BMCR 2020.09.29

The meaning of color in ancient Mesopotamia

, The meaning of color in ancient Mesopotamia. Culture and history of the ancient Near East, 104. Leiden: Brill, 2019. 524 p.. ISBN 9789004415379. €163,00.

The present monograph is based on a doctoral thesis submitted to the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Yale University in 2017. It presents the first comprehensive study on color in ancient Mesopotamia to date.[1] The book consists of four chapters and an epilogue, supplemented by two Appendices (with tables of mineral pigments attested from Egypt and the ancient Near East), and thirty plates with color and black-and-white photographs of mineral specimens and ancient artefacts discussed in the study.

In the first chapter (“Color Semantics,” pp. 1–19), Shiyanthi Thavapalan introduces a brief history of color theories in different world cultures, and sketches modern research on color perception and color terms. This forms the theoretical background for her study. Chapter 2 (pp. 20–166) comprises a systematic investigation of words and expressions for colors in the Akkadian (i.e., Babylonian and Assyrian) language, focusing on “abstract color terms” and on words for the process of coloring or the state of being colored. Chapter 3 (pp. 167–373) studies “material colors,” i.e., Akkadian terms for colored substances (dyes and pigments, terms for precious stones and metals) and materials (such as glass, leather, wool). Chapter 4 (pp. 374–414) presents a case study on the polychromy of Neo-Assyrian palace reliefs, through an analysis of pigment traces on a group of reliefs from the North-West Palace at Nimrud in the possession of Yale University. The “Epilogue” (pp. 415–417) summarizes the findings of the book.

Chapter 2 sets out to delineate salient aspects of the conceptualization and categorization of colors in Akkadian cuneiform texts, by delineating and analyzing a core of abstract color terms, which Thavapalan distinguishes from concrete, material-based color terms discussed in Chapter 3. The approach chosen by Thavapalan draws on Brent Berlin and Paul Kay’s research on the so-called “Basic Color Terms,” which according to Berlin and Kay are not restricted in application, are frequently used, are abstract, and form a set of “psychologically salient” color terms in any given language.[2] All of the fourteen abstract terms elucidated by Thavapalan as most the salient Akkadian color terms are verbal (mostly verb-derived adjectives), while the concrete color terms are typically non-verbal. Further criteria used by Thavapalan for establishing the centrality of the Akkadian abstract color terms are: 1) the existence of derivatives and nominal forms, 2) a high frequency of attestations in textual sources, 3) their occurrence in literary texts, and 4) their use in figurative expressions.

This approach diverges from previous Assyriological attempts on Mesopotamian color terms, such as Landsberger’s study (1967), which argued that the Akkadian and Sumerian languages had a poor color vocabulary of only five primary color words (black, white, red, yellow/green, and multicolored). In contrast, one of the crucial conclusions of Thavapalan’s analysis is that Akkadian in fact had “a sophisticated color lexicon” (p. 415).

Another major insight presented in Chapter 2 is that in contrast to the hue-based English color vocabulary with which we are familiar, brightness and saturation (often in combination with hue) play a more important role for the meaning of Akkadian color words. Adapting a typology developed in linguistic studies of color term semantics, Thavapalan divides Akkadian color words into four categories (pp. 39–42): 1) PURE BRIGHTNESS terms (e.g., namru “dazzling,” eklu “dark,” eṭû “dim”); 2) BRIGHTNESS-DOMINATED terms indicating a level of brightness together with a focus on specific hues (e.g., peṣû “light+white,” ṣalmu “dark+black,” ḫ/ruššû “glowing+orange”); 3) HUE-DOMINATED terms only secondarily indicating a level of brightness (e.g., pelû “light orange/red”); 4) SATURATION-DOMINATED terms only secondarily indicating hue or brightness (e.g., sāmu “vivid+red,” (w)arqu “pale+yellow/green”).[3] As Thavapalan concludes, the stronger focus on brightness and saturation in Akkadian color terms may explain the fuzziness of several words with regard to hue: for example, (w)arqu can refer to both yellow and green, sāmu to shades of both red and orange.

The systematic investigation of color terms in Chapters 2 and 3 begins for each term with a discussion of etymology/history of textual attestations and orthography/by-forms. In the presentation of textual attestations for the color terms, Thavapalan differentiates between “characterizations” (i.e., statements about the visual properties of objects found in texts, reflecting perceptual reality), and “designations” (i.e., uses of specific color terms to classify an object “in terms of a particular visual category” (p. 32), reflecting a referent-specific color system that does not necessarily yield information about empirical reality (e.g., designations such as egg white or white wine). Examples of such color designations can be found in the five-color system used to classify objects in Mesopotamian lexical lists (such as ur₅-ra: ḫubullu), but also in the extended meanings some color terms can take on in technical text corpora (e.g., in medical texts, where peṣû “white” can refer to the “unnaturally blanched” appearance of body parts).

Statements that include comparisons to daily life objects can be helpful to elucidate a color term’s semantic focus (e.g., when the skin is described as being as black (ṣalmu) as pitch); but technical texts referring to identifiable phenomena and processes may also offer valuable clues (see, for example, p. 151 on the identification of the hue of ḫ/ruššû “orange”). Furthermore, the use of color terms in figurative language and idioms often underlines the symbolic or psychological meanings of colors (see, e.g., the overview presented in Table 2.4 on p. 37 and further in Chapter 2). The application of Thavapalan’s methodology in Chapter 2 results in a highly informative, detailed and well-presented survey that covers a broad range of textual sources and advances a much more nuanced and precise characterization of central Akkadian color words, both in terms of their spectrum and their semantic boundaries.

Chapter 3 highlights the importance of concrete materials such as mineral pigments, metals, and organic dyes for our understanding of the Akkadian color lexicon. Thavapalan analyzes the words for “material colors,” drawing attention to their embeddedness in economic and social practices, to their uses in industries, crafts, technologies (e.g., textile industries, glass making, metallurgy), to the complex processes of procurement, production, and circulation (e.g., import, trading) of such materials, and their role in technological innovations. The high economic and cultural values of some of these materials are likewise highlighted. As one central insight of this dense chapter, Thavapalan demonstrates that although names for materials usually cannot be regarded as color words strictly speaking, occasionally, substances such as lapis lazuli (uqnû), or gold (ḫurāṣu) can become color terms, through processes of semantic extension and adaptation to new contexts, techniques, and materials (e.g., in references to dyed fabrics, or glass/glazes imitating the color of specific precious stones).

Specialists and readers interested in the history of Mesopotamian crafts, science and medicine will appreciate Chapters 2 and 3 as a rich resource. For example, a number of the substances (minerals, pigments, plant dyes) discussed by Thavapalan also had medicinal uses. Although the exact identification of several of these substances (in terms of chemical compound or plant species) still remains uncertain or conjectural, Thavapalan offers very useful collections of textual evidence, critical discussions of secondary literature, and suggestions for identifications. In several places, Thavapalan proposes compelling revisions of the meaning of specific color terms proposed in earlier scholarship, or a new identification of specific substances. Notable examples that result from a combination of textual sources and material evidence from the archaeological record are the identification of duḫšu/dušû with calcite, and of zagindurû with Egyptian blue, a vitreous material of a light blue or turquoise color (pp. 244–264; 355–366).[4]

Chapter 4 presents a study of original color traces on Neo-Assyrian palace reliefs from Nimrud housed at the Yale University Art Gallery. Thavapalan situates these objects within the history of acquisition and display of ancient reliefs and statues in European and North American museum collections, pointing out that conservation practices in the late 19thand 20th centuries contributed to a loss of color traces, and to distorted perceptions of Ancient Near Eastern art as colorless – a false impression given the almost ubiquitous use of color in Assyrian palatial architecture (e.g., painted plaster, sculpture, and glazed bricks).[5]

As the study of the Yale reliefs from Nimrud (pp. 403–414) demonstrates, the non-invasive technology of visible-induced luminescence imaging can reveal even minimal ancient color traces not visible to the naked eye.[6] The experiments carried out by Thavapalan with Jens Stenger and Carol Snow from the Yale University Art Gallery detected quantities of Egyptian blue,[7] thus extending a previous chemical analysis of pigment traces that identified white pigment (calcium carbonate/sulfate), black (charcoal/bone), and red (hematite and cinnabar).[8] Notably, some areas on the Yale reliefs yielded simultaneous traces of two different pigments, suggesting that mixtures or layering of different colors were used to create specific shades or hues (e.g., purple, dark blue). This evidence leads Thavapalan to conclude that the color palette of artists in first-millennium-BCE Assyria was more sophisticated than has previously been recognized. The analysis also highlights that the stone reliefs were very likely completely colored, and that sculpture and the painting of that sculpture were of equal importance in the decorative programs of Neo-Assyrian palaces. In light of the historical inscriptions from the same period evoking the splendor of palace decorations (from metal plating to glazes) through metaphors referring especially to brightness, Thavapalan emphasizes that colors served to brighten up interiors and to enliven sculpted decorations.

In conclusion, The Meaning of Color in Ancient Mesopotamia is a ground-breaking, methodologically innovative, and insightful work. It makes an important contribution to the fields of color studies, historical semantics, and to the history of technologies, enriching our current understanding of Mesopotamian worldviews, languages and material culture. The book will be a valuable resource not only to Assyriologists, but, due to its comparative perspective, also to historians, linguists, and readers interested in the interrelations between language, thought, and culture.


[1] The only lengthy essay discussing Sumerian and Akkadian color terminology was published by Benno Landsberger in 1967 (B. Landsberger, “Über Farben im Sumerisch-Akkadischen,” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 31 (1967), 139–173. More recent contributions to the topic of colors and color terminology in Mesopotamia, e.g. by Maria Bulakh and David Warburton, are introduced by Thavapalan on pp. 17–18.

[2] B. Berlin and P. Kay (1969), Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution, Berkeley.

[3] Notably, Thavapalan includes material-based color terms such as uqnû “lapis lazuli” or ḫurāṣu “gold” among category 2 (BRIGHTNESS-DOMINATED) color terms (p. 40).

[4] The proposed identification of the plant kasû, which served as a condiment, basic staple food, red dye and medicinal substance, with safflower (pp. 350–352) should, however, be revised in the light of the recent study by Sona Eypper, convincingly demonstrating that kasû has to be tamarind (see S.C. Eypper [2019], “kasû(GAZISAR) Revisited,” Le Journal des Médecines Cunéiformes 33, 35–49).

[5] A number of other studies, e.g., on ancient Mesopotamian wall painting and painted statues, have likewise contributed to correcting this perception, see, e.g., A. Nunn (1988), Die Wandmalerei und der glasierte Wandschmuck im Alten Orient. Leiden; A. Nunn (2010), “Farben und Farbigkeit auf mesopotamischen Statuetten,” in J. Hempelmann and E. Rehm (eds.) Kulturlandschaft Syrien: Zentrum und Peripherie. Festschrift für Jan-Waalke Meyer. Münster, 427–448, 657–669. See further the contributions listed by Thavapalan on p. 19 n. 71.

[6] This technique was developed by Giovanni Verri; see G. Verri et al., “Assyrian Colours: Pigments on a Neo-Assyrian Relief of a Parade Horse,” The British Museum Technical Research Bulletin 3 (2009), 57–62.

[7] The findings of this survey are also summarized in S. Thavapalan, J. Stenger and C. Snow, “Color and Meaning in Ancient Mesopotamia: The Case of Egyptian Blue,” Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und Vorderasiatische Archäologie 106(2) (2016), 198–214, including a larger number of photographs of relief details revealed by visible light imaging than the selection of b/w photographs presented on Plates 25–30 of Thavapalan’s monograph.

[8] The results of this analysis by Elizabeth Hendrix are discussed by Thavapalan on pp. 392–396.