The History of the Color Brown: Powdered Remains of Ancient Egyptian Mummies

Stone pharaoh Tutankhamun mask on brown colored wall

We’re surrounded by the color brown to such a ubiquitous level that we often take it for granted. After all, brown is the color of the very dirt which life is built upon. If there’s life in an area then it’s always built on a brown foundation. Even the blue oceans boast nutrient-rich brown dirt in their deepest depths.

However, things become more complicated as we look into the past. Our ancestors were much more aware of the color brown. Hunters and gatherers both needed to look for variations in those natural tones. This is as true for hunters looking for a hint of brown in foliage to indicate deer as it was for farmers working their land. And of course artists have their say in the history of the color as well.

Let’s travel back in time and see how the color brown has been used throughout history.

The Earliest Brown Paintings

Closeup of prehistoric painting of brown animals in the Lascaux caves in France

To find humanity’s first uses of brown pigment we need to go into our oldest known records. Most people know that France has an amazing history, filled with artistic and cultural innovations. However, France’s history goes back far further than most people realize. Southern France actually contains one of the oldest examples of humanities artistic expression.

The region’s Lascaux cave system contains paintings which were created about 200,000 years ago. We can’t be entirely certain why those ancient people created their paintings. It’s almost certain that the paintings pertain to hunting. But curiously some animals which were a staple of their diet aren’t represented. This hints at other possibilities. For example, it might suggest that they were especially interested in finding more difficult prey. This wouldn’t be too different from modern humans who prize the novelty of some dishes as much as the taste.

But whatever the reason, we see countless examples of brown coloring in the Lascaux cave paintings. We don’t just see a single shade of brown either. There’s a fair amount of variation within the colors on display. The fact that the people of the time needed to use fire to light their way makes this even more remarkable. Our ancient predecessors weren’t just creating simple pictures.

The ancient artists were putting their hearts and souls into the creative process. They needed to deal with the smoke of their fires and the lack of ventilation as they carefully worked on the cave paintings. And even in the midst of that difficulty, they were able to work on shades of brown to depict various animals.

Mesopotamia’s Amazing Cultural Innovations

Gilgamesh master of animals commanding two lions in ancient Mesopotamia

Our next stop in the history of brown will focus on an area often known as the birthplace of modern civilization. Ancient Mesopotamia created a vast array of cultural innovations. For example, we find the first set of codified laws show up in twenty-fifth century B.C. within the city of Ur. The first epic, Gilgamesh, was created around 2,100 B.C. The story centered around a semi-historic figure who is thought to have ruled Uruk around 2,900 B.C. Of course, this is just skimming the surface of ancient Mesopotamia’s influence.

The most important point to keep in mind is that the region is incredibly ancient and influential. Ancient Mesopotamia was something of an experiment in civilization. We see new ideas rising up for the first time. Some of those ideas went on to influence humanity as a whole. We now see modern storytellers leverage The Epic of Gilgamesh into everything from video games to TV shows. Likewise, we might disagree with the specifics of the Hammurabi laws. But the concept of legal justice rings as true in the modern context as it did in 2,500 B.C.

However, ancient Mesopotamia had a very different way of looking at color. It’s arguably one of the more alien aspects of this often shockingly familiar civilization. To begin with, the culture didn’t even have a specific word for color. Ancient Mesopotamians saw color as more of an intrinsic aspect of particular objects.

Think back to the last time you saw the familiar reddish-brown of a whitetail deer. Now imagine that you saw someone wearing a shirt of the same color. In the modern context, we’d say that he was wearing a reddish-brown shirt. But an ancient Mesopotamian might describe it as a deer shirt.

Brown ancient Mesopotamian relief of Assyrian god

It’s important to keep that idea in mind when we look at Mesopotamian artwork. These ancient artists most certainly understood color. But they attributed a different meaning to it than we do today. We also need to keep the materials they used in mind. We often see brown coloring show up in artwork due to the simple fact that it was made with brown material. For example, temple exteriors might be cast in bronze. As a result, the temples would have a brown shine.

Additionally, use of clay and mud bricks was quite common in ancient Mesopotamia. The land itself provided cheap and efficient building material. It’s little wonder that we find so many earth tones in their remaining ruins and artifacts. Someone walking the streets of ancient Ur would see a whole lot of brown.

But it’s important to keep the context in mind. Yes, brown showed up fairly often in ancient Mesopotamian culture. But their relationship with the color, and all colors really, was different than our modern context. We see something closer to our modern view of culture in another advanced civilization that overlaps the full flourishing of ancient Mesopotamia.

Egypt and the Celebration of Color

Passage with Egyptian hieroglyphs in the Temple of Edfu in Egypt

The ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures were well known to each other. Trade between the two empires was of course hampered by distance. However, we see many instances of artwork moving between these two points. Some of the older examples are, in fact, brown. This makes the color something of an ancient cultural ambassador.

It’s important to note that Egyptians saw color in a very different way than the Mesopotamians. In fact, the ancient Egyptian view of color is remarkably similar to our own. They’re especially notable for their use of blue pigments. This was extremely rare in the ancient world. But it highlights a type of artistic innovation which draws interesting parallels to the modern world.

Of course, when we look at the color brown it’s easy to assume that it was most effectively used in the Egyptian pyramids. Today these ancient wonders have a golden brown hue. But some of the pyramids used to look quite different thanks to a now missing outer layer. In fact, some used to have a distinctive white limestone covering. Egyptians would repurpose that material as the centuries rolled by. In other cases, time itself would wear away at the pyramid’s outer coating. And today we see the Egyptian pyramids with a rich golden brown color. These brown pyramids are undoubtedly beautiful. But it’s often a very different effect than the original designers intended.

Ancient Egyptians seldom aimed for a strictly defined brown coloring in their works. We instead see brown used more as a base for artwork. We see histories and mythologies written and illustrated on brown parchment for example. Or we might see an artist paint colorful scenes on a brown wall. Egyptians also used a light reddish brown for skin tone in many of their artistic creations. Again though, this is an example of colors close to brown being used rather than a more strict definition of the color.

Closeup of linen-wrapped Egyptian mummy in a brown casket

The lack of emphasis on true brown might come as a surprise to anyone who’s seen a shade called Egyptian brown. But this color came about long after ancient Egypt’s decline. In fact, the color has a somewhat morbid history tied to Egyptian mummies. This is where its other name, mummy brown, comes from. This once well known shade of brown was quite literally created from Egyptian mummies. We don’t know exactly when the practice began. But we can find instances of this practice dating back to 16th century Europe. The powdered remains of a mummy was often mixed with other ingredients such as white pitch and myrrh to create mummy or Egyptian brown pigments.

The practice of painting with the remains of human beings seems quite morbid to modern sensibilities. Mummies were treated with far less respect by Europeans in the 16th century than they are today. But even in that period, the idea of painting with human remains was a little too much for the average artist to take. It certainly had some popularity. But Egyptian or mummy brown was never popular enough to become a mainstay in the art world.

It’s also important to keep the time period in mind before we’re too quick to judge the artists who did make use of mummy brown. To begin with, it was often sold under a wide variety of names. And even those who knew the paint as mummy brown didn’t necessarily understand that it was created from actual mummies. Some accounts of artists making that discovery for the first time have survived to the modern day. These describe touching accounts of people who gave respectful burials to any mummy brown pigment they might have owned once they became aware of its true origin.

The Innovations of the Renaissance Period

Rembrandt self portrait at age 34 painted in the renaissance period

The experimentation which led to Egyptian brown is certainly upsetting. But it’s important to keep the historic period in mind. Egyptian brown was created during the period following the renaissance. The renaissance was itself a phenomenal period of artistic innovation. Artists were finding new ways to portray the world and new materials to use for the process.

However, brown is particularly noteworthy for another important aspect of the renaissance. Artists of the time were more focused than ever before on realism. Throughout most of human history, art has been more about evocative imagery than full photorealism. Artists attempted to evoke the feelings and general ideas associated with their subjects. But during the renaissance we see artists trying to replicate the appearance of their subjects.

Brown pigments, particularly umber, were an important part of this process. After all, our world is filled with brown earth tones. To replicate the world we need colors to match the earth beneath our feet. Artists continued to refine the various shades of brown to match the full spectrum of colors they saw around them.

Into the Modern Era

The art world was further invigorated as modern manufacturing caught up to the demand. New forms of synthetic pigments came onto the market. Colors which had been rare and precious throughout most of human history were suddenly available for pennies. This led to a lot of experimentation as people explored all of the options available to them.

The 1960s in particular saw an explosion of colors. Tie-dye shirts and accessories became a common sight. People were in love with the full range of colors that were available to them. However, this experimentation would eventually lead to a cultural backlash.

Retro 1970s teak cabinet in front of a brown wall

An argument can be made that the aesthetic choices of the 1970s were a backlash against the colorful displays of the 1960s. But whatever the reason we see a widespread love of earth tones in the 70s. This led to roughly a decade where brown was ubiquitous in the cultural landscape. Brown was one of the most popular choices for home decor, clothing and accessories. Even the rise of home video game consoles would come in the form of brown wood-paneled Atari 2600s.

The style of the 1980s would see yet another backlash against the existing extremes. The extreme choices in naturally bright colors in the 60s led to an extreme use of earth tones in the 70s. This would in turn lead to the public’s newfound enthusiasm for bright neon colors in the 80s.

This type of extreme reaction and counter-reaction would finally die down by the 1990s. The style of the decade is often reduced to the newfound popularity of plaid. But this style can also be seen as something of a compromise. It avoided the loud and often garish coloring of the 60s and 80s. But at the same time plaid also avoided the monotony of the 1970s insistence on brown and other earth tones.

Moving on into the 2000s we see the trend continuing. Brown is neither unabashedly embraced or avoided. And hopefully brown will also be remembered as we continue to march with it through a history yet to be written.