Lehrstuhl für Altorientalistik

    Polychromy of Mesopotamian Stone Statues

    Since 2010, the team led by Astrid Nunn has worked to investigate the polychromy of the Mesopotamian stone statues dating from the 4th to the 1st millennium BCE. Although Near Eastern archaeologists have conducted several scientific analyses on Mesopotamian painted murals, on glazed material and neo-Assyrian or Achaemenid reliefs, the polychromy of Mesopotamian stone statues had not previously been the subject of further study. The two main reasons are the almost complete destruction of the colours themselves, and the ensuing difficulty of adapting the technical equipment to the spectroscopy process.

    Barbara Jändl (restorer at the Archäologische Staatssammlung in Munich), kindly supported by the director of the Archäologische Staatssammlung Prof. Dr. Rupert Gebhard, worked on the project from the beginning. She is in charge of the thorough examination with a microscope, with which we have to begin, as mostly no colours can be seen with the naked eye. Heinrich Piening, head of the archeometrical laboratory at the Bayerische Schlösserverwaltung, is specialised for the U(ltra) V(iolet)-Visible absorption spectroscopy. This is the non-destructive measuring method we use.

    We have already examined the entire collection in the Vorderasiatisches Museum of Berlin, the British Museum of London and the Musées Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire in Brussels. The statue collection of the Oriental Institute in Chicago will be examined at the end of 2017.

    Our result is evident: Most of if not all Mesopotamian statues were painted and even highly colourful.

    We have four main issues for this project. They are of technical, historical, social and symbolic nature. In the technical realm we would like to know more about the painting techniques, the grounding, the composition of the colours and how they were applied. The historical field would concern the chronological development of the use of colour. The social aspect encompasses questions about the possible different colouring of gods and normal humans or the colour choice for garment and skin. This aspect is closely related to the symbolic value of the colours, which will also be studied in the Sumerian and Akkadian texts. This is currently done by the Assyriologist Rosel Pientka-Hinz (University of Bochum).

    The final publication will address the motives determining colour choice and consider whether it is possible to narrow down the theoretical bandwidth separating realism from symbolism and the religious and political attitudes of commissioners and recipients.

    Red hues were predominant. As the embodiment of the donor, divine and human figures were a true likeness only in colour, with "real" hair, eyes, skin and clothes.


    • Nunn, A., Jändl, B., Gebhard, R. 2015, Polychromy on Mesopotamian Stone Statues. Preliminary Report, Studia Mesopotamica 2, 187-206.
    • Nunn, A., Piening, H. 2016, Farbige Statuen in Mesopotamien, Antike Welt 1/2016, 50-53.
    • Nunn, A., 2016, Colourful Garments of Mesopotamian Stone Statues, in: Rachael Goldman (ed.), Essays in Global Color History: Interpreting the Ancient Spectrum, Gorgias Press, 31-39.