Ancient Color

Ancient Color

Creating Using Investigating

Red Pigments

Red earth/ocher

Red ocher
Red earth/ocher pigment
  • What is it made of? Red earth, or red ocher, comes from natural earth deposits which contain iron oxide minerals that are red in color. Various amounts of water in the iron oxide molecule result in different red hues.
  • Where does it come from? The Roman architect Vitruvius says that red earth is found in many places, but that the best red earths are from the Black Sea coast in Turkey, from Egypt, from the Balearic Islands off the southern coast of Spain, as well as from the Greek island of Lemnos. Theophrastus says that it was also mined in central Turkey and on the Greek island of Kea.
  • How is it made? The pigment was prepared by selecting certain pigmented areas from a mineral deposit and grinding and separating the mineral into a fine, even powder.
  • Fun fact! One well-known red earth mineral, hematite, gets its name from the Greek word for “blood.”


Cinnabar pigment
Cinnabar/vermilion pigment
  • What is it made of? Cinnabar, also known as vermilion, is a naturally occurring mineral containing mercury and sulfur and was a by-product of silver mining.
  • Where does it come from? According to Vitruvius, the mineral was discovered near Ephesus, in western Turkey, and was later extracted from silver mines in Spain.
  • How is it made? Vitruvius describes the process of extracting the pigment by heating the mineral ore to remove the mercury. The remaining material was then pounded until a red powder formed. Romans were also able to synthesize vermilion using ore mined from Almadén, Spain.
  • Fun fact! Cinnabar/vermilion will turn black under certain conditions. Vitruvius stated that moonlight was the cause, but scientists now attribute the color change to high humidity and exposure to light.

Red lead

Red lead
Red lead
Red lead
Red lead pigment
  • What is it made of? This was a manufactured lead oxide mineral.
  • Where does it come from? Red lead production has been linked to the silver mines at Rio Tinto and other locations in Roman Spain.
  • How is it made? This pigment was made by heating litharge, or lead white, to a temperature of about 480 degrees Celsius.
  • Fun fact! In Roman Egypt a number of mummies were wrapped in shrouds that were painted with red lead. Red lead is toxic and served as an antiseptic against organisms that would have caused the mummy to decay.
Ochre quarry Close×
The clay hills of Roussillon, France, have been an important source of ocher pigment since the 18th century. Photo: Fulvio Spada.
Cinnabar/vermillion on wall murals of Pompeii Close×
Darkened cinnabar/vermilion can be seen on the wall murals of Pompeii. Photo: Matthias Kabel.