists time as people had no concept of being PC to someone and would openly mock other races. Greeks were called dark and hairy by some Romans. I think it would give another dimension to understanding of Ancient cultures and I’m not completely convinced this author is accusing all of us of being white supremacists, though her essay seems to go all over the place — but isn’t that the reason for scholarly journals – to present ideas that can be debated?

    1. it’s actually a very racists time as people had no concept of being PC to someone and would openly mock other races.

      How much truth is there in the claim that I’ve seen everal times, that “barbarian” descends from Greek alliteration that “bar-bar” is the sound a sheep makes, and these “barbarians” are no better than sheep because they can’t speak Greek.

      1. I don’t know how true it is but I heard it was what the languages of the various tribes sounded like to the Ancients.

  18. Of course, it’s not just the Greek and Romans. It’s also the Egyptians, and medieval cathedrals. Frankly, I find that the paint distracts from the form of the object. I am sure there are people who would be more interested in the color, but it just looks garish to me. Of course, from an historical perspective, students would be better served by seeing the painted versions.

    1. Yes, I think seeing the garish versions is a good idea. It’s not about what aesthetic pleases you but about what was true (ie: what did it really look like) because that is going to tell you about the culture. It’s Classics, not Art class.

    2. The ancient and medieval world had a limited selection of colors they could use. With modern artificial pigments we’re spoiled for choice.

      Back then though it’s entirely possible that color choice was as much a value statement as one of aesthetics. Actually we know that to be the case for such rare and expensive pigments as Tyrian purple. Much like gilding, using certain expensive colors was conspicuous flouting of wealth. That could explain the garishness.

      1. The ancient and medieval world had a limited selection of colors they could use.

        Well … that’s why they blended colours. It was pretty much lesson #1 in art class (which I failed, always ened up with brown).

        and expensive pigments as Tyrian purple.

        Tyrian Purple is a dye, not a pigment. Typically, a pigment is something you get as a lump or a powder, grind it up and mix it with binder, and it develops it’s own reflection spectrum in the final product. A dye OTOH gets adsorbed onto a substrate’s surface, and what you see is the reflection spectrum of the substrate less (double) the transmission spectrum of the dye.
        If I recall the Tyrian process properly, the dye was never extracted in a pure form itself, but as a solution for dying (wool or linen?) … it’s a long time since I did dye chemistry, and that I subverted into explosives manufacture.

  19. Bond:

    Do we make it easy for people of color who want to study the ancient world? Do they see themselves in the ancient landscape that we present to them?

    I recently watched a documentary that involved white European scholars studying the terracotta warriors from ancient China.
    I wonder if the Chinese have made it easy for whites to see themselves as part of the ancient Chinese landscape? I’m guessing no, since there were no whites in ancient China, and yet white academics still think it a fascinating topic worthy of study.
    For Bond to insinuate that non-whites wont be interested in Classical civilization because of a paucity of non-whites is blatantly racist.

      1. People like Bond have spent the last 25 years or so telling everyone that the Classics are just a dreary bunch of stuff written by Dead White European Males, who probably stole all their good ideas from Africa anyway, and that minority students would be better-off studying something more authentic to their culture – like rap lyrics, for example.

    1. There were “whites” in some ancient parts of what is now China. They were tall and, as I recall reading, redheads. They were found by archeologists and the find was reported.

      We make a grave mistake when we think that what we perceive of the world we live in has always been that way. Compared to modern concrete, Romans made superior concrete that didn’t break down like ours does. When archeologists dig 15′ – 20′ down in a tell, we don’t imagine (I hope) that the ancient people who lived there, lived underground. Or that ancient ports, now silted in, couldn’t possibly once have been ports. The terrain constantly changes. Human customs constantly change. People move around.

      Art over the centuries has had many different modes of expression. When paintings of people were done without perspective, do we assume that people then were flat? Or that all Greek male and female young people looked like Kores, when that was the style? Or that all females used to look like the Venus of Willendorf?

      White marble is no more racist than black marble, or white canvas more racist than black velvet (now, the dogs playing cards on the black velvet, maybe so!)

  20. “… as well as films like Gladiator (which has a man from New Zealand playing the Spaniard Maximus) …>

    That Kiwi had his breakout role in LA Confidential playing a cop named Bud White.

    There’s gotta be an academic paper — oh, hell, maybe even a whole damn academic sub-specialty — in that one.

      1. Interestingly enough, when Renaissance Pics were making ‘Hercules’ and ‘Xena’ in New Zealand, they used the same pool of stunt actors (some European, but many of Maori or Polynesian descent) as everything from ancient Britons to Greeks to Roman legionnaries to Persians to Siberians to Indians to Chinese to Japanese. Make of that what you will…


        1. If you’re filming in NZ and you can’t find any Maori actors and extras something is really wrong.

    1. Exactly what point is she making with “… Gladiator (which has a man from New Zealand playing the Spaniard Maximus)…”?

      Crowe is an actor playing a part in a Hollywood sword and sandals blockbuster set in the second century; does Bond really require authentic Spaniard lineage predating the Gothic and Moorish invasions?

  21. “After all, are dark-skinned Spaniards, Greeks, and southern Italians the object of racism?”

    For a couple of decades after WWII southern Italian immigrants have actually been victims of racism in Northern Italy, and Italians in general have been victims of racism in Switzerland, Germany, France.

    It seems to me that the majority of Spaniards are not darker-skinned than Swiss or French people. Only those working under the sun (agriculture, fisheries, etc.) are darker.

  22. I think modern perceptions are so colored (pun intended) by the avalanche of artistic media in all its forms that we forget how the world must have been like for the vast majority of people in the Ancient world. Even in more modern times, the reason Cathedrals were such powerful symbols was because of the awe and splendor they imbued in people whose day-to-day lives were psalmist completely devoid of color, music, art, grandeur.

    I would not be surprised to learn that this is why the Ancients painted their buildings and sculptures so. To our sensibilities they may seem garish, even silly, but in their world bright colors, especially on large buildings that had political or religious significance, must have been very powerful symbols indeed.

    1. “…completely devoid of color…”

      I think this is a modern misunderstanding. Vibrant colors have been part of humanity’s pallet (so to speak) since humans have been human. We see early Homo sapiens using ochre as a decorative paint. And all known human cultures have dressed themselves up, painted themselves, and decorated their lives in colorful ways.

      1. Yes, I know that. I didn’t mean too imply otherwise; some of the most ancient evidence of modern humans are essentially paleolithic makeup kits. Color was a very powerful symbol to early humans; it is thought often it was used as a kind of talisman. But ancients did not have access to color printers and paint stores with what looks like infinitely diverse palettes

        Today we are completely surrounded by colorful objects. From the time we are born and throughout our lives, rich, poor, we are surrounded by color. But I think in the past objects (and people) were brightly painted and garish colors often used precisely because they were not common, especially among the majority of people whose lives were pretty brutal. There was much significance to it (and music and other forms of art) that we don’t acknowledge because it is so common to us today.

        1. But we’ve always been surrounded by colorful objects. Even in the ancient times before ink jet printers. Color has always been all around us. Nature is full of color.

          I think you’re falling prey to the “things used to be black and white because that is what old photos and movies are like” trap.

          “The ancients” used color because they, like all humans, like color. As others have pointed out here, Renaissance sculptures didn’t color their statures because they were imitating what they saw in ancient art works where the color was all gone.

          I don’t think there is ANY evidence that color wasn’t as common in the past as it is now. (Unless you limit the discussion to specific technologies, like printing, where presses couldn’t reproduce color for a long time. But then, remember what books were like before printing presses…. brightly colored and illustrated hand painted works of art.

          1. I don’t believe I am falling into that trap. I am quite aware that the world is colorful even with and before black and white photography.

            Some of the ideas I was sharing come from “The Wine-Dark Sea: Color and Perception in the Ancient World” which suggests that the Ancients really did see and use color very differently than we do today. They even lacked words for some common colors (hence Homer’s “wine dark” sea).

            The Ancients did many things today that we would find very odd – for example only the Imperial court in Rome was allowed to wear clothes colored with “Tyrian purple” (this from Beard’s “SPQR”) mostly because the pigment was extremely expensive; made from insect guts, I think. The expense made it symbolic of the empire and the emperor himself* in a way that few colors would be used today.

            One small item I remember from reading about this, apparently part of a villa owned by Nero’s mother (who he had murdered!) at Baiae was painted Tyrian purple and was because of this considered a religious site by locals – which is rich because after her murder, Nero used it as a resort for truly outrageous hedonism.

            *or herself – sometimes the power behind the throne was a woman, even if not official.

            1. Not having words that describe differences and not being able to see differences are not the same thing.

              Color perception is a biological capability shared by all humans (recognizing various forms of color blindness). The words used to describe the variation of perceptible colors is going to differ from language to language.

              All of which is kind of off-topic. I’m just pushing back against the idea that in the past people weren’t “surrounded by color”. They were, despite some colors being more expensive to create in the past, leading to phenomena like purple being associated with royalty. The world wasn’t drab before ink jet printers were invented. It just looks like it in Civil War photos.

              1. Fair enough. I do not disagree with you (we are, I think, in violent agreement).

                My point was really only that the ancients used color in ways we do not. Much of their perception of the role of color is a mere echo today; green means GO! To us mostly color plays symbolic roles that are of little importance, traffic accident prevention notwithstanding. IOW, color often had much significance to the ancients that we no longer give it. That was all I was suggesting.

                Thanks for the discussion.

      2. “Vibrant colors have been part of humanity’s pallet (so to speak) since humans have been human.”

        Humans have always used whatever colorful pigments were available to them, and we know that “natural” dyes were not as “vibrant” as modern chemical dyes. Wool, cotton or flax fabrics weren’t as naturally white as we might imagine they were. You probably would not appreciate some of the processes Romans used to whiten fabric. One of the nicer ones I read about was that some Romans whitened their togas with chalk. Dyes made from plants or bugs, for the most part, were not as colorful as we might think. The yellow onion skins produce or the blue by flowers, etc. are relatively muted. The bright red of cochineal (bugs) and vibrant Tyrian purple (snails) were colorful exceptions, making them very valuable and, reserved therefore, primarily for the elite (who could afford them).

      3. I think this is a modern misunderstanding. Vibrant colors have been part of humanity’s pallet (so to speak) since humans have been human.

        On of the oldest non-functional artefacts (not functional like an axe or a scraper) in the record is a block of ochre (an orange-red mineral pigment, impure iron hydroxy-oxide, colour varying with hydration state, grain size and crystallinity) dated to about 77,000 years ago. (Science, 20012, v295, p1278)
        That date gets more interesting with the recent 80,000yr date for the first Australian site ; of course, the Blombos ochres are not the first occurrence of “symbolic thought” in humans, merely the oldest known (to this date) evidence for such behaviour.

        1. You make a good point about the use of minerals for color. All you have to do is travel through the southwestern US to see unbelievable mineral colors on roadside cuts and in the cliffs and hills: mauve, turquoise, red, ochre, etc. Painted Hills. Painted Deserts. Bryce Canyon. (I always wanted to spend Christmas in Bryce Canyon to see the bright red columns/spires with snow on them. Never made it. Yet.) So, yes, we know that minerals were used by early humans for face and body paints and cave paintings. Come to think of it, I’m not really sure what was used to color totem poles, lodges, bentwood boxes, parfleches, et al.

          Which then makes me think of pottery and some of the techniques for obtaining color. Some of my very most favorite pottery in the whole world is the black pottery made in the four corners of the southwest (also in Mexico down around Oaxaca.) (You don’t want to know how they get the black.) And fine line pottery (mostly geometric patterns on a flat base) that comes from Acoma (also in the southwest.) Takes a fine haired brush and very steady hands. But, they are absolutely gorgeous.

          Which now reminds me of the wall murals in Mexico, Central and South America. Ah, the beautiful human-made things we have seen!) Art! Beautiful art! Whenever, wherever, of whatever materials.

  23. As far as I know, apart from African slaves, the classical world was “white” in the sense of comprising Europeans, who had various skin tones depending on their origin.

    I think there is some evidence that this is not completely true. Both the Macedonians and the Romans conquered large parts of North Africa. They also controlled large parts of what is now the Middle East including, of course all of what is now Israel. I suspect that, the Roman Empire was fairly varied in racial types.

    1. Worth adding that at least 10 Roman Emperors were of African origin, although this does not necessarily mean “black” (eg Septimius Severus, said to be the first African Emperor, was of Punic background and therefore probably of “Caucasian” origin).

      Worth also adding that the Romans seem not to have discriminated on grounds of colour to any great extent. Later empires seem not to have been so enlightened…

      1. Numidia (black) was part of Egypt. Solomon’s Queen of Sheba was black. When it came to cementing political relationships between rulers of countries, the color barrier seemed to be breached a lot in ancient times. Ditto with slaves who could be any color as they were captured all over the ancient world and sold into slavery wherever and to whomever would pay.

  24. I try to balance my liking of marble with my admiration of obsidian and fascination with rubies. I carefully divide my feelings in thirds each morning.

  25. She may make the causality in one direction only: white supremacists see themselves vindicated by the whiteness of the marble, withOUT implying that people who like the whiteness of the marble are necessarily racist. If so, than I’m a tad more comfortable.

    Her article cites the book Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums (1764) by Johann Joachim Winckelmann as drawing overtly racist conclusions from the whiteness of ancient marble statues.
    If her citation is correct, than that is indeed reprehensible, but that would still let folks like JAC off the hook.

    (I have never seen a painted statue in muted subdued colors. Why is that?? Painters do it.)

    Ms. Bond has in fact been getting death threats now from white supremacist groups. (See ).

    I confess to being intrigued by here book “Trade and Taboo: The Disreputable Professions in the Roman Mediterranean”

    Finally, I post this very non-white statue of a famous Confederate war general James Longstreet

    1. Yeah, she makes I think some good points in clunky ways. The Classics were predominantly white male for a very long time. I think she is using the lack of colour statues as a jumping off point to criticize her field re: inclusion (hell, Classics is all about the civilization of white people) but I think she does so in a really clunky way and it just wasn’t written very well. I don’t think this is a journal though but an article somewhere and she doesn’t seem to be calling all of us racists, she’s saying that Classics should be more inclusive…she just says it in a badly written way….which is a shame for a Classics scholar.

  26. “After all, are dark-skinned Spaniards, Greeks, and southern Italians the object of racism?”

    They have been within the past century. The National Origins Act and the Oriental Exclusion Act of 1924 was based on the idea that southern Europeans were genetically inferior and would tend to dilute the racial purity of the Anglo-Saxons. The last generation of Greek Americans and Italians in this country have memories of social discrimination because of their dark complexions. The definition of “white” has always been elastic. It expanded from Anglo-Saxon Protestants to include Irish Catholics, and then Italians and Greeks and Jews, and may include Asians at some point.

    1. Which is a terrible, ignorant misunderstanding as there are light skinned, blond haired Italians and Greeks.

      Bigotry and biases of this sort can partially be attributed to western education focusing on Eurocentric history with little to no focus on peoples and places in other parts of the world. We are not taught about the ancient high civilizations in Africa, some parts of the Middle East and the Orient, or even in North, Central and South America preceding the arrival of Europeans.

      How many of us know about the unbelievable mound builder cultures of North America that existed along most of the waterways from the Mississippi east such as Cahokia, Natchez and Poverty Point? How many of us have been to see the five story building the length of a football field at Chaco Canyon built by the Anasazi? How many of us know of the amazing ancient cities, roads, walls, and bridges built in the west before the Spanish arrived? Some of the pyramids were larger than the Egyptian pyramids.

  27. I kinda like obsidian objets d’art. Never tied that before to my fondness for jazz and blues and R&B, or my appreciation for the writing of Ellison and Wright and Baldwin, or my affinity for black culture in general.

    Learn something new and untrue everyday, I guess.

  28. Speaking of white marble –
    I’ve just been viewing a lot of white marble statchoos in the Victoria & Albert and also in Paris (and bronze ones too) and I’ve come to an interesting evolutionary observation – compared with a statistical sample of modern examples as viewed on certain Internet sites, human dangly bits (bouncy bits in the case of females) have increased in size by about 300% in the last few centuries.

    If this evolutionary trend continues, our distant descendants will find it hard to walk without falling over on their faces (or other supervening features).

    And I claim this theory, which is mine, to be exactly and precisely as valid as Ms Bond’s theory.


  29. Has anyone yet addressed the problem that paper is white? Every single book and document you see is printed on WHITE paper. This pervasive and insidious ubiquity of the colour white is a shocking indictment of white privilege and it must stop.


  30. …did she really just treat 300 as if it was a serious historical movie? It’s INTENDED to be a highly stylized and exaggerated adaptation of a highly stylized and exaggerated graphic novel based on a legendary embellishment of actual Greek history – and the entire movie is actually one Spartan soldier telling his comrades a rousing tale of Leonidas’s last stand. Of course the Spartans were lionized and the Persians demonized – it wouldn’t have made sense for him to be rousing his brothers with tales of how they are fighting against what was actually a fairly progressive empire for its time.

    Gladiator’s Maximus isn’t even a real historical figure, and while he’s called “The Spaniard” and lives in Spain he is also a high-ranking Roman citizen – meaning he would almost certainly have been of recent Roman descent, likely from a Roman family that sought its fortunes in Spain – hence, white guy. Yes, Ryse’s characters are all white – but the game is set either in Britannia (which was exclusively white at the time) or among the Legions (Roman citizens) or Roman nobility, which again were almost exclusively white people.

    I’m all for pointing out racism in movies or games, but come on – these are terrible examples for making that point.

  31. I don’t think she was claiming “offence” or anything, just that the fact that the once-painted marble statues being assumed to be white has caused us to assume that all Romans were white and to not appreciate the true ethnic make-up of the Greeks and Romans. They probably chose white marble because that was what was around them and was easy to carve etc. I find it interesting to learn that they were actually once painted, as were the buildings etc. I prefer the unpainted versions because that’s what I’m used to seeing and the colour seems a bit tacky to me!

  32. Ferchrissakes. Can I still print on white paper? Eat vanilla ice cream? Wear white shorts (only before Labor Day, I swear)?

    Sometimes a marble sculpture is just a marble sculpture. Of a penis.

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