Sensing the ancient world: The multiple dimensions of ancient Graeco-Roman art

Persistent identifier:


The five senses -visual, olfactory, tactile, gustatory, and auditory– are mostly perceived as something we as archaeologists cannot study – a kind of invisible past – and therefore often ignored in scholarship. So far, archaeology has mainly engaged with and studied direct material evidence in the form of tangible objects. However, these items obviously do not represent the entire picture, as much has disappeared (e.g. artefacts in organic material), while other aspects are in intangible form. The particular focus on the preserved is reflected in our general approach to the ancient, white, aesthetic marble works displayed in museum collections. These artworks are in a way only “skeletons” representing only the “first stage” and are thus far from representative of the ancient experience of the same works, rendering our perception of ancient sculpture somewhat unhelpfully clinical. This view, however, is slowly being replaced by a new and more inclusive view, arguing that colour represented a fourth dimension of ancient sculpture (Liverani 2003). Yet we tend to forget that ancient art contains many more dimensions invisible to the contemporary viewer. This research project aims to investigate these additional dimensions – the invisible archaeology – through the involvement of the human senses, in order to gain a new understanding of ancient art. The specific focus is on polychromy, textiles, scent, and sound.

This type of research cannot be carried out within a single academic field, but needs an interdisciplinary profile. The research therefore constitutes a point of departure in classical archeology, but involves classical philology and conservation science, as well as art history, ancient history, physics, chemistry, geology/geochemistry, and experimental archaeology.


The white marble artefacts seen in museums are far from “representative” of ancient art, as they were originally painted, yet only few colour traces have survived the ravages of time. Although it is a well established fact that ancient sculpture and architecture were painted, further research is needed. New methods, especially in the natural sciences, can contribute new knowledge regarding binding media, painting techniques, pigment identification, and provenance, allowing genuine advances in the understanding of ancient polychromy.

At the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, analyses of the original polychromy of ancient art are carried out, primarily employing non-invasive methods of analysis such as X-ray fluorescence (XRF), UVF and Visible Induced Luminescence (VIL) photography. VIL is a particularly useful tool which enables the identification of the ancient pigment Egyptian Blue – the world’s first synthetic pigment, invented in the 3rd millennium BCE (fig. 1a). The method can actually identify single particles of Egyptian blue, even when these are invisible to the naked eye. Thus, VIL can potentially confirm that ancient artefacts were originally painted, even when no trace of the original paint is visible. UVF works on the principle that some organic compounds fluoresce in ultraviolet light. This is the case with  colourants such as madder lake (from the roots of the plant Rubia tinctoria) as well as binding media such as resins, glues, and waxes. On ancient artefacts it is typically madder lake that can be traced with UV. The UV images of the portrait of the emperor Caligula are a clear example of this, since the coral red fluorescence indicates that his lips were painted with madder lake. (fig. 1b).

Fig. 1. Portrait of the emperor Caligula. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, inv. no. 2687. Photos: Maria Louise Sargent. Top right corner: VIL image of left ear and hair. Lower right corner: UVF image of lips.
Fig. 1. Portrait of the emperor Caligula. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, inv. no. 2687. Photos: Maria Louise Sargent. Top right corner: VIL image of left ear and hair. Lower right corner: UVF image of lips.


Besides being painted, ancient sculpture was sometimes embellished with or even dressed in textiles. The addition of textiles potentially transformed their appearance drastically. Thus, neither the marble nor the polychromy alone is sufficient in understanding the original appearance and expression of ancient art. This is still a new field of research, and the practice is so far mainly documented in Greece and the Middle East, where cult images in particular are described as being dressed in real textiles. However, written sources suggest that the same tradition was widespread in Italy. As an example, Pausanias describes how the statue of Hercules in the Forum Boarium in Rome was clothed in full triumphal garb during processions (Paus. Nat. 34.16) and Cicero reports that the statue of Zeus Olympios at Syracuse wore a woollen mantle (Cic. Nat. D. 3.34.83). Finally, according to Ovid, the identity of a statue in the Temple of Fortuna was unknown as a consequence of the fact that is was covered in robes (Ov. fast. 6.569ff).

Textiles were not only used for statues, but also, to a great extent, for embellishing ancient architecture, such as for curtains, room-dividers, wall-hangings, carpets etc. This use of textiles is attested in written sources as well as in iconography, where textiles are occasionally depicted as supplementing the architectural structures. Such furnishing textiles could possibly also be used to create dramatic back-drops and surroundings for the sculptures, and thus bestow an effect on their appearance and perception by the ancient audience. The textiles were not necessarily added as entire garments or large pieces of cloth, but were often simply added as ribbons, tied around the sculpture, column, or other monument. This is attested by written sources, but is particularly evident in ancient iconography such as vase paintings, reliefs, and Greek stelai.


An additional dimension of ancient art is fragrance. One of the most interesting things about scent is its impermanence and general absence in archaeological contexts. Scent, however, was a complex and controversial part of the ancient sensory system and it has been argued that the sense of smell is a powerful tool in understanding the Graeco-Roman world. Scholars have even argued for the existence of ancient “smell-scapes” (Bradley 2015). This is relevant to this project, since perfumes and scented oils were used not only for the beautification of the human body, but also on statues.

Again iconography can provide further knowledge. The white-ground lekythoi often depict scenes at the grave, where the perfume containers themselves are used as offerings and the perfume dripped on the grave stelai, which are also decorated with wreaths of scented flowers and herbs, all adding to the sensory experience.

Several literary sources are helpful when it comes to the investigation of ancient smells such as perfumes. Theophrastos’ work On Odours is an exceptionally extensive source of knowledge of perfume recipes. Further knowledge comes from archaeological contexts, primarily in the form of perfume containers and the residues within.


Sound also influences how we perceive our surroundings, including artefacts. The archaeology of sound or “archaeo-acoustics” is a new research field, which has, so far, focused primarily on music and the relationship between architecture and sound through acoustic analyses of megalithic monuments. These studies show that the auditory experience greatly shaped the social, cultural, political, and aesthetic behaviour in societies of the past. In the Graeco-Roman world, sounds from the processions in sanctuaries, symposia, theatre performances, daily life etc. undoubtedly influenced the experience of both sculpture and architecture.


The significance of light is also included in the research project. Light played a functional, spiritual, as well as a social role in ancient societies and obviously had an impact on how the colours, for example, were experienced. This is a challenging topic, since the context of the artwork is crucial/essential – information, which is often lost. Nevertheless, architectural structures can provide information on how the works of art would have been illuminated and experienced. As an example, in the Temple of Athena Parthenos on the Acropolis, there was a large pool in front of the statue of the goddess. The water (or oil) in the pool would have been reflected on the statue, making it seem almost alive. The light would of course change from day to night, affecting the experience of the statue and the building itself. The interaction of architecture, light and water is thus an important aspect of the ancient sensory experience of ancient works of art. 

Further findings at the CHS

During the fellowship at the CHS, I have focused on becoming familiar with all the relevant literature on the topic of the ancient sensorium. Furthermore, I have studied the ancient literary sources, particularly Theophrastos’ work On Odours as well as Pliny’s Natural History for to gain, thereby, insight into the smells and uses of perfume in Antiquity. This has sparked the idea of reproducing some of the perfumes described by Theophrastos, which could be used for dissemination purposes at the museum. I aim to reproduce some of these ancient perfumes by using the facilities for experimental archaeology at the Lejre Land of Legends in Denmark. Moreover, the possibilities for carrying out analyses of the scant remains in ancient perfume bottles are currently being investigated.

During the fellowship at the CHS, a number of works of ancient art in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek have been examined: Thus, the Attic Greek stelai as well as twenty of the museum’s Palmyra portraits have undergone analyses, which has shown interesting, positive results. I have also arranged for five large Roman marble sculptures with traces of original polychromy to be examined during 2018.

In addition, ten samples of ancient binding media and coatings will be analysed (with GC-MS and FTIR) by the scientists at the Metropolitan Museum of Art during March. I have, moreover, established a collaboration with a scholar from Vienna, who will carry out isotope-analyses of pigment samples from works of art in the museum. Finally, a collaboration with the HUM lab at the University of Copenhagen has been initiated with the aim of carrying out photogrammetric recordings of several of the ancient marble artworks. These recordings will be used for digital dissemination as well as experimenting with reconstructions (including colour, textiles, light etc.) in Virtual Reality. All these analyses and experiments are important steps in understanding the original appearance of the works of ancient art.

Moreover, I have carried out a case-study on the use of polychromy, textiles, and perfumes in relation to Greek burial monuments, based on a thorough study of primarily Greek grave stelai and white-ground lekythoi. The stelai were originally painted in bright colours besides being decorated with colourful ribbons. The latter is attested by the custom of painting the ribbons on the stelai themselves, e.g. on Hellenistic stelai from Chersonesos (Posamentir 2011). Moreover, this is attested in the scenes painted on the white-ground lekythoi, where women carry ribbons to the grave monuments, tying them around the stelai itself (Oakley 2004). Furthermore, the white-ground lekythoi contained perfumes, which were used as offerings at the grave, thus creating a smell-scape further enhanced by the wreaths of laurel and other scented herbs and flowers used to decorate the burial monuments.

Fig. 2. White-ground lekythoi, depicting the use of ribbons to decorate grave monuments. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, inv. nos. IN 2778, 2779, 2780.
Fig. 2. White-ground lekythoi, depicting the use of ribbons to decorate grave monuments. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, inv. nos. IN 2778, 2779, 2780.

Research impact

My contribution to this field of research is that I am one of the first, who combine the many inaccessible and often invisible aspects of ancient material cultures, which makes it possible to understand the original expression and effects of ancient Graeco-Roman works of art to a far greater extent. This entails an entirely new way of thinking of and perceiving ancient art works. This new knowledge will be incorporated in the new exhibitions of the ancient collections of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek and will be disseminated via international publications and conferences.

Select bibliography

Bradley, M., ed. 2015. Smell and the Ancient Senses. New York.

Brøns, C. 2016. Gods and Garments: Textiles in Greek Sanctuaries in the 7th to the 1st Centuries BC. Oxford.

Brøns, C., and A. Skovmøller. 2017. “Colour-coding the Roman Toga. The Materiality of Textiles Represented in Ancient Sculpture.” Antike Kunst 60:55-79.

Butler, S., and A. Purves, eds. 2013. Synaesthesia and the Ancient Senses. Durham.

Eneix, L.C. 2016. Listening for Ancient Gods. Myakka City.

Oakley, J.H. 2004. Picturing Death in Classical Athens: The Evidence of the White Lekythoi. Cambridge.

Posamentir, R. 2011. Chersonesan Studies 1: The Polychrome Grave Stelai from the Early Hellenistic Necropolis. Austin.

Purves, A., ed. 2017. Touch and the Ancient Senses. New York.

Squire, M., ed. 2016. Sight and the Ancient Senses. New York.

Stubbe Østergaard, J., and A.M. Nielsen, eds. 2014. Transformations. Classical Sculpture in Colour. Copenhagen.