Exotic colour and pigments in early Ancient Egypt

Barbara Boczar investigates the sources of the wonderful colours used by ancient Egyptian artisans.


View any ancient Egyptian coloured object or tomb wall, and it is evident that the artists used a variety of pigments. The bust of Nefertiti, one of the iconic images of ancient Egypt, displays a range of colours, including red, yellow, green, black, and blue.

Colour played an essential role in the artistic and cultic aspects of ancient Egyptian life. Colour provided symbolic meaning and was integral to representations found on materials including jewellery, painted pottery, and dyed linen. In addition, coloured paints were used on plastered walls, stone sculptures and reliefs, wooden coffins, and papyri.

The iconic bust of Nefertiti, created with a range of pigments resulting in vibrant colours, from the Neues Museum, Berlin. Image: Philip Pikart CC by SA 3.0 via Wikicommons

Colour palette

Based on a number of research studies, symbolic associations have been assigned to the basic colours:
• White: purity/sacredness
• Black: night/death/resurrection/fertility
• Red: life/death/destruction
• Blue: the heavens/the River Nile
• Green: life/resurrection
• Yellow: the sun/the flesh and bones of the gods
Many pigments in ancient Egypt were derived from inorganic substances, such as minerals, or synthetic chemicals, while organic dyes and pigments were used in later Egyptian art. In Predynastic Egypt, Egyptians used pigments that could be found locally, including clay ochres, white calcium carbonate and gypsum, and black carbon in the form of soot. As Egyptian civilisation progressed technically, the new pigment ‘Egyptian blue’ was manufactured in the Early Dynastic Period (c.3150 BC-2686 BC), and huntite, a bright white mined inorganic pigment, was used on funerary objects from the Old Kingdom.

As trade routes expanded, new foreign pigments could be incorporated into the artistic toolkit of ancient Egyptian artisans. By the New Kingdom, the ancient Egyptian colour palette included blue, black, white, orange, grey, yellow, red, pink, and green.

An Old Kingdom statue of a man and his wife, each wearing a necklace coloured with Egyptian blue. Image: Robert B Partridge (RBP)

Foreign pigments: yellow and red

In the ancient Egyptian pantheon of colours, yellow has been considered a substitute for gold, the material associated with the sun and the eternal skin of the gods, while red could represent male flesh tones, as well as being used to signify destruction, the deserts of Egypt, and the colour of the setting sun. These colours were produced on funerary objects and tomb walls primarily using local yellow and red ochres. However, as Egyptian technologies developed and became more connected with those of the surrounding Near East societies, new pigments became available. Imported pigments were orpiment (bright lemon or canary yellow), realgar (bright red/red-orange), and pararealgar (orange, a breakdown product of realgar), producing brilliant colours when compared to the ochres.

A painting of a scene from the Eighteenth Dynasty Tomb of Nakhtmin, demonstrating the wealth of colours available to artists in the New Kingdom. Image: Charles Wilkinson, Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA)

Both orpiment and realgar are toxic arsenic sulphides that must be handled carefully to prevent poisoning. Although not common geologically, orpiment and realgar can be found in small quantities at specific locations: in underground mines, volcanic fumaroles, and hydrothermal veins. However, there is no current geological evidence for the presence of these minerals in Egypt, either past or present, with the closest mineral deposits found in Turkey, northern Iran, and hydrothermal areas in Italy. There are New Kingdom offering lists that mention orpiment (qnit) and/or realgar (Awt-ib), and ongoing trade in these pigments was confirmed by the discovery of orpiment in a sealed vase in a Late Bronze Age shipwreck off the coast of Turkey.

Usually occurring together, orpiment and realgar crystals would have had to be separated to create the pigments of golden yellow and red/red-orange. After separation, orpiment and realgar crystals were only roughly ground in order to retain their ‘twinkling’ property.

(Top to bottom) Pigments used by ancient Egyptian artists: yellow ochre, the brighter yellow orpiment, red ochre, and realgar. Images: Randal Stegmeyer, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, University of Michigan

Beginnings: the Middle Kingdom

Prior to the Middle Kingdom (c.2055-1650 BC), orpiment has only been identified on a Second Dynasty stone stela from Saqqara (Louvre E27157). When looking at current pigment analyses of Middle Kingdom objects, it appears that orpiment was used sparingly, and realgar almost not at all. Orpiment was identified on at least one early Middle Kingdom object, being used to create yellow hes vases on the el-Bersha coffin of Djehutynakht, nomarch of the Hare Nome (Eleventh to Twelfth Dynasties). Although not royal, Djehutynakht would have been classed as high elite, giving him the resources to import materials from a foreign realm. The hes vase was used to pour offerings to the gods, which is consistent with the use of yellow as a sacred colour.

Orpiment (yellow) and realgar (red) – two pigments containing arsenic sulphides that were imported into ancient Egypt and used to create artist’s colours. Image: Géry Parent, public domain 

Orpiment as a possible decorative element is found on the kilt of a wooden ‘guardian’ figure from the Twelfth Dynasty, which was found in the non-royal tomb of Imhotep, a ‘Royal Sealer’. Orpiment in this case was not used to portray the golden skin, but to accent the clothing of the deity.

This Old Kingdom stela from the Louvre is the earliest artefact found to have traces of orpiment colouring. Image: Rama, CC BY 3.0

Expanded use: the Early New Kingdom

The increase in the use of new and imported pigments coincided with increased international trade in the New Kingdom. During this period, pure orpiment was found on the walls of the tomb of Thutmose IV, and was used for painting deities and hieroglyphs on some royal stone sarcophagi; the impact on the observer of this golden yellow can still be felt.

The outer coffin side panel of the Middle Kingdom nomarch Djehutynakht, which uses orpiment for the yellow colour of the hes vases (marked with a black rectangle). It is now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Image: Marcus Cyron, CC BY 3.0, all via Wikicommons

In the New Kingdom, several instances of layering orpiment with ochre, and sometimes huntite, are found on the walls of tombs such as those of Thutmose II, Amenhotep II, and Amenhotep III. Orpiment is also found on a multiplicity of funerary objects in non-royal burials, including stone sarcophagi, vases, canopic jars, linen shrouds, and papyri. During this period, orpiment was also found applied closely together with gilding on objects such as cartonnage masks and coffins.

A painted wooden ‘guardian’ figure dating to the Twelfth Dynasty, wearing a yellow kilt painted using orpiment. Image: MMA
The sarcophagus of Amenhotep II with the image of a kneeling Isis coloured in bright yellow paint created using orpiment. Image: Francis Dzikowski © Theban Mapping Project, with permission.

The use of realgar is found on significantly fewer objects during this period. Orpiment’s close symbolic analogy with pure gold and the sun may be the basis for its greater use, although neither of these pigments were in general use. Realgar has been found associated with other pigments on the walls of the royal tomb of Amenhotep III. Pure realgar has been found primarily in the Book of the Dead papyri, and orpiment and realgar have been separately identified on the same papyri, especially in the colouring of striped borders and on associated textual figures. Mixtures of orpiment and realgar were found by researchers in a tomb painting in the skin tones of a high official, Menna, and his wife Henuttawy (Tomb TT69), during the time of Amenhotep III.

After Amenhotep III

The discovery of orpiment and realgar on multiple types of objects continued with archaeological finds from the Amarna Period through to the Ptolemaic Period. The pigments were used alone, or layered or mixed with ochre or other pigments, and used on walls, objects, and papyri at sites such as Amarna, and in the Tomb of Tutankhamun. At Amarna, an outstanding example of the use of orpiment on statuary is found on the bright yellow headband of the famous bust of Nefertiti.

The cartonnage mask of Overseer of Builders Amenhotep. Orpiment is used to decorate the wig and also the jackals at the rear of the mask, while the ears, face, and neck were gilded. Image: MMA


A scene from the Tomb of Menna (TT69) depicting his wife Henuttawy. Mixtures of orpiment and realgar were found in the paint used for her skin tone. Image: RBP

The use of orpiment/realgar from the Middle Kingdom onwards was accompanied by transformations in the organisation of the state, in internal and international commitments and relationships, and in religious emphasis. Although application of orpiment and realgar produced vibrant images, the uses for both orpiment and realgar were highly variable within one design or between funerary workshops, on both royal and non-royal objects. Tracing the early beginnings of the use of these pigments in ancient Egypt raises ongoing questions about why and how toxic substances were used in artisanal settings, how expensive artistic materials were obtained through trade, the geographic origin of these pigments, and how local symbolic norms and changing funerary practices dictated the use of these exotic pigments.

Barbara Boczar has a PhD in biological sciences from the University of California, Santa Barbara, a JD (law) from Stanford University, and an MA in Egyptology from the University of Manchester. This article is based on the thesis for her Master’s degree.

A scene from Ani’s Book of the Dead, dating to the Nineteenth Dynasty. Particles of realgar and pararealgar were found in the sun discs above the heads of two of the deities; the yellow border top and bottom contains orpiment; and the outer orange band contains realgar and pararealgar. Image: © Trustees of the British Museum