Originally published in STIR®
Color proves to be the key clue in a 2,500-year-old mystery surrounding the identity of an ancient Greek statue.

In 1867, tons of broken statuary – buried for more than 2,500 years – was unearthed by a team of German archeologists, who had opened up the Acropolis of Athens for methodical excavation. Among the ruins was a strikingly serene female face with a head of long, intricate curls. A secret seemed to play about the smile of this Attica Mona Lisa.

When the statue was eventually reconfigured, it stood 1.18 meters high and became known as the Peplos Kore (translated as “maiden wearing a robe”). While traces of blue, green and red pigments on the statue indicated it had once been elaborately painted – the statue's long hair was a vibrant chestnut – the Peplos Kore initially gained fame for its pale, almost otherworldly, marble sheen. Even as the field of archaeology continued to develop and scholars learned more about the context in which it and the other statuary were originally created, it would still take more than a century to uncover the truth of the statue's identity – a mystery solved by color.

A bit of history

Carved around 530 B.C.E. during the Archaic Period, the Peplos Kore belonged to the time of the Greater Panathenaia, the most important and grandest festival in honor of the city's patron goddess, Athena. After intense athletic and musical competitions, the best-looking citizens marched to the Acropolis to present Athena with a peplos, a rectangular garment that was wrapped around the body and fastened with pins at the shoulders. (Yes, they dressed a statue.) Young women devoted to this cult had statues dedicated in their honor, so scholars assumed that the Peplos Kore represented the daughter of a wealthy Athenian wearing a peplos.

Then, in 480 B.C.E., the vibrant atmosphere of Athens was cut short by a disastrous war with Persia. Sparta's finest warriors held off the Persians just long enough for the city to be evacuated.

When the Athenians were finally able to return to the city, they found the Acropolis in complete ruin; they vowed never to rebuild. But 33 years later, the great statesmen Pericles persuaded the popular assembly to do so, as a lasting testament to the glory of democratic Athens and its empire. So, they buried the smashed statuary on site and erected the magnificent Parthenon in 432 B.C.E.

Color's return and role

In 1975, the Museum of Classical Archaeology in Cambridge, England, received a plaster copy of the Peplos Kore. Curator Robert Cook, extrapolating from drawings made when the statue was first excavated, painted the plaster copy's garment deep red and the front of her skirt with several columns of green and blue geometric shapes. While Cook's bold move – designed to shake up centuries of misinterpretation – was admirable, his color interpretation was not historically accurate. “Cook was not working directly with pigments from the original piece,” notes Professor Vinzenz Brinkmann, a pioneer in ancient polychromy. “He was not able to see certain traces.”

Two years later, celebrated archaeologist Brunhilde Ridgeway examined a different clue: the mismatch between the delicate head and the cruder torso. “Ridgeway hypothesized that the statue might be a citation of an older form,” Brinkmann explains. “Possibly a cult statue of a goddess, either Athena or Artemis.” The plot thickened.

But it was Brinkmann and his team, using the latest UV techniques and special fiber optics, who finally found proof of the statue's original identity. There were considerably more colors on the dress than previously detected. The biggest revelation – achieved using extreme raking light (the technical term for light that falls on a surface from the side at a very low angle) – was an intricate pattern of animal figures running down the center column of her outer garment. Each frieze featured silhouetted beasts (lions, griffins, ibexes, panthers) against a deep red background.

These startling color details revealed the figure was dressed not in a peplos as first thought, but in an ependytes, a close-fitting, richly ornamented tunic that originated in East Asia. It was a luxury item, worn only by aristocrats or in depictions of gods. Therefore, the Peplos Kore was neither a kore, nor dressed in a peplos.

“The ependytes proves the statue is not an image of an Attica girl,” reports Brinkmann. “We later discovered drill holes in the hand and hair, as though she was wearing a feather crown. Based on other images of the goddess, I'm quite positive she represents Artemis.”

When Brinkmann went the extra step of displaying painted replicas of the statue in the exhibit “Gods in Color: Painted Sculpture of Classical Antiquity,” laypeople and scholars were shocked. “Tacky,” “kitsch” and “awful” were typical responses of viewers who were used to their Greek statues white and pristine, and who didn't appreciate having their certainties challenged.

Brinkmann wasn't surprised, and he admits even he has trouble accepting just how much color the Greeks really used. The greatest obstacle to uncovering the divine identity of the misnamed Peplos Kore was not scientific, he explains, but rather the human factor.

“Applying UV, microscopy – that's all standard stuff. But there's an incredible reluctance to accept ornament and color on the surface [of these statues].” When archaeologists examine ancient objects, perceptual biases immediately kick in, making it difficult to see clearly, explains Brinkmann. “The modern person has a very restricted time frame before perception closes again. It's an astonishing process. Perception is highly subjective. You have to return to these statues again and again. You always find new evidence.”

This statue, broken and buried in the dirt, speaks to the spirit of a civilization. The true colors of the Peplos Kore express just how vibrant the Greek experiment in democracy really was – a culture, much like any other, that made itself up as it went along.