Colorful Indications of (Ex)Change

Norikum: Farben @ÖAI


Sampling wall painting fragments and pigment raw materials

Beautiful samples from Roman sites in Styria, part of the archaeological collection of the University of Graz. Thanks to Mag. Robert Pritz and Ao.Univ.-Prof. Mag. Dr. Manfred Lehner. Samples from wall painting fragments and Egyptian blue pellets from Flavia Solva thanks to Dr. Barbara Porod and Universalmuseum Joanneum.

Sample preparation

Egyptian blue pellets for mineralogical analysis at University of Vienna thanks to Ao.Univ.-Prof. Dr. Christian L. Lengauer. Sand sample preparation for analysis at University of Vienna and Montanuniversität Leoben thanks to Univ.-Prof. Mag.rer.nat. Dr.mont. Frank Melcher and Assoz.Prof. Dipl.-Ing. Dr.mont. Doris Groß.

Egyptian blue pellets

After sampling at Magdalensberg, I collected a piece of Egyptian blue pellet found during excavations at Retznei. Thanks to Mag. Dr. Bernhard Schrettle.


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Through the lens of ancient polychromy, this research project will explore cultural and technological transformations in the Roman periphal province of Noricum

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 845075, and is based at the Austrian Archaeological Institute (see also Norikum: Farben or Noricum: Colours) of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. This project is coordinated by Alexandra S. Rodler. It was inaugurated on September 1st 2020 and is due to be concluded on August 31st 2022.

Project summary

Like the present, the ancient world was fascinated by color too. People manipulated natural materials to use them as colorants early on and color has been an integral part of e.g. rituals, architecture, sculpture, textiles or other wear and use items. The use of color indicates advanced technical skills, complex comprehension and preference. The understanding of our colorful past is part of scholarly discussions and becoming accepted among a wider audience. This is supported by advances in analytical methods capable of characterizing traces of colorants from archaeological contexts. Recent scientific advances even aim at provenancing the raw materials used for ancient pigments. This is highly relevant, because it can elucidate not only the origin and exploitation of resources, connecting various places through trade, but potentially also production processes and the transfer of technological skills and know-how.

The advances in the scientific characterization of ancient pigments are a promising approach for elucidating provenance and production processes. This has great potential for indicating organization of production, cultural and technological exchange and transfer of knowledge.

With a focus on the provenance of resources for and production technology of red (Cinnabar) and blue pigments (Egyptian blue) – both pigments were spatially and temporally widely employed in the Roman world – we will investigate the economic and cultural dimensions, and relevance of color. Through a multi-analytical approach, we will thus test the potential of ancient pigments as subtle, but powerful indicators of trade, technological and cultural transfer and transmission. This project will inquire, whether it is possible to connect the origin of resources of pigments, the people that were sourcing/producing pigments and those who appreciated and used art to communicate prestige and power.

Research questions

  • Identification and characterization
    What colorants were used in Roman Noricum?
  • Provenance and production
    Where did raw materials come from?
    How were they processed?
  • Change and continuity
    How did trade, pigment production and the use of color change during the Roman expansion to Noricum?


  • Non-invasive analysis during field work followed by sample collection
  • Analysis of paint layer microstratigraphy and characterization of mineral phases
  • Trace element and isotope analysis for addressing raw material provenance



This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 845075.