Review of ‘Colouring the Past: The Significance of Colour in Archaeological Research’

17th November 2013

Reviewed by Noelene Cole

Colouring the Past book cover‘Colouring the Past: The Significance of Colour in Archaeological Research’ edited by Andrew Jones and Gavin MacGregor, 2002, Berg, Oxford, xv+250 pp. ISBN 1-8597-3542-8 (hbk); ISBN 1-8597-3547-9 (pbk).

‘Why has it taken so long for archaeology to undertake a critical treatment of colour?’ The editors of Colouring the Past find the answer to this question in various (post-1980) developments in Anglo-American archaeology: a new emphasis on the experiential nature of material culture, increased awareness of the senses in archaeological inquiry and a heightened interest in representation and visual communication. This may bemuse a few rock art researchers who have long been interested in the archaeology of visual communication, but the premise is valid for mainstream archaeology.

The genesis of Colouring the Past was the 1999 European Archaeological Association conference. The book’s contents (12 chapters by 13 authors) deal with colour in funerary practice, stone monuments, stone and metal artefacts and wall paintings. The editors describe the temporal scope as ‘outside the traditional purview of art historical analysis’. However, as the focus is mainly European Neolithic and Bronze Age societies, it is surprising that rock art of these contexts is unrepresented. On the other hand, it is refreshing to find an emphasis on the subtle colour symbolism of soils, pebbles, rocks and building stones.

In the introduction, Jones and MacGregor aim to develop an approach to the ‘deep history’ of colour in the context of materiality. They introduce debates in cognitive psychology on the relativity or universality of colour, in particular relating to the Berlin and Kay model and its use of linguistics and the Munsell Colour Chart. Jones and MacGregor dispute the diachronic conclusions of Berlin and Kay and the narrow approach to colour classification in the Munsell scheme. However, they approve the latter’s use as a ‘site’ allowing researchers to discuss colour with the same terms of reference, its operating principle being that, physiologically speaking, ‘humans in different cultural settings perceive colour in similar ways’. I am puzzled therefore that Munsell values were not employed in various tables (e.g. Figs 1.2, 2.5, Table 9.1) to attempt to objectify colour terms such as ‘buff ’, ‘brown-black’, ‘brick red’ etc. In Chapter 2 Chapman provides a more detailed critique of the ‘falsely diachronic’ Berlin and Kay model, noting that colour pathways are not characterised by developing colour complexity. Chapman provides an overview of alternative approaches in anthropology and cognitive linguistics to the integration of colour meaning into colour studies.

Chapters 2 to 9 present case studies of foregrounded colours and their roles in communicating cultural messages in various social contexts. Most authors attempt to go beyond Western concepts and terminology to explore colour in its synchronic and diachronic contexts. Chapter 1 by Boric introduces the colourful Danube Gorges, where, he argues, selected colours and designs were associated with apotropaism or ‘enchantment’ in Mesolithic Neolithic times. Keates (Chapter 5) concludes that in North Italian society luminosity and colour of copper artefacts were potent carriers of symbolic information. MacGregor (Chapter 7) identifies colour and texture in the recumbent stone circle tradition of northeast Scotland as expressions of social identities.

Several papers (including the epilogue) demonstrate the value of researching the innate attributes of colour in the archaeological analysis of stone. The selective use of white quartz pebbles in Neolithic monuments on the Isle of Man is explained by Darville (Chapter 3) as a reflection of sacred geography—continuing white symbolism bridged the ideological gap between Christianity and earlier belief systems. Cooney (Chapter 4) examines symbolic associations of stone in axeheads of the Neolithic period as a manifestation of a long tradition of colour symbolism in Ireland.

Mortuary practice is a rich source of data on the archaeology of colour. In one of the more succinct accounts of the volume, Owoc (Chapter 6) demonstrates the metaphorical power of colour as expressed in the selection of soils in Bronze Age funerary practice. This is a model study of the contrived appearance of a feature in a context—the meaningful, deliberate and contextual construction of colour through site design and use. It shows how the addition of sequential embellishments and new mounds to a funerary site (and the meaningful incorporation of features induced by natural weathering) involve changes in colour, texture, location, depth and consistency, which are imbued with symbolic meaning. I am confident that this explanation of site design has wider application, as in the study of accumulated superimpositions in rock art. Andrew Jones (Chapter 8) explores complex colour biographies of funerary artefacts and produces an alternative explanation of their significance. Tairov and Bushmakin (Chapter 9) conduct a standard mineralogical analysis of cached powders from burial mounds of South Urals and North Kazakhstan. This provides useful data on paint use and exchange systems, but I suspect does not constitute a ‘deep’ study of colour.

I especially enjoyed Allison’s imaginative way of communicating the psychological impact of colourful wall paintings in a redecorated Pompeian house (Chapter 10). Allison shows that the selection of specific, well documented colours and their careful arrangement in light and architectural space point to a household of some wealth and prestige. Saunders (Chapter 11) explores the same attributes (light and colour) in Mesoamerican contexts. In a sense the synthesised approach of this paper (and the selective widening of the geographic scope to include America) interrupts the organisational flow of the book. At this point a study dealing with innate or consciously applied colour in rock art would have complemented the preceding chapter (wall paintings of Pompeii).

The final chapter (Epilogue by Scarre) provides a review of colour studies which could have led to a useful statement on the future direction of colour research instead of another discussion of the salient features of stone in prehistoric monuments. However Scarre’s conclusions provide important guiding principles for colour studies in archaeology, for example:

• the need to recognise the full materiality of the artefacts concerned;
• colour may not be the most salient feature of materials or artefacts.

In dealing with abstractions such as the creative imagination, it is a challenge for archaeology to balance what the editors describe as ‘the objective practice of data recording and the hermeneutics of interpretation’. Although I found a little too much emphasis on symbolic clichés (e.g. red symbolises blood), and too little on taphonomy (loss and/or changes in colour through various taphonomic processes), recurring issues are of global interest: colour as a temporal and spatial component of the natural environment; culturally specific colour terminology and selectivity as a source of insights into the processes of symbolisations and categorisations; the universality of the restricted colour palette; the introduction of novel materials as a source of new colour perceptions and selection; the importance of attributes (other than hue) such as texture, luminosity, hardness, brightness, darkness and light; colour perceptions in the use of stone (e.g. quartz) and metals (e.g. copper); the meaningful, deliberate and contextual construction of colour and other qualities, as in technical transformations to achieve lustre.

Overall, this volume makes an important contribution to archaeology. Hopefully it will stimulate others to explore the varied and complex ways in which past societies perceived, selected, transformed and used colours to transcend materiality. But the main contribution of Colouring the Past is methodological—it has much to offer archaeologists as an incentive to adopt integrated, cognitive approaches to the analysis of material culture. The work of Taçon (including his contribution to a series of short papers on colour in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal 1999) is widely cited in this volume, but it appears that Australian archaeological studies which focus on the deep, innate qualities of colour, texture, light etc. are few. Colouring the Past confirms that the study of colour, ‘this compelling attribute’ can be undertaken archaeologically, across a wide range of temporal, spatial and material contexts.

Cole, N.
Review of ‘Colouring the Past: The Significance of Colour in Archaeological Research’
Book Reviews
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