Painted Tanagra Figurine

Object: JI1716ab
JIAAW Collection

In celebration of National Color Day (October 22nd), we’re highlighting object JI1716ab. This object is an example of a Tanagra type figurine, named after the cemeteries in the Tanagra region of Greece in which figures like these were discovered in the 19th century. The object is a sitting woman draped in intricately folded garments, supported by a rectangular base.  

The colors of this figurine point to the production of Tanagra types, which were usually constructed out of terracotta, a dark red clay and, after firing, were coated in a white slip. The head in particular alludes to the coloring processes that took place after this white slip was applied, featuring slight hints of brown, white, blue, and red pigment around the woman’s hair, wreath crown, and face. 

The remnants of pigment found on this figurine brings up a wider conversation that is being had about the original colors of ancient statues. As Margaret Talbot writes in an article for the New Yorker, while the marble statues of ancient Greece and Rome were commonly thought to be purely white in color, archaeologists studying traces of pigmentation and evidence of tool marks on the surface of these statues have found that the ancient world was much more vibrant and colorful than we once believed it to be. 

Looking closely at the paint remnants visible on statues and examining them under infrared or ultraviolet light reveals that not only did ancient sculptors use pigment, but they also created elaborate and highly detailed designs using an array of colors. Recently, artists and archaeologists have worked together to recreate these works, this time focusing on the polychromy, or coloring, of the statues. 

Overall, this Tanagra figurine represents a central idea in archaeology: that we cannot fathom what we don’t know. The more technology and archaeological methods develop, the more we can question and reflect on the commonly held takeaways from previous archaeological work. In this way, object JI1716ab reminds us to be open to new interpretations, especially when they concern material culture that, like Greek and Roman statues, exists in the public consciousness. 

-Jinette Jimenez ‘21, JIAAW Records and Collections Assistant

Read more about current explorations of how color was used in the ancient world, including Margaret Talbot’s New Yorker article:

The Myth of Whiteness in Classical Sculpture

Greek and Roman statues were often painted, but assumptions about race and aesthetics have suppressed this truth. Now scholars are making a color correction. Mark Abbe was ambushed by color in 2000, while working on an archeological dig in the ancient Greek city of Aphrodisias, in present-day Turkey.

Gods in Color – Golden Edition

For many years the Liebieghaus has dedicated itself to unraveling the mystery of the original polychromy of ancient sculptures. Indeed, the museum has taken the lead in this area of research. Vinzenz Brinkmann’s reconstructions are made in collaboration with the archaeologist Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann and give current viewers a vibrant picture of the former polychromy of the sculptures.

‘Digging’ for color: The search for Egyptian Blue in ancient reliefs

A team of Yale researchers is working in the Yale University Art Gallery to map one of the long lost pigments – Egyptian Blue – on two reliefs from ancient Assyria that are located in the gallery. The team – Jens Stenger, conservation scientist at the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage; Carol Snow, deputy chief conservator and the Alan J.