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Color and Gilding in Achaemenid Architecture and Sculpture

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores the use of color and gilding on Achaemenid sculpture and architectural relief. The analytical methods used to detect microscopic traces of pigment and to analyze the composition of ancient pigments are described, as is the terminology of color in Elamite and Old Persian. The history of scholarship on color on Achaemenid monuments is reviewed, revealing that many instances of preserved pigment have been observed during the past few centuries. Case studies are presented of color on the façade of Darius I’s tomb at Naqsh-e Rustam and of pigments adhering to painters’ bowls from the Apadana at Persepolis.

Keywords: color, gilding, Achaemenids, sculpture, pigments, Persepolis, Naqsh-e Rustam, Apadana


The importance of an overarching and systematic integration of the study of color in all of its many aspects (e.g., transmissions of knowledge of pigment production and ground layer preparation from earlier generations; architectural paint research as part of building analysis, preservation, and conservation; Achaemenid Persian aesthetics) is only just emerging from the scholarly shadows. The earliest prehistoric traces of recognizable, distinctive, ancient Iranian polychromatic cultures from the sixth millennium BC already bear the signs of a culture that would become deeply invested in the use of pigments and surface applications. Highly advanced technologies of metal and glass production attested at scientifically excavated sites from the early first millennium BC in Iran and the application of paints on the sculptures and monuments of Elam suggest that the production of pigments developed alongside other technologies. As stressed in material culture studies in recent years, color is an important yet little explored tool in studying early societies around the world (Young 2006). This is especially true in the case of architecture and sculpture, yet in every premodern society, decorative finishing played a crucial part in the sensory experiences of those who lived with or visited buildings and monuments. While evidence of these embellishments is in many cases scarce, there are important traces of color in Achaemenid Persian palace architecture, as will be shown in this chapter.

(p. 597) Analytical Methods

Today, there are excellent research facilities and laboratories in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Furthermore, museum collections around the world house fragments of Achaemenid Persian sculpture and pigments and allow access to experts for pigment analysis and identification. Techniques of pigment analysis include scanning electron microscopy with energy dispersive X-ray analysis (SEM/EDX) and Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy. Often, fairly small samples suffice to produce reliable results. In many cases one can identify pigments by matching them with existing samples in other scientific collections or databases, such as the Forbes pigment collection (Carriveau and Omecinsky 1983; There are also nondestructive methods for identifying specific pigments such as Egyptian blue, and it is hoped that these can be applied more widely in the future (see, e.g., Verri 2009).

By their very nature, mineral-based pigments fade, change color, and disappear completely over time. For this reason the rendering of color reconstructions that satisfy the public’s curiosity to see the way a monument “really looked” can be challenging. There are also challenges in verbally describing colors and hues in the archaeological record in ways that do not embed assumptions that cannot be sustained by the actual evidence. For many years the Munsell Color System has been used as a standard reference for describing hue in archaeological materials (e.g., ceramics, glass). The objectivity of this standard of reference has, however, been questioned (Gerharz et al. 1986). Thus, at the present time, much ambiguity exists in descriptions and discussions of what scholars see on ancient monuments as they now appear. Standardization of description, however, should be a goal, and efforts have been made to resolve this problem by employing colorimeters (Strudwick 1991). This underscores the importance of sample studies. By identifying chemical elements in samples that “produced” these hues, communication problems and the complexities of an objective measuring system can be partly resolved (Braenne 2009; Bregnhoi and Christensen 2009; Vandenabeele et al. 2009).

On the Concept of Polychromy and Some Theoretical Remarks

The modern term polychromy applied in studies of color and paint is derived from the ancient Greek word polychrómatos, which simply means many-colored or multicolored. It is important to note, however, that an equivalent term has yet to be identified in Ancient Near Eastern (including Iranian) and Egyptian texts, although we have plenty of color terms in, for example, ancient Iranian languages (Rossi 1996, 2006). Since the (p. 598) term polychromy in its basic lexical sense of many-colored is so broad, it can legitimately embrace, for the Achaemenid Persian court environment, myriad media. Besides painted wooden beams (for recently analyzed painted wooden beams discovered in Achaemenid Anatolia, see Summerer and Kienlin 2010) and wall paintings, these media included multicolored dyed and woven textiles as well as glazed brick reliefs and tiles, stucco, architectural and sculptural details made of other materials (e.g., stone), glass, and inlays, in short almost everything that belonged in an Achaemenid Persian palace and expressed the “rhetoric of abundance” considered characteristic of palaces in the Ancient Near East more generally (Winter 2003). As is evident on the extant sculpted façades of the palaces of Pasargadae, Persepolis, and Susa, aside from paints and gilding, craftsmen made use of other materials like gold, silver, and lapis lazuli to emphasize specific parts of a sculpture, such as hair, beards, or ornamented jewellery. How do the concept and process of polychromy (as generally applied to the coloring of preformed, modeled compositions) then relate to the concept and process of applying paints to walls in the form of murals?

From the craftsman’s perspective, the raw materials of painted color (minerals, pigments, and binders) and the process of applying them to relief sculpture, statuary in the round, and wall painting are nearly identical. There is no reason to believe that the tools used to apply paints to walls and stone reliefs were different, and it has been observed that the “techniques of polychromy on sculpture often parallel those of two-dimensional painting in the same culture” (Marincola 2004: 1319). Particularly in the case of Neo-Assyrian palace art, one of the main predecessors of Achaemenid Persian palace art, Moorey (1994: 35) argued for the “close relationship of painter and sculptor,” noting that the Neo-Assyrian palace reliefs were in fact “two-dimensional drawings rendered in relief,” and that “it is likely that their execution was influenced from the outset by the techniques of wall painting … The design would be sketched in, in ink, then the background cut away” (Moorey 1994: 35; cf. Moortgat 1959: 130–31). Moorey further remarked that the palette of colors used on relief sculpture and murals in Neo-Assyrian palaces was identical (1994: 326). The same applied in Achaemenid Persia, as recent studies of pigments and materials in wall paintings and on stone sculpture prove (see below). It is well known that wall paintings appeared directly above painted reliefs in the very same Neo-Assyrian palace interiors (Albenda 2005; Guralnick 2010). Wall paintings and painted reliefs must be considered part of one production process, the result of which was an integrated, polychromatic program.

A close connection between polychromatic murals and architectural reliefs is well attested at both Persepolis and Susa. Excavations at Susa in the 1970s revealed the remains of full-scale mural paintings (Labrousse and Boucharlat 1974; Boucharlat 2010: 402–3, figs. 466–9), rendering the motif of gift-bearers from the subject lands which echoed at approximately the same scale the famous carved stone reliefs on the Apadana at Persepolis. Crossovers between reliefs in stone (originally painted) at Persepolis and Susa are attested abundantly at both sites in colorful glazed brick relief and equally colorful, flat glazed tiles. The motif of servant carrying vessels and containers up staircases at Susa is a prominent example of this in all three media, and it would seem that there was no distinction between what motifs and scales of production were appropriate (p. 599) for polychrome renderings in mural work, glazed brick, and glazed brick relief. With respect to technical production (as opposed to decorative concept), Caubet compared the mode of application of polychromy on glazed bricks at Susa to the cloisonné technique of jewelry manufacture (Muscarella et al. 1992: 223).

The so-called Alexander Sarcophagus, excavated at Sidon (Lebanon) in 1887 and dated to the late fourth century BC, combines deeply carved, relief sculpture, with remnants of lavish polychromy and motifs painted on the interiors of the shields of the sculpted Persian warriors in the manner of miniature murals (Graeve 1970: 102–9; Brinkmann 2007: 154, figs. 284–7) directly inspired by Achaemenid monumental sculpture at Persepolis. We also know that at Persepolis paint was used to create patterns and motifs on certain architectural reliefs which, in other instances, were rendered in carved form. The walking lions, for instance, carved in low relief on the royal baldachins of the original central panels of the Apadana and the doorjambs of the Hall of 100 Columns, can be compared with the walking lions in paint that once decorated the throne-covers and royal robes preserved as incised painters’ guidelines on figures from the Hall of 100 Columns, the main Hall of the Harem building and the Tripylon (Tilia 1978: figs. 3, 39–40; Schmidt 1953, pl. 105; Nagel 2010). All of these observations reinforce the impression of craft interconnectivity in the sphere of polychromatic vision, design, and implementation at the Achaemenid Persian court.

Questions of Terminology in Elamite and Old Persian

The terminology used for relevant craft techniques at the Achaemenid Persian court was ambiguous, fluid, and hardly restrictive. Comparative anthropological studies of other premodern societies suggest that knowledge of pigment production and gilding techniques was part of the oral tradition of experts and craftsmen, often in closed circles. How would the ancient inhabitants of Achaemenid Iran have referred to the images created by applying paint on sculptures? The Old Persian term patikarā was translated by Kent as “picture, (sculptured) likeness” (Kent 1953: 194; cf. Cameron 1958: 166; Roaf 1980) and by Gershevitch as “counterfeit, re-production” (Roaf 1980: 73, n. 5). The word is rooted in the idea of likeness, not in the technique of sculpture per se. Kent’s parenthetical suggestion of sculptured likeness was inferred from the fact that, in extant Achaemenid texts, the word refers to sculptural monuments. Patikarā is used in the inscriptions of Darius I at Bisotun (DB IV 66, ll. 72–77; Kent 1953: 132; Schmitt 1991: 72) and Naqsh-e Rustam (DNa 4, ll. 30–47, Kent 1953: 138), where it refers to the representational imagery on the two monuments (which in both cases happen to be rock reliefs). However, in discussing the terminology for sculptors and sculptures at the Achaemenid court, Roaf (1980: 65) argued correctly that the term patikarā must be interpreted like Akkadian salmu, which “had a similarly wide range of meanings: statue, relief, drawing.” (p. 600) Evidence from other Achaemenid texts does not provide a great deal more information that would allow us to see distinctions between techniques of wall painting versus painted relief sculpture versus polychrome-decorated glazed bricks in the rendering of “likeness” (for a variety of texts, see Nagel 2010).

Elamite administrative documents from Persepolis cast light on the subject in a context that was not governed by ideologically driven rhetoric. PT 27 (reign of Artaxerxes I, 462/1 BC) refers to “makers of inlay, makers of reliefs (?)” (Kuhrt 2007: 788, no. 19) and is interesting in that it unites two crafts in a reference to what appears to be a single work project. Several texts in the Persepolis Fortification archive refer to craftsmen, sometimes making explicit distinctions between types of crafts engaged in the decoration of Persepolis. Hallock translated El. karsup as “painter” (PF 1110, 1111, 1169 = Hallock 1969: 711). Cameron El. hatena hutira (PT 78) as “ornament maker,” whereas Hallock suggested a “mirror maker” (Kuhrt 2007: 789, no. 21). El. beasiskurraspe (PT 30, PT 62) was understood as “ornament maker” by Hallock (1969: 677; 1959: 99–100). A “plasterer” (?) is perhaps attested as El. du-uk-kaš (PT 49a = Cameron and Gershevitch 1965: 175; PT 76:5 = Hallock 1969: 682; PT 10a = Arfa’i 2008). Gold- and silversmiths are also mentioned (PF 872 = Kuhrt 2007: 794, no. 29; PF 874 = Kuhrt 2007: 795–6, no. 33). The evidence reinforces the general impression that the Achaemenid court considered the production of various forms of ornamentation as part of a larger whole. Distinct specialties that contributed to the polychromy of the whole surely existed (such as inlay work vs. relief carving), but at the level of payments and disbursements, a craftsman employed in applying paints or surface décor was a craftsman to a large degree.

Ancient Texts

Colorful columns and reliefs adorning the walls of the palaces in Babylon are mentioned in the Bible and Classical texts. According to Ezekiel 23: 14–15 (perhaps recording scenarios of the sixth century BC) in the palaces of Babylon “there were men portrayed on the walls, the images of the Chaldaens portrayed with vermilion, girded with girdles upon their loins, exceeding in dyed attire upon their heads, all of them princes to look to, after the manner of the Babylonians at Chaldaea.” According to Strabo, the Babylonians “wind ropes of twisted reed around the columns and then they plaster them and paint them with colors” (Strabo, Geog. 16.5.1).

Although the palaces and royal buildings in the Achaemenid heartland in Fars and Khuzestan were colorful throughout, there is surprisingly little Classical testimony that talks about color in relation to Achaemenid imperial built environments. Non-Oriental sources took note of colors in the Orient, but were often unspecific: the multicolored rings of fortifications at Ecbatana, the old capital of the Median Empire, were described by Herodotus (Hist. 1.98) in some detail and from a late source we are informed about the rich ornamentation of the palaces at Ecbatana. Polybius (10.27) stated that the woodwork in the palace “was all of cedar and cypress, but no part of it was left exposed, (p. 601) and the rafters, the compartments of the ceiling, and the columns in the porticoes and colonnades were plated with either silver or gold, and all the tiles were silver.” Herodotus claims to have seen a mural painting, commissioned by Darius’ engineers, depicting the bridge built by Darius I across the Bosporus showing “the whole bridge, with King Darius sitting in a seat of honor, and his army engaged in passage” (Hist. 4.88). Referring to the fourth century BC author Chares of Mytilene, Athenaeus (Sophists at Dinner 12.575) commented on “replicas of paintings of a famous myth of a Median princess and an Iranian ruler that can be found in temples and palaces, even in private dwellings” of the non-Greeks inhabiting the empire. Beyond these comments, though, the essential omission of references to color on Achaemenid monuments in the literary sources is an indication of a general silence on (lack of interest in?) colors in architectural and sculptural display that we get from most Classical authors. When Classical or Biblical texts refer to color it is usually to textiles. According to Esther 1: 16, for instance, the Persian king at Susa held a feast in the court of the garden of the royal palace, which was filled with “white, green, and blue hangings, fastened with cords of fine linen and purple to silver rings and pillars of marble; the beds (couches) were of gold and silver upon a pavement of red and blue, and of white and black marble.” Plutarch wrote that Alexander found at Susa some 5000 talents of porphyra hermionike, “purple from Hermione,” which had been stored for 190 years and “was still fresh in color” (Alexander 36.36).

Early Modern Observations on Polychromy

Surface applications and décor were early on observed and documented on the visible stone monuments of Achaemenid Persia (Nagel 2010, 2011). These early observations are critical pieces of information for us, for several reasons. On the one hand, they supply precious data on the original appearance of monuments before many fragile vestiges of pigments and overlays disappeared. On the other hand, they offer valuable instruction on several issues of which we must be aware. That a specific early traveler did not comment on surface coatings does not necessarily mean that these were not there when he visited. It may just not have seemed important or interesting to him. In other cases, a specific traveler may not indicate on which structures he saw the traces of paint that he refers to in his writing or “documents” in a visual presentation. In some cases, evidence expressed in written form may have been meant to serve a different purpose than the same early observer’s characterization in the form of a graphic or other visual display. Finally, we cannot be sure if what may have appeared to an early observer as colorant may not have been remains of dust, vestiges of natural deterioration processes, or the like.

In one of the earliest preserved modern descriptions, Thomas Herbert (1606–1682), who visited Persepolis in 1630, described what appeared to him as gold inlays (1634: 59), although his comments were later considered fantastic (Weld-Blundell 1893: 557). Yet Herbert was not the only one to remark on what appeared to be gilding on stone reliefs; (p. 602) only two generations later, in December 1685, Engelbert Kaempfer (1651–1716) visited the ruins at Naqsh-e Rustam and Persepolis and remarked specifically on the embellishment of inscriptions in cuneiform letters, apparently filled with metal (Kaempfer 1712: 338). According to Wiesehöfer (1991: 85), Kaempfer was specifically referring to the inscriptions of Darius on the south side of the Terrace (DPg). Gold in cuneiform letters carved on architectural surfaces on the Persepolis Takht is also mentioned by the French travelers André Daulier-Deslandes (1654–1719) and Jean Chardin (1643–1713).

More detailed comments on preserved polychromy were made by travelers who visited Persepolis in the nineteenth century: the Englishman James Buckingham (1786–1855) asserted (1829 1: 493), without further elaboration, that “the sculpture at Persepolis was also painted, mostly in blue, a favourite color of Egypt, but sometimes in black and in yellow.” Charles Texier (1802–1871), who visited the Takht of Persepolis and Naqsh-e Rustam in January, 1840, can be considered the father of modern polychromy studies in Achaemenid archaeology. Not only was he the first to place the Achaemenid Persian monuments and reliefs in the broader context of Ancient Near Eastern building traditions, he was also the first to pay systematic attention to the surface embellishments of the monuments at Persepolis, providing a full set of observations on polychromy. It took another twelve years before these observations were published (1852). For example, after examining a particular relief depicting a king and two servants he noted,

When I had to draw the figure of the king, followed by his two servants, I had to admit the certain, irrefutable presence of the paint of the bas-reliefs. Indeed I saw under the surface coating, which is nowadays as polished as a mirror, rosettes lightly drawn with a stylus, and that could only be the outline of a painted ornament on the coating; I saw the same ornament on the servants’ hats. The king’s tiara, as we know it today, is only a massive cylinder-shaped item; but we notice two holes on it that were used to seal a more decorated headgear made of bronze or a more precious metal. This one element would prove by itself that the sculpture was polychrome. Had the coating been designed to bear only one color, the ornaments that cover it would have been raised patterns, like the rosettes around the bas-reliefs; drawing simple ornaments on the sculptures with a chisel was never one of the ancient craftsmen’s habits.

(Texier 1852: 188–9)

Texier was also the first person to use a chemical technique to get “behind” the materials employed on the surface. He experimented with acid in order to identify the components of the surface finishing. Thus, he wrote,

In another bas-relief, I identified the coating I previously mentioned, which had a blackish appearance; I scraped the stone smoothly, and dissolved the dust in hydrochloric acid, as I had kept a little box of reagents. I obtained a gray residue, and threw it in a pipe that contained ammonia, and twenty-four hours later I obtained a beautiful blue-colored solution. It was, without any doubt, an application of blue ash, the base of which is copper, and which was used as an ointment on the sculptures.

(Texier 1852: 189)

(p. 603) Although he did not leave a published record of which part of which relief he subjected to analysis, Texier made a color reconstruction of a Persepolis relief depicting a king with two attendants (Texier 1852: pl. 111). Furthermore, in what became one of the most vivid and iconic modern reconstructions of the polychromy of Achaemenid Persepolis, Texier created a stunning, original portrayal of this relief in a chromolithograph. The rendering is quite faithful in composition and iconography to a motif well known from palace doorjambs on the Takht. The figures are set against a blue background. All details, including skin and hair, are deliberately covered with paint; there is no part of the relief where the stone itself shows through. The garments and headdresses are elaborately embellished. In the accompanying text, Texier stated that his reconstruction was based on observations of a number of reliefs, all depicting the same subject, though he admitted that his reconstructions did not necessarily approximate the original colors (Texier 1852: 188–90, 222). Texier’s attention to polychromy as a key element on the remaining monuments of Persepolis was prescient in many respects. This episode is also an interesting attestation of the notion of “scientific” analysis at this early date, even though Texier’s methods and results cannot today be used to verify the originally intended color.

By contrast, Eugène Flandin (1809–1871), a painter, and his architect-companion Pascal Coste (1787–1879) visited Persepolis only a year after Texier (December 1840 to early 1841), and their extensive documentation does not include any comments on traces of pigments on the standing remains there (Flandin and Coste 1851: 134–5). This is all the more remarkable in view of their profession.

Despite the practice of displaying painted plaster casts of Ancient Near Eastern monuments in both public and private collections during the nineteenth century, there is only one documented case of an attempt to restore the polychromy of Achaemenid Persian stone sculpture, and even in this instance, we lack important contextual information. At least one painted plaster cast from Persepolis must have been on display in the Louvre: Lottin de Laval’s nineteenth-century tinted plaster cast of a Persian noble from wing A of the north façade of the Apadana, made between 1845 and 1850 after he had taken molds from a large number of relief façades at the site, has been dismissed as a fantasy based on little evidence (Nagel 2010: 76–7). Similarly, there is no information available on why the Achaemenid bull capitals recreated as part of the Assyrian palace in the upper floor of the Nineveh Court at the Crystal Palace in London were rendered in blue (Piggott 2004: 96).

In 1885 the botanist Frédéric Houssay (1860–1920) visited many sites in Khuzestan and Fars. He observed abundant traces of paint on the garments of the rulers on the Elamite rock reliefs at Kul-e Farah (Chapter 23), 150 km northeast of Susa (Dieulafoy 1885: 226). He also noted that the letters of the inscriptions on the façade of the tomb of Darius I at Naqsh-e Rustam stood out in blue against the natural gray of stone (Dieulafoy 1885: 227).

Although some travelers noted the presence of pigments on the visible structures above ground on the Persepolis Takht, Achaemenid Persia remained white in the minds of most European artists throughout much of the nineteenth century. This changed when (p. 604) a second major Achaemenid capital suddenly appeared on the radar of the European mindset, as French excavations at Susa began to offer a body of striking evidence for the original polychromy of the Achaemenid Persian architectural environment (Nagel 2010: 80–87).

Ernst Herzfeld (1879–1948), who began excavating in Iran in the early 1920s, is our closest witness, since he observed and documented significant traces of polychromy both at Pasargadae and Persepolis (Nagel 2011). At Pasargadae Herzfeld commented on traces of red paint in the wings and the dress of the “winged genius” on the doorjamb of Gate R, which served as the main entrance to the palace area on the plain. Excavating there in the spring of 1928, he noted traces of paint representing vestiges of mural paintings in Palace P. Samples of painted plaster, taken from Palace P at Pasargadae by Herzfeld, are today in the Freer Study Collection of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, and are currently in the process of being analyzed.

Only five years earlier, during a visit to Persepolis in 1923, Herzfeld remarked that on the reliefs,

in the Hall of 100 Columns, the throne legs laid bare were of a bright blue color. Also, remains of red paint were found higher above on the throne, and the feather wings of Ahuramazda have still their turquoise green color.… The lions of the eastern Hall of the Apadana had a more distinct layer of a red color.… I also investigated the Darius of the Tachara [Palace of Darius] with the lapis-beard in search of color: it is strange that the hair of the servants show traces of paint, the Darius heads not. The curls of the king have a deep yellow tone, which is not the original color of the stone (gray black). Was he perhaps blonde?

(Herzfeld 1923; trans. A. Nagel)

Numerous fragments of lapis and other blue inlays for beards were subsequently discovered in the Treasury, the so-called Harem, a room beneath Palace D, one of the garrison quarters (Schmidt 1957: 73) west of the Apadana (Tilia 1978: pl. 100), and in other areas around Persepolis. Herzfeld repeatedly claimed that lapis was used in the beard and hair in the palace of Darius (e.g., Herzfeld 1931: 67; cf. Razmjou 2002a for paint on the statue of Darius found at Susa). According to his handwritten notes, the colorization of the doorjambs in the Hall of 100 Columns continued below the figure of Ahuramazda. In December 1923, Herzfeld noted what appeared to be pigment when examining the standing doorjambs—“Of those who support the dais, the negro still bears traces of black on the face” (Herzfeld 1923)—but he did not specify which of the four doorjambs in the Hall of 100 Columns with a depiction of a figure in the winged disk above the king supported by personifications of the subject lands he was referring to. Recent microscopic investigations of the supporting figures on these doorjamb reliefs have not revealed any traces of paint. However, the throne legs here still retain abundant traces of blue paint, substantiating Herzfeld’s observations. On an ink drawing, on the same page on which Herzfeld had written about traces of paint on the “negro,” he indicated the colors he mentioned seeing traces of greens, blues, and reds on another (?) sculpted winged symbol on one of the door jambs of the Hall of 100 Columns. It should (p. 605) also be recalled that there is abundant evidence of various skin tones on the glazed brick reliefs from Susa.

When doing exploratory work at Persepolis in 1928, Herzfeld harvested fragments that became part of his private collection and are important for the documentation of polychromy. Among these is a fragment of a glazed brick relief, today in the Freer Study Collection (Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC). In a sketchbook drawing, preserved in the same archive, Herzfeld noted the colors on this fragment. His letters and notes, written soon after the official excavations commenced on the Takht in early 1931, make frequent mention of color. From the so-called Harem, one of the building complexes on the southern side of the terrace, Herzfeld reported a typical Achaemenid ceramic “tulip” bowl with a blue mass inside (Nagel 2010: fig. 4.10). From unspecified parts of the same structure, Herzfeld listed ears of limestone bulls covered with red paint, a large number of wall pegs of Egyptian blue, and many fragments of glass paste in various colors. In a letter to the Oriental Institute in Chicago, dated November 5, 1932, Herzfeld noted a spectacular discovery in the Central Building (Tripylon):

I nearly forgot to mention that yesterday, during the uncovering of a door in the Tripylon the lower part of a relief was found, which portrays a king with sunshade and servants, in its original bright colors. I did not allow it to be uncovered entirely, in order to make preparations for a color drawing when the uncovering was complete. The most striking color is a luminous bright red for the ground of the king’s garment and for the shoes. It is not cinnabar, rather a little orange in tone: I assume there was such a bright purple in antiquity: it is closest to the red of the robes of cardinals. With the color remains found everywhere on the sculptures which had been buried under the soil, I first thought, that the reliefs essentially were the colors of the polished stone, i.e. black and only few parts, like ornaments, feather wings, lips, eyes, overlaid with red and bright blue, green, and yellow. Now, it seems rather that all reliefs were entirely painted in brilliant, alternating colors, perhaps on the polished, black ground. What a strange impression this must have been!

Herzfeld was obviously rather taken aback by the traces of paint detected by his workmen. Two weeks later he sent a set of photographs to Chicago. In the accompanying notes he offerred another interesting observation: “Herewith I attach some more photographs.… (2) Gate building [i.e., the Central Building, Tripylon], back (northern) door. Lower part of the figures of the king and servants with vivid colors (we made watercolor sketches). (3) The same, hem of the robe of the king: besides the colors there was a layer of nearly 0.5mm gold.” A watercolor of the same relief, by Herzfeld’s assistant, Friedrich Krefter, was published only a few months later in April 1933; but no gold is indicated on it (Herzfeld 1933: 488, republished in Krefter 1989: pl. 1). In contrast to Herzfeld, Ann Britt and Giuseppe Tilia, who worked on the restoration of Persepolis from 1964 to 1979, described the traces of paint on the royal shoe on this doorjamb as red, not blue (Tilia 1978: 56–7). In 1986 P. Calmeyer (1930–1995) reexamined the door jambs of the Central Building and claimed to have identified red and blue paint on the king’s shoes (Calmeyer 1989: 133; 1991). Subsequently, Krefter corrected Calmeyer, claiming (p. 606) that he saw blue, not red (and thus certainly also not blue and red) on the shoes when excavating the lower parts of this particular relief in 1932 with Herzfeld (Krefter 1991: 57–9). In support of his claim that both red and blue had been used on the royal shoes at Persepolis, Calmeyer (1989: 133) referred to Flandin’s observations on the shoes of Sargon II on a relief at Khorsabad, which were striped in red and blue (Botta and Flandin 1846 1: pl. 14). While this comparison lends credence to Calmeyer’s observation, the fact remains that we are left with divergent testimony, since no scientific analysis was conducted, nor were any color photographs or scientific documentation ever published. As already mentioned, Herzfeld’s important observations regarding the applications of color and gilding to stone surfaces were only partially included in the final excavation reports, in which pigments on stone remains were only briefly mentioned (e.g., Schmidt 1953: 82, n. 90, 116, 134, n. 53, 257). In 1941, however, he remarked that “the excavations of the covered parts of the sculptures of the Tripylon also revealed their original colors unchanged: purple red and turquoise blue, with application of metal, possibly gold” (Schmidt 1941: 255).

Between 1969 and 1975 Judith Lerner worked as an independent researcher at Persepolis (thus overlapping with the era of the Tilias’ restorations and investigations at the site). Lerner had previously worked on the polychromy of a fragment from the Hall of 100 Columns in the Harvard Museum collections. She was the first to observe and document the pigment remains on the Persepolis “figure in the winged disk” in the Harvard collection, on the basis of which she proposed a color reconstruction (Lerner 1971: 23, figs. 9–10; 1973: 120–21), later contested in part by Ann Britt Tilia. The traces of paint preserved on the matching segments of the same relief in situ at Persepolis were described by Tilia as follows: “on the first row of feathers from the bottom there were plenty of green pigments, and … the circular areas on the tips of the feathers showed traces of scarlet red color. The second row of feathers, on the other hand, showed numerous traces of red color, whereas the circles on the tips of the feathers had been painted blue” (Tilia 1978: 33, fig. 1a.). None of the alternating red and blue rows of small feathers at the top of the wings documented by Lerner on the Harvard relief were found on the fragments at Persepolis. The paint motif of the feathers inside the ring from which the figure emerges continues the lines of the carved elements of the relief (Tilia 1978: 36). An important feature of all the winged figures’ feathers on the jambs are the incised circles on the tips. These had been observed by Herzfeld and later by Lerner and Tilia. The latter commented on a whitish substance along the edges, also visible on the small feathers on the top of the wings (Tilia 1978: pl. 26, figs. 22–4). Tilia observed that the outsides of these framings show a high degree of corrosion and argued that “a special color had been used for a special foundation, which had had a corroding effect on the stone, and possibly one that was meant to imitate a metal, perhaps gold” (Tilia 1978: 36). No chemical analysis has yet been conducted on these whitish substances. Photographs of the reliefs on both jambs of the western doorway taken in the early 1970s, still showed a whitish substance at the edge of the feathers that has since mostly disappeared. Recently, a microsample was taken from the whitish spots on the small feathers on the top of (p. 607) the wings of the jamb fragment at Harvard (Eremin and Kandhekar 2008). Analysis suggests that a hydrated iron oxide was used, perhaps indicating a yellow ocher. This may have been a ground layer for gilding, but without any further investigation and analysis of the reliefs in situ, Tilia 1978 proposed gold reconstruction remains hypothetical.

Microscopic research has shown that the dress of the “figure in the winged disk” on the Harvard fragment was originally incised with patterns for ornamentation in color. By analogy with those depicted on garments of some of the guards on the glazed brick reliefs at Susa as well as on later images of Achaemenid rulers (e.g., the details on the border of the garment of Darius III in the so-called Alexander Mosaic, c.100 BC, from Pompeii: Hase 2009: 66, 71, figs. 4–5; Cohen 1997), golden appliqués adorning the dress may have been rendered in paint. Finds from unplundered tombs in Khuzestan (Arjan, Ram Hormuz; see Chapter 23) and elsewhere in the empire, as well as ancient texts, demonstrate that Elamite and Achaemenid royal dress was rich in gold ornamentation (Gleba 2008: 61; Shishehgar 2008; Álvarez-Mon 2010). The holes on the pleats of the garment and on the shoes of Cyrus on the reliefs adorning the door jambs of Palace P, the “residential palace” at Pasargadae, were intended to keep metal attachments in place (Tilia 1968: fig. 15; Root 1979: 51–2, pl. 2–3).

Recently, there has been much interest in textiles in the archaeological record and their depiction (Paetz 2009; Álvarez-Mon 2009; cf. Oppenheim 1949; Bovon 1963; Linders 1984). It is clear that only persons of high status wore garments with woven gold designs, bracteates, and embroidery (Kantor 1957). The recently excavated fourth century BC dress ornaments from burials at Vani in western Georgia (Kacharava and Kvirkelia 2009: 288–92, fig. 47, grave no. 24) and southern Siberia (Polosmak 2001), add to the already abundant evidence demonstrating the widespread use of such lavish garments among elites on the periphery of the Achaemenid Empire, a practice that may have been mirrored in the polychromy of the sculptures adorning Achaemenid palaces.

Case Study I. The Façade of the Tomb of Darius I at Naqsh-e Rustam

Already in the nineteenth century, the rock-carved façade of the tomb of Darius I was the subject of important observations on polychromy by Houssay (see above). Schmidt, who published the findings of the Chicago expedition to Naqsh-e Rustam in 1970, does not seem to have been aware of this earlier testimony. Nevertheless, he did provide crucial new information about the original polychromy of this monument, although it is embedded in such a large documentary publication that it has perhaps not achieved the attention it deserves. Traces of blue pigment discovered by Boris Dubensky, the expedition photographer, in some cuneiform signs of the DNa inscription behind the king’s (p. 608) figure are sufficient proof that all characters of at least the Old Persian and Elamite versions of the inscription were painted blue, and we see no reason to doubt that all inscriptions on the tomb were treated in the same manner (Schmidt 1970: 84). During restoration work conducted between 2001 and 2005 it was possible to make further observations on the polychromy of the façade. Abundant evidence of polychromy is now attested both in the inscriptions and elsewhere on the façade (Nagel and Rahsaz 2010). Blue pigment has been identified on the curls of the beard and hair of Darius. Traces of red paint have been identified on the visible eyelid, eyeball, and lips. Black lines accentuate the inner eyelid. Traces of blue and white pigment have been identified on Darius’ headdress, the royal crown with three-stepped crenellations resembling the one Darius wears on his relief at Bisotun (Luschey 1968: 72, pl. 33), although no traces of paint have so far been documented on either the rock relief or the inscriptions at Bisotun (Luschey 1968: 83, “Von einer ursprünglichen farbigen Fassung.… konnten wir keine Spuren mehr feststellen”).

On the tomb façade at Naqsh-e Rustam, Darius I is dressed in the Persian court robe. Detailed painted motifs detected on similar representations in Persepolis were meticulously reconstructed by Tilia (1978: 54, fig. 6; Kuhrt 2007: 532, fig. 11.25) and may provide a clue to the original appearance of the king as he appeared at Naqsh-e Rustam as well, even though no paint has been observed there on his robe. A dark red pigment has, however, been recorded on Darius’ shoes on the tomb façade, perhaps a priming layer for an additional coat. No traces of paint have been identified so far on either the pedestal or the fire altar shown in front of Darius. Similarly, no traces have been identified on the figure in the winged disk.

Behind the image of Darius I are inscriptions in Old Persian, Babylonian, and Elamite. Recently, traces of blue paint from these inscriptions were recovered from paper squeezes made by Herzfeld in 1923 (in the Herzfeld Archives in the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, DC). These were examined in the Conservation Laboratory in October 2009 and identified as Egyptian blue. In 2003, traces of “red (?) color pigments” were mentioned to Adriano Rossi by Hassan Rahsaz, then director of the Parsa-Pasargad Research Foundation, as having recently been discovered in an inscription on the southern tomb above the Takht (Rossi 2006: 475, n. 105). One hopes that this material will be analyzed to determine its chemical composition. Even if it turns out that a red pigment was used, however, we must bear in mind that this could imply the use of red either for display or as a ground layer for an additional top layer (e.g., gilding?).

On the tomb relief of Darius I at Naqsh-e Rustam, courtiers and soldiers, representing the two columns of the Achaemenid Empire, are depicted on the side. The two uppermost figures to the left of Darius, Gobryas, and Aspathines are identified by inscriptions highlighted in blue. The inscriptions in Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian identifying the various peoples personifying the lands of the empire are also highlighted in blue. These labels were framed with finely chiseled lines, also infilled with blue. Blue was also found in the leaf-like ornaments which constitute the uppermost part of the throne (p. 609) platform. Furthermore, the leonine creature that is part of the furniture preserves remnants of blue on the body and mane and red in the mouth.

Traces of paint were also identified all over the entablature, presumably representing the wooden roof of a palace, that separates the middle and upper parts of the tomb façade. Red traces were observed on the dentils in the lower part of the entablature, while the background was painted in blue. Red, blue, and green pigments were identified on the fillet of the register. On the latest Achaemenid royal tombs (carved above the Persepolis Takht), these parts were adorned with a frieze of eighteen lions arranged antithetically with a lotus flower in the center (Schmidt 1970: pl. 75; Calmeyer 2009: pls. 17.3, 32.1). The painted pattern on the façade of Darius I’s tomb is reminiscent of this animal frieze found in sculpted form on the later Achaemenid tomb façades at Persepolis.

The middle register of Darius I’s tomb façade evokes an architectural façade featuring four plain columns on rectangular, two-stepped bases with a torus and bull capitals carrying a beam below the architrave. Schmidt identified traces of blue paint on the bull capitals here, mirroring the blue identified on the body of the animal protome capitals of the palaces at Persepolis. The horns of the bull protomes carrying the roof on the top register were made separately. No details have been observed that would suggest the type and original appearance of these horns.

Traces of paint were also identified on the Egyptianizing cavetto cornice in the central doorway of the middle register. The leaves of this cornice were decorated in an alternating blue and red color scheme, with a fin in the center of each of the individual leaves, known as “painted leaf” on contemporary Egyptian and Greek monuments (e.g., Brinkmann 2008: figs. 107–8, 119, 179). On the door leading to the tomb chamber of Darius I, the blue leaves were decorated with a red fin, while blue fins correspondingly filled the other scales.

Although all of the Achaemenid tomb façades at Naqsh-e Rustam and Persepolis appear superficially similar in form and detail, this does not necessarily mean that they originally looked the same. Clearly, they share much iconographically but color would have differentiated them. One example will perhaps suffice. Although Schmidt did not observe any traces of pigment on the tombs of Darius’ successors (Schmidt 1970: 92), observations made by the author in 2008 revealed that the Egyptianizing cornice of the doorway in the middle register of Tomb V (= tomb of Artaxerxes II?) at Persepolis has green and blue leaves rather than the red and blue found on Darius’ tomb façade at Naqsh-e Rustam (Nagel 2010: fig. 4.34–4.36). No painted fins could, however, be identified on the leaf scheme. It has been argued that the traces of paint on these later tomb façades are vestiges of the original polychromy, applied to the surface of the façade in the months immediately following their carving (Nagel and Rahsaz 2010). Naturally, the paints could also date to later episodes of repainting. Future investigations and technical analyses may well provide additional information about the existence of possible paint preparation layers or repainting. The interiors of the tombs may have been painted, too, but no evidence of this has yet been found.

(p. 610) Case Study II. The Pigment Bowls from the Apadana

From the time its construction began in the late sixth century BC, the Apadana was the landmark building on the terrace platform at Persepolis. Measuring c.110 m on each side, with thirty-six stone columns supporting the central hall and a group of storerooms between the two southern towers, this building was a colossal enterprise in many respects. Seen from afar the Apadana dominated the entire Marv Dasht Plain. Stairways in the corners of the building led to upper mezzanines and floors. The stairways leading up to the first floor on the north and east side are adorned with the famous reliefs of gift-bearers from the subject lands paying homage to the Great King. In the 1970s, unexpected evidence was discovered during soundings below the level of the façades. When removing the lower parts of the inner western flight of the northern stairway in order to repair them in the spring of 1978, Tilia discovered lumps of green, red, and blue colors spread over an area measuring c.2.50 × 0.60 m, some 26 cm below the bottom of the rosette border. Potsherds encrusted with pigments of the same color were also found (Tilia 1978: 69). In 2004, additional sherds encrusted with red and blue pigment were excavated in front of the east façade of the Apadana (Nagel 2010), again c.26 cm below the base of the visible façade. The distribution of these finds extended along the files of gift-bearing delegations toward the central panels of the two façades which originally depicted the king about to receive the offerings shown. Although we do not know at what point in the building’s history the pigments were deposited, it may be hypothesized that this was done by the artisans themselves, as intentional offerings to the Apadana (and the King).

Evidence of painting activity was also found in the interior of the building. In Room 6 of the southern tower of the Apadana, Schmidt excavated a bowl lined with green pigment, which he suggested was used to touch up the walls and floors, but the substance has never been properly analyzed (Schmidt 1953: 74, fig. 32 “Room 6”). During the final excavation season in 1939 a sherd encrusted with Egyptian blue was found in Room 21 of the Apadana (Schmidt 1957: 133 [PT 7 381, Plot HE 41]). Pieces of gold foil were found in the same room (Schmidt 1953: 75), but their present whereabouts are unknown. All of this suggests ongoing activity by painters and we may infer that touch up work was a constant part of the maintenance of the polychrome reliefs and other architectural elements on the site.

Elsewhere on the Takht, paint bowls were also found. As noted above, Herzfeld found a bowl containing pigment in the so-called Harem area. In the Treasury, Schmidt excavated a “grinding bowl” of gray basalt, smoothed by use on the interior; a limestone polisher or grinder retaining traces of red pigment (Schmidt 1953: 191, room 81, PT 6 452; 1957: 102: pl. 80.10); and a small stone object covered with “pink matter” (Schmidt 1953: 185, Room 51; 1957: 102–3, pl. 80. 12, PT 6 213, lost at sea). In 2008, a large number of blue pellets (c.2 cm in dia.) were rediscovered in the storerooms of the Persepolis (p. 611) Museum (Nagel 2010: 138–9, fig. 4.21), though their find circumstances are unknown today and they have not yet been analyzed. Many paint bowls were excavated by the Italian-Iranian team below the southwestern corner of the platform during work that continued until 1973 in the area of the so-called Palace H. This zone bears remnants of at least three successive buildings, two Achaemenid date and one post-Achaemenid (Tilia 1978: 239).

In December 1971, after excavations were conducted southwest of Palace H, samples from a bowl containing pigment were given to J. Lerner for analysis and in the summer of 1975 she photographed a large number of fragments bearing traces of pigment, from which four dozen pigment samples were taken for further chemical analysis (Stodulski et al. 1984). These included pure pigments from cleaning conducted below the eastern doorway of the Central Building in spring 1975.

While no paint containers per se have been documented from Susa, clumps of earth encrusted with paint were noticed by Ghirshman in the 1930s in the area of the Apadana, and by D. Ladiray at the Gate of Darius in the 1970s (PDS: 254, n. 17).

On Find Contexts and Symbolic Meanings

Although little information is available on paint preparation or application in Achaemenid palaces, evidence from elsewhere in the ancient world provides glimpses into the work processes involving color and polychromy. Large lumps of pigment were excavated by Place in the corners of a room in the Neo-Assyrian palace at Khorsabad. A red lump “en quantité considérable” weighed about 20 kg (!), and a blue lump about 1 kg (Place 1867–70 2: 251). In the same chamber, Place noted three unfinished sculpted stone slabs with chips of the same stone and pigment lumps scattered on the floor (Place 1867–70 1: 92–3 and vol. 3: pl. 48). This evidence suggests that this was a workshop in which both painters and sculptors worked closely together. In Room SW 6 of Fort Shalmaneser at Nimrud, the excavators discovered “large lumps of bright Egyptian Blue … certainly stored” (Mallowan 1966: 408). Excavations of a Hellenistic/Roman temple at Petra in Jordan identified a subterranean painter’s workshop inside the temple (Hammond 1996: 49–50; Shaer 2003: 125–8). This workshop was part of the original building plan at Petra, and it is assumed that it “was meant to be for activities related to the maintenance of the building” (Shaer 2003: 126). The same may have been the case on the Athenian Acropolis. “Closed jars containing actual pigments” were said to have been discovered near the southeast angle of the Parthenon during excavations in 1836 (Donaldson 1851: 44; Semper 1851: 43). Materials, tools, and contexts suggestive of a painter’s workshop were excavated at Olympia as well (Heilmeyer 1981). In New Kingdom Egypt, a factory and paint shops, complete with paint boxes, was found at Tell Amarna (Spurrell 1895: 230–35). Several important studies of the technical process involved in the creation of painted Egyptian tombs have been published (e.g., Bryan 2001; Owen and Kemp 1994; Miller 2008).

(p. 612) Pigment and Empire: Supplying the Courts with Material

The stone used in the palaces at Persepolis was supplied by local quarries (Tilia 1968; Krefter 1967, 1971; Zare 2004. With the exception of the statue of Darius, most of the stone monuments at Susa were made of local Susiana limestone (Trichet and Vallat 1990: 205; Razmjou 2002b: 102). It is interesting that Darius specifically boasted in his so-called Foundation Charter (DSf), that the stone for the soaring columns of the Susa palaces came from a certain village in Elam (Kent 1953: 142–4). Analysis has also shown that the raw materials for the bricks at Susa came from local sources (Ruben 1979; Trichet and Ruben 1980). Even without the benefit of similar provenience studies for Persepolis, Schmidt suggested that the glazed bricks there must have been made “in the neighborhood of the site” (Schmidt 1957: 93), but he went on to say “we are quite certain that the makers of these bricks were foreigners, presumably Babylonians, here as at Susa.”

Were the pigments and gold used to embellish the monuments of Persepolis locally derived or did they come from further afield? Only recently have scholars attempted to reconstruct the process of supplying paint pigments and related materials for ancient capitals (e.g., Gliozzo 2007 [pigments] and Wilson 2007 [metal] for Rome; cf. Hejl 2005). In the case of Egyptian blue, F. R. Matson and Schmidt (Schmidt 1957: 133, n. 4) suggested two possible scenarios: the ingredients were imported and the artisans who made the objects were foreign experts, either from Egypt or Mesopotamia; or lumps or powder of Egyptian blue were imported for use as pigment, to be mixed locally with a carrying agent—water, egg white, and so on. These scenarios are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In dry form, pigment cakes and cubes could have been transported over long distances and then crushed, ground, and pulverized with mortars, mixed with binders, and converted into coloring agents, at the work site itself. In discussing the few traces of paint preserved on architecture and sculpture at Susa, Mecquenem suggested that some raw materials, such as red ocher, could have come from islands in the Persian Gulf (Mecquenem 1947: 95). Today, such an attribution is questionable, and only recently have the raw materials excavated at Susa been properly analyzed, though the results are difficult to interpret (Razmjou et al. 2004; Caubet and Daucé 2010).

The manufacture and distribution of raw materials, including pigments and gilding, must have played an important role in the economies of the Achaemenid and pre-Achaemenid era. Egyptian blues, as well as all other materials applied to the surfaces of Achaemenid monuments, required an understanding of techniques of manufacture, application, fixing, and color preservation. Among our earliest preserved records on how to produce red colors from yellow earth is an Old Assyrian cuneiform text from c.1700 BC (Campbell Thompson 1926: 31–2; Leicester 1971: 8).

Although archaeo-metallurgical studies focusing on pre-Islamic Iran have made much progress, our information about various raw material sources in Fars is still limited. Minerals were mined close to Persepolis in the Achaemenid period: for example, (p. 613) one copper and two iron mines have been investigated since 2003 (Emami 2005). A mine in the Bavanat deposit, with several tunnels up to 40 m deep, yielded copper sulfide and copper oxide. Two iron mines in the same region, Faryadan and Kan Ghobar, have deposits of magnetite and siderite. Both have two large gates some 14–17 m below ground, with several tunnels. Pottery found in them suggests use in the Achaemenid period (Emami 2005). Recent research has confirmed that the Iranian plateau was an important source of metals for societies in neighboring regions (e.g., Pigott 1999a, 1999b, 2004). More than 400 copper deposits are attested in Iran, and though widely distributed across time and space almost eighty of these show indications of ancient mining (Bazin and Hübner 1969; Momenzadeh 2004). Today, the Sar Cheshmeh copper porphyry mine in Kerman and the Sungun and Meiduk deposits in the same region make Iran one of the major copper producers of Asia (Momenzadeh 2004; Aliani et al. 2009). It is possible that the malachite used for green pigment (Cu2[(OH)2|CO3]), a copper oxide identified on the monuments on the Takht and easily smelted in a crucible, originated near Persepolis, but further investigation is needed to confirm this.

Some materials needed for the embellishment and finishing of architectural sculpture on the Achaemenid monuments would, however, have come from distant parts. Gold, for example, was available in various places in the empire. More than 100 gold and gold-bearing deposits and occurrences have been identified in Iran. Thirteen were clearly exploited in the pre-Islamic period, some of which are located in southeastern Iran (Momenzadeh 2002, 2004). Gold was obtained from both hard rock and alluvia by panning (Momenzadeh 2002, 2004). In addition, the river Hyctanis in the province of Carmania (OP Karmanâ, El. Kurman, cf. PF 1348 in Hallock 1969: 381) is mentioned by Pliny as a source of gold (Nat. Hist. 4.98). There were also silver, copper, and ocher mines in Armenia. Strabo refers to a gold mine and other mines, particularly one in northern Armenia, that produced sandyx, “which they call Armenian color” (Strabo, Geog. 11.14.9; Kuhrt 2007: 706).

While the collation of actual data on the sources of the raw materials for Achaemenid polychromy in Fars and Khuzestan is important, perhaps even more important is the rhetorical dimension of the supply system. The very concept of raw materials (and labor) for palatial constructions coming from all over the empire to the centers of power was a significant rhetorical motif in the formative years of Darius I. Raw materials as prestige commodities of empire under the King’s control were a key element in the royal expression of power. The Susa Foundation Charters (DSf, DSz, DSaa; e.g., Kent 1953: 142–4; Kuhrt 2007: 492–5, no. 13; Root 2010) make this clear even though they do not explicitly refer to pigments.

On Color, Materiality, and Surface at Persepolis

Our discussion of blue paints and precious, colorful materials at Persepolis invites us to investigate some further aspects of color, materiality, and surface at Achaemenid (p. 614) Persian sites. The first issue to discuss is the materiality of the limestones used for stone architectural/sculptural elements. For Pasargadae, for instance, Boardman (1959: 217) and Francovich (1966: 233–4) once argued that the mix of light and dark limestone in Palaces R and S was systematic and reflected Ionian influence. Similarly, Nylander (1970: 142–3) concluded that: (1) such systematic variation in color is attested only in selected contexts; and (2) such accentuation by color contrasts might have been used for purely aesthetic considerations that may or may not have reflected input from a specific craft tradition. He cited Palace P at Pasargadae, where the various stones were used in an “entirely unstructural way.… What we find in Pasargadae is thus not a bichromatism evincing structural analysis and an accentutation of the constituing parts but a predominantly optical, atectonic play of contrasts, based, no doubt, on purely aesthetic considerations” (Nylander 1970: 143). Tilia argued for a distinction between a purely decorative and a structural use, in which the dark stones were used as “decorative elements,” while the light-colored stones were used for all “constructive elements” (Tilia 1968: 68). We must ask therefore, whether the bichromatism, where it does exist at Pasargadae, was originally meant to be seen, or whether a final coat of paint would have obscured these dark/light variations in the building material, bearing in mind that both Herzfeld and Lerner found clear evidence of paint on stone reliefs at Pasargadae.

Turning to Persepolis, Nylander observed that the systematic, if selective bichromatism in stone that does appear at Pasargadae is completely absent at Persepolis (Nylander 1970: 143) where, in contrast, we have abundant evidence of paint. Elsewhere it has been argued that it is important to systematically record the locations of the various limestones used at Persepolis (Nagel 2010) with the goal of revealing any possible pattern of systematic bichromatism. While such a finding would represent an exciting new discovery about polychromy at the site, I do not anticipate a revearsal of our current understanding that the variegated colors do not reflect a consistently applied aesthetic principle intended to highlight the natural surface appearance of the stone. Rather, I would argue that such systematic documentation might help us to understand other important issues involved in the material aspects of the stone. Some quarries may have yielded better blocks for large-scale elements, such as bull capitals. Some limestones might have had different surface properties, enabling them to better receive and hold pigments. This in turn would potentially provide useful information about the processes of stoneworking and subsequent painting.

If we consider the different color schemes employed on the doors of the façades of the tomb of Darius at Naqsh-e Rustam and the tomb of one of his predecessors above the Persepolis platform, alternative readings can be suggested, in which color signified a remarkable degree of diversity. On the façade of the tomb of Darius I at Naqsh-e Rustam, the blue that filled in and framed the inscriptions certainly helped to make the forms visible to viewers looking at them high above their heads. On a microscopic level, the surface coatings on exterior façades like the Apadana reliefs or the stone bulls in the portico of the Hall of 100 Columns may have helped protect the stone from weathering (Nagel 2010).

(p. 615) The polychromy of Achaemenid Persepolis has two main characteristics:

  1. 1. the colors employed formed clear contrasts with their environment; and

  2. 2. within the Achaemenid palaces there was a system of cross-referencing between precious stones and paint applications. Blue-painted bull column capitals referred to precious lapis and painted plaster applied to wooden columns may have been intended to imitate expensive stone columns. The very colors of the stone, though, were hidden and remained largely invisible. Research indicates that the elaborate polychromy employed was intended to imitate precious stones.

Concluding Remarks: Toward an Archaeology of Paint at Persepolis?

Achaemenid Persian architectural sculpture is rich in vestigial traces of original polychromy. The stone reliefs at Persepolis, as well as the carved tomb façades of the Achaemenid rulers above the Persepolis platform and at Naqsh-e Rustam, preserve traces of original polychromy to a remarkable degree. While we lack proper documentation for many decades of past research and even for the more recent treatment of the stone surface, the size of the terrace alone suggests that pigments and color schemes can still be identified, recorded, and analyzed. Once a sensitivity toward and awareness of polychromy has been established, necessary steps may be undertaken to document the remaining paints. Proper documentation and conservation will ideally go hand in hand, however difficult the integration of archaeological science and archaeological interpretation may be (Pollard and Bray 2007; Agnew and Bridgland 2006).

Perhaps the greatest potential in the study of Achaemenid Persian polychromy lies in the monumental tomb façades. Nearly inaccessible due to their position high above the ground, the carved and sculpted façades of the Achaemenid royal tombs are ideal candidates for detailed examination. Working toward an archaeology of paint in Persepolis is exciting. Paint archaeology is a relatively new field that presents its own complexities, but documenting and discussing the evidence available for the polychromies of Persepolis and Susa is an important component in any appraisal of material culture in the Achaemenid court environment. So why does the world need studies of the pigments of Persepolis? Because the pigments are a physical testament to ancient knowledge in art, chemistry, optics, and perception, and taken together they provide unique insights into the world of this empire. Looking back from the vantage point of the early third millennium AD, we can understand the excitement of Charles Texier, or Ernst Herzfeld, and everyone else of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who spotted traces of paint and polychromy in the Achaemenid remains while visiting or excavating these sites. Mistakes were made, documents were lost, material was whitewashed (Nagel 2010). When we begin to analyze and investigate the surface of the (p. 616) monuments at Persepolis, uncovering paint layers and making cross-sections, it may at first be difficult to understand the historical consequences of such work. In order to fully understand Achaemenid painting and polychromy, however, it is crucial to study how the paints and surface treatments were made and applied, and how they deteriorated over time. This knowledge should become a fully integrated part of research in the archaeology of ancient Iran.

Further Reading

An accessible introduction to aspects of color and gilding in Achaemenid architecture and sculpture at Persepolis remains Tilia’s chapter “Color in Persepolis” (Tilia 1978: 29–70), even if detailed technological studies are missing entirely. Lee and Quirke (2000) provide a masterful introduction to “painting materials” in the Egyptian sphere. The observations made there are highly relevant for aspects of paint and gilding in Achaemenid Persia, too. The recently published papers from a session on color at the 7th International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East, held in 2010 (Matthews and Curtis 2012), provide a good account of current work on color in the Ancient Near East.


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