Putting the Color Back into History – Historical Novel Society – North America

What we think we know versus what actually happened in history is problematic for every time period. Many of the cultural assumptions we’ve learned in school or seen in popular culture are actually rooted in error. For example, we imagine medieval people as not bathing, when in fact they bathed regularly until the Black Death came around; we imagine Victorians to be prudes, although tattoos and piercings were quite popular; and we imagine the ancient world, and in particular Europe, to be white.

In truth, the ancient world has always been diverse, but it is seldom portrayed that way. There’s been a lot of controversy about skin tone with respect to the ancient world. The marble statues we’ve seen as pure white were in fact originally painted in bright colors to look realistic. The paint deteriorated over time, but it was also purposefully removed by museums, literally whitewashing statues that were once vibrant. There is currently an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on polychromy, which focuses on color in ancient statues.

The idea that these ancient statues were pure white has worked unconsciously on society at large, giving people the idea that Greeks and Romans were White (a concept they did not have). This error has in turn been used by White supremacist groups to claim that Western civilization is based on a Whiteness that never existed.

Putting the Color Back into History – Historical Novel Society – North America

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