Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

The Kore 670 sculpture on loan to the Royal Ontario Museum, in Toronto.Paul Eekhoff/Courtesy of ROM

If you visit the third-floor galleries at the Royal Ontario Museum devoted to the art of ancient Greece you will be greeted by a room full of white heads. For many, that’s a familiar and expected encounter with Greek art, a culture that sculpted images of its gods and heroes with miraculous realism – in pristine white marble.

If, however, you stop on the first floor of the Toronto museum, you will encounter a quite different image of Greek art: a statue of a young woman with pale red braids, yellow discs for earrings and a headdress with sections in yellow and dark blue. To mark the 80th anniversary of relations between Greece and Canada, the Acropolis Museum in Athens has lent one single but highly important artifact. She is Kore 670, a sculpted figure of a kore, or maiden, about the size of a child. She was one of several hundred statues that would have decorated the Acropolis in the 6th century BCE, standing outside Athena’s temple with offerings to the goddess in their sculpted hands.

When the Persians attacked Athens in 480 BCE, they destroyed the temple. About 30 years later, after the Greeks reclaimed the Acropolis and built the Parthenon, a dozen of the remaining statues were buried, perhaps simply as landfill as the area was rebuilt.

Those buried figures were uncovered in 1886 when Greece was once again reclaiming its national shrine, this time from the Turks who had built a mosque on the site. Protected from the elements for thousands of years, the recovered sculptures were different from those that had come down to modern times. They bore clearly visible remains of paint: The maiden at the ROM has traces of the strong colours that would have decorated the figure. The didactic panels alongside show a speculative recreation of what she would have originally looked like with auburn hair and a draped gown of pale orange gathered at the front with a border of blue and white.

Open this photo in gallery:

The statue has traces of the original colours that would have been visible when it decorated the Acropolis in the 6th century BCE.Giorgos Vitsaropoulos/Acropolis Museum

Research on the colours of Greek statuary is not new – archeological discoveries of pigmented statues date back as far as the 18th century – but the notion that the Greeks were not a people of alabaster skin has only established itself in this century. That’s thanks to German scholars led by archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann, who in the 2000s began circulating the exhibition Gods in Colour, which features highly colourful reproductions of stone and bronze statues. For example, a figure of an archer from a 6th-century BCE temple on the Greek island of Aegina was given a bright yellow cap and multicoloured hose.

Since the 1980s, new imaging technology has been able to analyze tiny traces of pigment to determine what colours were used, but today there is also gathering interest because the coloured statues counter racial stereotypes. Historically, there has been a cultural association between the pure white marble and a notion that a white race launched Western civilization. Turns out those Greek faces were never white. The maidens’ faces would have been painted with the relatively pale skin tones associated with upper-class women who stayed out of the sun, but the Greeks did not share modern concepts of race and valued dark skin in men as a sign of virility. Statues of male figures would have reflected that: the Gods in Colour show includes reproductions of bronze sculptures of athletes painted with dark brown skin.

So, the statue’s appearance in Toronto is part of a contemporary discussion about how cultural history has been viewed through a white-supremacist lens. It also belongs to contemporary cultural politics in another way, part of Greece’s charm offensive to secure the return of the Parthenon marbles from the British Museum. In exchange for Kore 670, the ROM is lending two rare amphoras to Greece for exhibition next summer and fall, jugs that would have been filled with precious olive oil and presented to victorious athletes: cultural exchanges with like-minded democracies do reinforce the point that Greece is quite capable of curating its own ancient heritage.

The Greeks have long sought the return of the lily white Elgin Marbles, sculptures taken from the Parthenon in the early 19th century by the Earl of Elgin, and in 2009 opened the new Acropolis Museum with the express purpose of reuniting the scattered sculptures, a few of which reside in other European museums. Recently, the two sides do seem to be making some progress on the idea of a loan arrangement that would not force the Greeks to acknowledge British ownership.

International opinion increasingly favours repatriating the spoils of colonialism. Just last week, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington announced it is returning to Nigeria its share of the remarkable Benin bronzes, 16th-century plaques and sculptures of humans and animals that were looted during a British raid on the city of Benin in 1897.

Can the return of the Parthenon marbles be far off? Once they go home, the Greeks can ponder what colour they might have been.

Kore 670 from the Acropolis Museum in Athens will be on display at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto to Sept. 25

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe