News from the Conservation Lab — Pretty in Pink

By Caroline Roberts, Conservator

I’ve been spending a lot of quality time in collections storage lately and have noticed something curious: an abundance of pink! Namely, ancient pink pigment. Why is this so interesting? Because the pink most frequently used in the ancient Mediterranean was made of madder root, a plant-based dye that was used to color textiles as well as a pigment on objects.

Like other organic pigments, rose madder is highly light sensitive and prone to fading. The occurrence of rose madder on so many artifacts in the collection surprises me, given what we know about its fugitive nature. Rose madder also has a unique chemical property that causes it to luminesce, or glow, an orange-pink color when exposed to ultraviolet light. A quick look with a UV LED flashlight can help confirm whether or not the pink on an object is madder.

small terracotta hand and arm

Marble sculpture fragment KM 1931.441 from Seleucia with pink pigment between fingers and inside elbow.

sculpture fragment under two different kinds of light
Visible and ultraviolet-induced luminescence (UVL) images of KM 1931.441 showing orange-pink luminescence of rose madder.

Despite its tendency to fade, I am finding pink on everything from terracotta figurines to marble sculpture to limestone grave markers. I’m also finding it in different hues and on different decorative elements, from flesh tones to jewelry to architecture.  It turns out pink is everywhere at the Kelsey, and it is pretty fascinating.

small headless terracotta statuette with pink painted necklace
Marble sculpture fragment KM 1931.15 from Seleucia with pink-colored necklace.
stone with pink pigment
Remnants of pink paint on the surface of KM 21107, a limestone funerary stela from Terenouthis.