Hello, and welcome to the Thin End of the Wedge. The podcast where experts from around the world share new and interesting stories about life in the ancient Middle East. My name is Jon. Each episode, I talk to friends and colleagues, and get them to explain their work in a way we can all understand.
We’re growing used to the idea that the pre-modern world was more colourful than used to be thought. Classical statues and mediaeval cathedrals alike were riots of colour. In Mesopotamia, people typically built with mud bricks. But even in this world, colour was everywhere. Scientific techniques now allow us to recover the meagre traces that survive.
More than that, though, we know how they interpreted what they saw–what colours they had, as it were. It’s not just a case of finding their words for our colours. They classify things differently in the first place. Even more interesting is that we can see the cultural meanings attached to those colours. So we have some understanding what thoughts would have gone through a Mesopotamian’s mind when they saw something blue, for example.
Our guest is responsible for a huge advance in our understanding of colour in Mesopotamia. In 2019, her work was recognised with the International Association for Assyriology’s prize for the best PhD dissertation in the field of assyriology.
So get yourself a cup of tea, make yourself comfortable, and let’s meet today’s guest.
Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge. Thank you for joining us.
Hi, Jon. Thanks for having me.
Can you tell us please: who are you, and what do you do?
My name is Shiyanthi Thavapalan. I’m an assyriologist based at the University of Tübingen in Germany. And I research ancient crafts and technologies and semantics, which is a branch of linguistics which deals with the meaning of words and how they change over time.
When you visit an archaeological site, you encounter a sea of yellowy brown. And when you visit a museum, with rare and spectacular exceptions, you seem to see mostly brown or grey objects. Was ancient Mesopotamia a more colourful place?
Yes, a lot more colourful. And the colours were a lot more brilliant and vivid than you would imagine, given that the only colour artefacts that have survived are often faded away. So you have to imagine that private buildings and public buildings were often painted, sometimes both inside and out. On the outside, you could have something as simple as a lime wash. On the inside you could have … if it was a palace, for instance, you could have sophisticated murals painted by master craftsmen. You know around the second half of the second millennium BCE, the exteriors of palaces and temples were glazed with these huge brick facades. And these are a little bit like Roman mosaics. Sometimes they could be figurative or they could have ornamental designs. Mesopotamian art was very colourful, too, and often multimedia. Stone objects could have faience or glass inlays or metallic elements. Ivories, which were used to decorate furniture, were stained in brilliant colours like red and blue and yellow. Textiles were brilliantly coloured too. The wool was dyed in shades of red, pink, blue, yellow, brown, purple, like all the colours really. And they were embroidered or woven into these beautiful patterns. They could also have beading or metallic sequins. People wore cosmetics, sometimes combined with perfumes. People wore brilliant jewellery. But the problem is that all these colours are really fragile. Unfortunately, the humid climate means that organic materials like textiles and dyed leather have disintegrated. And this is too bad, because this is what the Mesopotamians were famous for–their textiles.
A lot of Mesopotamian architecture is made out of mud brick, but over time the brick shrinks away from the plaster coating that would have paintings, for instance. And then the lime plaster just pops off and falls to the ground and crumbles away. Paint is really sensitive to things like humidity, light and pollutants. Some things are more stable than others. For instance, you often see red and black that survives in paintings. And that’s because these are very stable pigments. The carbon–the black–and the red ochres are quite stable. Metal objects like sculptures of bronze and copper have been looted and melted and recycled. The glazed brick facades have survived, but their colours have been chemically altered. So for instance, there are these beautiful ceramic vessels from the city of Ashur from the second millennium, and everybody knows them because of their brilliant greenish background, body colours, and designs on them. But all those greens were actually blue in ancient time. Glass objects like drinking vessels and bowls and things often have this weathered iridescence on it. All this lost information presents a real challenge for curators of museums to present the Mesopotamian world in colour.
What colours did Mesopotamians see?
Colour really isn’t in light or in objects. Objects reflect certain wavelengths of light, which we perceive and interpret as colours. Now humans can see in a very narrow range. This is called the visible light spectrum. We can’t see infrared light or ultraviolet light. We can’t see x-rays or gamma rays; there are some animals that can. The actual seeing part of colour is done with our eyes and with our brains. Human beings have trichromatic vision. This means that we have three light-sensitive receptors called cone cells in the retina–this is a thin membrane on the back of our eyeballs. And these cone cells regulate how we see colour in the daylight. We have one cone cell for blue, one for green, and one for red. Our brain interprets colours based on the signal sent by these photo-receptors. So for example, if we look at a yellow object, both red and green cone cells are activated and send signals to our brains. Now there are some animals that see the world in colour very differently. Bees and butterflies, for instance, have four cone cells, so they see a much broader spectrum of colours. And they can also see ultraviolet colours. And apparently the mantis shrimp–now don’t ask me how scientists know this–but the mantis shrimp has 16 colour receptive cone cells. This means that they are 10 times more sensitive to colour than human beings. What I want to say with all of this is how we see colour is more or less the same as how the Mesopotamians would have seen colours a few thousand years ago.
But, and here’s the thing: how the mind conceives of colour as a sensory experience, which aspects we pay attention to, how we encode this experience using language, using art, how we categorise colour, group them into sequences, all these things are culturally primed.
So I take it that you are a native English speaker, am I right?
Yeah, that’s right.
My native language is Tamil. Now in both of our languages, there’s an abstract word for colour. For us colour is more or less defined based on four qualities: hue (so that’s whether something is red or green, for instance); brightness (how light or dark something is); saturation (how pure the hue is); and tone (how much white or black a colour contains). This is how we define colour. It doesn’t really matter when we’re describing colour whether an object is animate or inanimate; whether it has a particular texture or pattern.
But decades of research by cognitive linguists have shown that this is not really true in all languages. The Dani people in New Guinea, for instance, when they describe colour, they include qualities like softness, or glossiness. People who speak the Hanunoo language in the Philippines–for them, it’s really important whether an object is dry or kind of wet or succulent. What about Akkadian? Well, colour for Akkadian speakers was a part of the characteristic qualities that they knew in the world, what they saw around them. Sometimes they described it as the skin or as the face of an object.
They could also use things like similes and metaphors to describe colour. We do this too. So for instance, they describe one stone as looking like the neck of the tortoise. So here you see both hue and patterns are part of the colour language. There’s another description of a stone, probably a pearl, as looking like the stork’s neck. So probably an iridescence is what’s being referred to here. How they spoke about colour tells us about which qualities of colour they paid attention to and appreciated. My work has shown that, for instance, they were fascinated with the contrast of different hues, and changeability of colour in different light and in different angles. The other thing is that the quality of brightness was really important. So words like dim, dark, dazzling, shining, translucent, these were part of their regular colour vocabulary. Now, for us, this sounds strange, because dark is an adjective that we use to describe a colour. You could have something that is dark red or light blue, right?
So let’s try and summarise with an example. So, Jon, imagine that I gave you three marbles. One marble is light blue, the other marble is dark blue, and the third is green. I’m going to ask you to divide this into two groups by colour. How would you do that?
Well, I’d instinctively put the blues together in one pile and the green in another.
Exactly. That’s how most English speakers would do it, because hue is the most important category of colour for us. When we categorise colour, we prioritise it over other qualities. But for an Akkadian speaker, whether something was light or dark was more important. Now let’s say I give you a black marble. Where would you put that marble?
Hmm, that’s a tricky one. I might put it with the dark blue one. It depends how dark your green one is, though.
Yeah, that’s what the Mesopotamians would choose. They would put it in the dark categories. They would separate the dark blue on one side, and the black would belong into this category too; and the light blue and the green in the other. So even though the Mesopotamians saw colour in the same way as we do, their colour vocabulary focuses on different qualities of colour.
How do we know about ancient colour?
Well, we can answer this question based on many kinds of ancient evidence that we have. I’ve already told you a little bit about the particularities of the Akkadian colour language. But then we have these wonderful recipe texts for instance. These are step by step instructions of how craftsman exploited minerals and plants and animal matters to make colour. The glass recipes are the best of all. They tell us how glassmakers experimented with adding various kinds of metallic ores like lead, copper, cobalt, manganese, iron, into melting silica in order to create brilliant colours in faience and glass. And they even were able to manipulate the tones and shades of colour by for instance, varying the amount of lead or changing the atmosphere inside the glassmaking furnace.
Then we have things like day to day documents, work orders and receipts. And these kinds of documents give us the nitty gritty details about the production and circulation of colourful objects. We could learn for instance, about how dyers and painters acquired their raw materials, how much they used for a particular project, how much it cost, how they treated it. Then we have the evidence of objects themselves. There has been a lot of chemical analysis done on paint on glass, frit and faience, for instance, to see what kind of ingredients, what kind of raw materials were used to make these objects, and where exactly the colour was coming from. Experimental archaeology allows us to recreate some of these decorative techniques to see how did they get that pattern? How did they paint these? How do they get these woven designs on glass bowls for instance.
And then we have the question of how the Mesopotamians assigned meaning to colour. And here again, we need both the texts and the objects. We know for instance, that the Mesopotamians were very fond of making amulet necklaces, with shells, stones and metal beads. But there are also magical texts that tell us exactly in which sequence to string these beads, and certain sequences protected you against certain things, or were a cure against certain diseases. There are also omen texts. And these can tell us how specific features of observed natural phenomena like the colours of the rainbows or clouds on a particular day could be interpreted as messages from the gods. So there are tons of ways of looking at this question.
What was the relationship between materials and colours?
Well, today we experience colours as abstract, individual, limitless. Colours are not really bound to material. They’re infinitely comparable. We can reproduce them in large quantities in pure states. With a projector, for example, we can produce a swatch of yellow colour that covers an entire wall. And the swatch no matter where you look will be unvarying in hue and tone or saturation. These kinds of pure abstracted expressions of colour were not common in Mesopotamia, and certainly not easy to produce. Colours were experienced through real world materials. So the materiality of colourful substances, the sheen, the reflectivity, the patterns, the combination of colours, textures, even smells associated with these objects, shapes, ideas about those colours themselves. So ideas about colours were bound up with materials. The colours of precious minerals like lapis lazuli, and carnelian, could index ideas like exotic, expensive, rare or royal. Psychologists call this “priming”. Even in English things are not very different. Think about gold. It’s really difficult to think of the colour gold without linking it to ideas of luxury or superiority.
Another particular aspect of the Mesopotamian colour sentence is that they enjoyed colours and intricate combinations and patterns rather than individually. So if you look at Assyrian and Babylonian fashion, the colourful parts are these woven or embroidered pieces. Blue and red, for instance, was a really popular combination. And like many cultures, the fashion designers took a bit of inspiration for their designs from the colours and patterns that they found in nature–of precious stones, shells and metals. So it’s really unsurprising that the names of these substances was also an important part of the Akkadian language.
What did they get their pigments from?
Mesopotamians mainly used earth pigments. So these are pigments that you can get from rocks and stones and clay. If they use lake pigments–so things that come from berries, things like beetroot, plant material like madder, or pomegranate skins–these kinds of things haven’t really been detected in the archaeological record. But that may be because they simply haven’t survived. But anyway, there were a few earth pigments that were really commonly used, because they were locally available. This includes yellow and red ochre, which you can get from clay, that was available everywhere by the riverside. If the clay was rich in iron, it would be more reddish, and this is called haematite. Alternatively, you can also take yellow clay and heat it to make it red. They produced white pigments with chalk, which is calcium carbonate. This you can get from limestone, which was again locally available. You could make white with gypsum as well. Black again was very easy, because you could just make black pigment out of charcoal or burnt bone or soot.
Blue on the other hand was a bit tricky, because there are not many natural substances, minerals or earth, that is vivid blue. So the Mesopotamians, basically, synthetically produced their own blue pigment. We call this pigment “Egyptian blue”, but most the Mesopotamians probably invented it first. And Egyptian blue is basically made by melting silica, alkali–which you can get from certain kinds of plants that grow in salt environments and calcium–and then you add a little bit of copper to it. It’s this copper that gives it this blue colour. So you take this glass melt, you let it cool, and you grind it down, purify it, and then you get this blue pigment. Now the color of Egyptian blue can vary. It can be kind of a light pale blue, or this royal blue. You can vary the colour by changing the way you heat the melt, by grinding it more finely, or by changing the thickness of the application of the paint.
There were a few other pigments that were probably important: things like cinnabar, which was a beautiful red; orpiment, a bright golden yellow; and other lead-based pigments. It’s not really clear where the Mesopotamians got these pigments from, because this information hasn’t been recorded in any textual records. But it’s very likely that they came from Iran, because these pigments occur with other minerals that we know were imported from Iran.
But then when we’re talking about paint, it’s not enough to just think about pigments, because in order to make paint, you have to mix it with a whole bunch of other ingredients. And we don’t really know in which proportions the Mesopotamians mixed these materials, and which materials they actually use. So to make a paint, you need what’s called a “binder”. This is what holds everything together. Mesopotamians probably used animal glue for this. But it’s also possible to use gum arabic. So any kind of plant gum, or egg yolk, or even different kinds of oils. But again, because of the humidity, these materials have disintegrated. So we don’t really know which binder they used.
Then aside from that, you need something to keep the paint moist. This is called a humectant. You can use honey for this, but we don’t know if that’s what they did. You need an emulsifier to give the paint a little bit of volume and liquid; something like water or vinegar would work. And you need something to decrease the viscosity of all these materials. So Mesopotamian craftsmen probably had different kinds of recipes. And probably different groups of craftsmen had their own secret recipes of making various paints. And sometimes, you know, even a red paint could have two different pigments, two different kinds of red pigments mixed together to produce a particular shade. We don’t really have a lot of this information, unfortunately.
What about purple?
As far as I could see, they did that by layering blue and red. So at Yale, we have these Assyrian reliefs and you know, these genie figures have these wonderful sandals. And the sandals look like they’re painted red. But again, that’s because it’s only the red paint that survived. But when we did the Egyptian blue test with infrared light, this visible induced light photography, there was blue pigment on top of it, except so much of it had just fallen off that couldn’t really see the purply effect any more. So I think their idea was to have purple sandals.
Have you experimented? I mean, have you tried to make paints from these materials?
I tried this in a workshop when I was at Brown last year. And I couldn’t get a lot of the pigments, because they get quite expensive. And it takes a long time to make the pigments. So I chose the ochres, yellow and red ochre, and I used cinnabar, malachite, and a few other pigments. And I tried it with my students using different kinds of binders. So animal glue, egg yolk, and we used linseed oil, and honey. We tried to make oil paints, to make watercolour paints, to make glue based paints. And we tried them. And it makes such a huge difference, because also depending on what you’re painting, whether it’s stone, or whether it’s a piece of wood or paper. For instance, if you don’t add the right proportions of the honey or the oil, your paint will never dry. Or if you don’t add enough of them, your paint becomes really dry. And as you touch your hands on it, it’ll just come off. So it’s really complicated.
I imagine it also makes a difference what sort of climate you’re in.
If you have a dry environment, it makes a big difference for your paint. And the other thing that we realised is that you have to constantly have a way to keep your materials heated. So if you’re using animal glue, you have to have a small fire to keep it heated. Otherwise, you can’t really keep making paint and work. So there must have been a whole setup that each of these little working groups must have had.
What did colours mean in Mesopotamia?
Oh, that’s such a complicated question. Well, simply put: a lot. The colours of a decorated room could evoke feelings of luxury and harmony. The colours of a beautifully made up woman could make her look sexy, irresistible, dangerous even. There’s this wonderful poem about the love goddess Ishtar from the second millennium BCE, in which she’s described as clothed in charm. She is adorned with seductiveness, cosmetics, and appeal. Her colours are beautiful, her eyes shimmering and iridescent. Then there are things like scientific texts. And here, colour was thought to be a key part of the external appearance of things. And through the colours, you could identify a material’s inherent properties.
And there were some people, experts, who were especially knowledgeable about these matters. And they could read these signs, which could reveal how human beings could exploit these materials for their purposes to cure diseases or prevent disasters. In medicine, for instance, just like today, colour was a key part of diagnosing diseases. Physicians came up with spectrums to chart normal and abnormal symptoms. My favourite is the urine colour scale. They had a colour scale to describe all the possible colours of your urine and what the symptom could mean. So they had red, wine coloured, pale yellow, green, black, black water, dark, tamarind juice coloured, glue coloured, milky, cloudy and thick, and yellow leather coloured. Now I’ll let you guess which colours were not so great.
The other thing I’d like to emphasize is that when you experience colours in built spaces, this experience was synesthetic, which means that different senses work together to create a kind of multi-sensory experience. What do I mean by this? Well think about the cinema. When you go to watch a film, you know that sight and sound work together. The barriers between these two senses are broken down. And when you have a really good cinematic experience, there’s a harmony between these senses. So if we want to talk about the meaning of colour on Assyrian sculpture, for example, and these sculptures that you know, were placed inside the rooms of palaces, this is not just a visual experience. They have to be experienced in the kind of flickering soft, yellowish, glowing firelight that lit up the rooms of these palaces. When you look up, you would have seen the upper parts of the walls and ceilings and columns all covered in these wonderful painted ornamental designs. But you also wouldn’t have been able to see everything. Imagine a kind of theatre of reflections and shadows. This is where the beauty of colour lay: in how it interacts with the light.
And there are other design elements of the reliefs that deliberately were chosen to create a sense of animation. The colours enliven the figures. And then you have these repetitive motifs that make you move forward, that draws the viewer onwards, encasing him in a kind of infinity. There were smells, perfumed oils, incense, the smell of different kinds of polished wood. There were sounds, people, music, animals, Diffused in some areas, maybe with textiles, or more manifest in others like in the open courtyards. So the Mesopotamian sensorial experience was synesthetic. But it was also active, and projective. Beautiful materials like I’ve been talking about could heal, they could be intoxicating, they could protect you. When the Assyrian kings talk about the effect of the colourful palaces that they build, they say that they built these palaces for their lordly pleasure, and that they created awesome wonder among the people of the land.
How can we follow your work?
Well, you can follow my work through academia.edu. I put up my publish articles on this website. And several of these are aimed at a more general audience. So they’re things like museum catalogues and general readership work. So this is a good place to start.
And if anyone wants more detail, you do have a book on the subject, don’t you?
Yes, I just published a book called The Meaning of Color in Ancient Mesopotamia. I mean, it promises quite a lot. I would start with the conclusion, and then see where you want to go.
What are you working on now?
My current research is a little bit related to what I did before. But it’s about the idea of imitations. So when I worked on colour, I realised that one of the reasons that the colour vocabulary expands in Mesopotamia is because of all these technologies for producing and imitating colours. So now I’m looking at the larger idea of mimicry, and imitation in Mesopotamian thought. And I wanted to try and figure out what does this do to a society? What does it mean when you have objects that are reproduced, imitated, and mimicked? What does it mean when you have authentic things and things that are supposedly fakes or knockoffs? Is there a division between these things? Was there a division between natural things and man-made things? How did Mesopotamians deal with these changes and challenges in their material culture?
Thank you very much.
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