Podcast Season 2, Episode 5 – In Living Colour: Painting and Pigments with Hilary Becker

Dr. Hilary Becker standing in front of a large body of water with mountains in the background.
Dr. Hilary Becker

On Season 2, Episode 5 of the Peopling the Past podcast, we are joined by Dr. Hilary Becker, an assistant professor of classics at Binghamton University, where she works on Etruscan and Roman art and archaeology, specifically the ancient Roman economy and the pigment trade. She is also an archaeologist and, most recently, she has served as co-principal investigator in the Area Sacra di Sant’Omobono in Rome.

Listen in, as Dr. Becker explains the role of pigments in the ancient world, including their use in medication, cosmetics and, of course, painting. We also get to talk about her excavations at Sant’Omobono and the possible discovery of Rome’s only surviving pigment shop.

Interested in learning more? Check out this related article by Dr. Becker.

2013. R. Beeston and H. Becker. “Investigation of Ancient Roman Pigments by Portable X-ray Fluorescence Spectroscopy and Polarized Light Microscopy,” In Archaeological Chemistry VIII. American Chemical Society Symposium Series. Edited by R. A. Armitage and J. Burton. Washington, D.C.: American Chemical Society, 19–41.

Looking for a transcript of this episode? Click here.
A painted advertisement on an ancient wall from Herculaneum. I depicts four wine-pouring vessels with a Latin inscriptions that reads, "Ad Cucumas". Translation: “to the cups (or cooking vessels)."
A painted advertisement (Ad Cucumas or (“to the cups (or cooking vessels)!”)) listing the different prices for wine flanking a shop on the Decumanus Maximus of Herculaneum (insula VI, no. 4) (Public Domain)
close-up of a ground, red pigment which looks like a powder.
Vermillion or cinnabar pigment (CC BY-SA 3.0)
close-up of a ground, blue pigment which looks like a powder.
Ground azurite for use as a pigment (Public Domain)
Ground yellow ochre for use as a pigment (CC BY-SA 3.0)
A photo of a line of different pigments, including carbon black, red ochre, cinnabar, red lead, orpiment, and malachite.
Pigments profiled in this display include materials such as carbon black, red ochre, cinnabar, red lead, orpiment, and malachite.
A sample of pigments, dyes and bowls used in the production of colour in the ancient world. This was on display in an exhibit at the Kelsey Museum.
Samples of pigments and dyes used by the Greeks and Romans from the Ancient Color exhibition at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology (2019)
Additional Resources Related to this Podcast

2021. “Color Technology and Trade,” In Cultural History of Color, a six-volume series with one volume dedicated to ancient color. Carole Biggam and Kirsten Wolf, general editors; David Wharton, editor of the antiquity volume. Bloomsbury Publishing, 35-48.). In press.

2020. “Grading for color: Pliny’s hierarchy of pigment quality,” In The Nature of Art. Pliny the Elder on materials. Edited by A. Anguissola and A. Grüner. Brepols, 194-200. In press.

2020. H. Becker, T. Rutkowski, V. G. Ersan, M. Poliks, L. Piper, M. Postlewait, L. Schmitt, J. Young, P. Smart, and V. Imbruce. “Materials Matter: Exploring ancient pigments in the classroom,” In Archaeological Chemistry: A Multidisciplinary Analysis of the Past. Edited by M. V. Orna and S. C. Rasmussen. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 52-72.

2020. M. Ceci and H. Becker. “Uso dei colori e scelta dei pigmenti nel mondo romano,” In Picta Fragmenta. La Pittura Vesuviana. Una Rilettura.National Archaeological Museum.Naples, Italy. September 12th-16th, 2018. Edited by V. Sampaolo, P. Giulierini, and A. Coralini. Milan: Silvana Editoriale, 421-27.

2016. “Roman women in the urban economy: occupations, social connections, and gendered exclusions,” In Women in Antiquity: Real Women Across the Ancient World. Edited by J. Turfa and S. Budin. London: Routledge, 915-931.

2013. R. Beeston and H. Becker. “Investigation of Ancient Roman Pigments by Portable X-ray Fluorescence Spectroscopy and Polarized Light Microscopy,” In Archaeological Chemistry VIII. American Chemical Society Symposium Series. Edited by R. A. Armitage and J. Burton. Washington, D.C.: American Chemical Society, 19–41.

Interested in learning more about colour in the ancient world? Check out this podcast by Dr. Jennifer Stager on polychromy and Greek statues in ancient Greece.

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