Too often when we walk through Ancient Greek sculpture exhibition in museums and see white, marble statues with sightless eyes. That’s now how our ancestors created sculpture.

The new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Choma, recreates what our ancestors statues looked like: they’re painted in garish colours with multiple patterns.

“For some, it will be a shock,” said Max Hollein, the director of the museum to NPR.

“But one has to understand that our current, whitewashed idea of Greek and Roman antiquity is wrong. It’s false.”

Our ancients’ sculpture was brightly painted. In one of the galleries, there’s a watercolour of parts of the Acropolis when it was excavated in 1888 – and it’s evident that the architectural segments came out of the ground vibrantly coloured.

The Acropolis Museum in Athens has pigments on display used by our ancients. Some of the works on the Acropolis Museum, like the Mycenean serpent, still have traces of colour. Until more recent times the knowledge of how we once painted our statues and buildings was lost.

The current exhibition at our own Melbourne Museum, Open Horizons – Ancient Greek Journeys and Connections, also has vases which depict our passion of colour and many of the statues show our connection to Africa and the east.

The absence of the knowledge that we used colour and were deeply influenced by Egypt, India and Persia, has played into the hands of British, German, and French archaeologists from the 19th Century who created a myth of whiteness and from that white as superior.

Our artworks had much more in common with Indian, Egyptian, and other African cultures than those heroic and white statues that adorned Imperial Britain or Germany.

Vinzenz Brinkmann, Head of the Department of Antiquity at the Liebieghaus Sculpture Collection in Frankfurt am Main, said to NPR that when he first started researching polychromy 40 years ago, “no one had interest in this for years, no one collected the clearly visible evidence. Except for me. I collected the evidence like a stamp collection.”

Brinkmann and his wife, archaeologist Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, used photographic and spectroscopic technology.

The reconstruction of a sphinx in the Met’s collection, commissioned around 530 BCE is one such case.

“Colour conveys a lot of information, and when you see it from a distance, it really helps to identify different features,” said Seán Hemingway, lead curator of the Met’s Greek and Roman Art department.

“Also, a lot of these sculptures were outside, and in Greece with that very strong, bright Mediterranean sun, you need those bright colours because they get muted a little bit, they get washed out.”

We Greeks were great storytellers, and these sculptures were often set in temples to the gods or as memorials.

When people saw them, they would have immediately understood the different threads of story and myth they allude to.

“Like the sphinx, which is the guardian figure. There’s that famous story of the sphinx at the crossroads and having to answer the questions — that sphinx stood on a column, too. So, anyone who saw this sphinx would have thought about this dangerous creature that can kill you and can speak to you.”

The reconstructed sphinx is placed near the original sphinx, where visitors can see smudges of colour on the figure’s body.

The 17 Greek and Roman reconstructions are placed near similar pieces in the galleries and stretch from the early bronze age to the second century CE.

Ancient Greeks learned techniques from Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Asia. “At the final point in this evolution, they learned how to deceive the human eye,” Brinkmann said to NPR.

“We know from written sources that bronze sculptures of this period were perceived as super-realistic, often people reached those statues in Greek sanctuaries and didn’t know exactly — is this talking to me? Will this stand up? Or is it just bronze?”

Chroma will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through March 2023.

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How the Brinkmann’s reconstructed statues from antiquity.