The color BLUE in ancient Egypt and Sudan

Blue Amun at Kumma temple (Boston MFA 25.1510A-B) and on Qasr Ibrim tapestry (Trustees of the British Museum EA71854)

When I started researching Meroitic textiles, I was very much stricken by the omnipresence of the color blue. Beside few isolated cases of reddish-brown embroideries, much the decorative features in tapestry and embroidery showcase different shades of blue. It is particularly noteworthy when compared to the pristine whites of Pharaonic linens or to the Romans’ love for purple. Quite naturally, my curiosity turned towards the symbolic significance of blue in ancient Sudan and its possible link to the god Amun. It also made me turn west, towards the Saharan belt and their many indigo traditions. In no time, like many “textile people”, I became obsessed with the blue color and the intricacies of blue dyes.

A meeting with Cecilie Brøns, polychromy expert at the Glyptotek and like-minded blue enthusiast, opened new doors to Egyptian blue pigments and architectural and sculptural medium. Together, we joined forces with the TAES network to organize an interdisciplinary workshop on the color blue in ancient Egypt and Sudan, held at the University of Copenhagen on the 3rd and 4th of March 2020. Our goal was to explore the relations between different media – architecture, statuary, and costume – and different material – pigments and dyes. We were particularly interested in:

  • Interdisciplinary research between archaeology, art history, museum conservation, and natural sciences.
  • New laboratory techniques in pigments and dyes identification.
  • The diversity of blue objects and the use of blue on the monumental landscape.
  • The use of the color blue in body practices.

We were fortunate to receive a group of talented researchers and artists coming from different disciplines and horizons, who all together formed a rich program. The academic papers were hosted on the first day while the second day was dedicated to directly experiencing the color blue. In the morning, dyer Fria Gemynthe (Lejre Land of Legends) conducted an indigo dyeing workshop, and in the afternoon artists and designers Aboubakar Fofana, Gail Rotschild, Helle Vibeke Jensen, and Ulrikka Mokdad presented their work during talks and a small painting and textile exhibition.

Merging scientific communications, hands-on experience and artistic presentations, the workshop shed light on the technical and cultural depth of the color blue along the Nile and beyond. It was very informative as well as inspirational. We were very disappointed not to be able to stream the papers online, as originally planned, so we decided to share them in a forthcoming volume of proceedings instead. We hope for a very nice – blue – book!

On a more personal note, the event coincided with the official end of my MSCA project.  I couldn’t have wished for a better ending, especially a short week before the Corona virus confined us all in our respective homes and countries. The workshop was made possible thanks to our generous sponsors, the Carlsberg Foundation, the Luis-Hansens Fond, the UCPH Almene Fond, and the European Union (TexMeroe project, MSCA 743420).  Many thanks to our fantastic squad of student helpers, and to friends and colleagues at the Centre for Textile Research and Saxo Institute for their constant support and logistic help.

Thanks to everyone who accepted our invitation to Copenhagen.

To many more BLUE journeys together.

Photo gallery: ©Pernille Olsen.

Tags : ancient textilesarchitectureartistsblueconferencedyeEgyptian blueexperimental archaeologyfunerary artpaintingpigmentsresearchvisual landscapeworkshop
Elsa Yvanez

The author Elsa Yvanez

I am an archaeologist, researcher and post-doctoral fellow at the Centre for Textile Research, Copenhagen University.