Marble helped scholars whitewash ancient history

July 17, 2017, 8:09pm

Go into any museum today and you’ll find a white marble statue or two. But as it turns out, most of the people they were modeled on weren’t actually white — just whitewashed.

This past spring, Sarah Bond found herself at the center of an unexpected controversy. Bond is a classicist, a profession that doesn’t really attract conflict, especially about race — until she wrote an article about on ancient statues and something called “polychromy,” an academic term that essentially means “lots of paint.”

Bond’s question was simple — paintings from Ancient Rome and Greece show a wide variety of skin tones that reflected a multi-ethnic society. Julius Caesar, for example, is generally depicted as a white man, when in fact historians believe he probably had a much darker, Mediterranean skin tone. So why are these statues always presented in bare marble?

“We’re interacting with something that is a fiction. It’s something that was transmitted to us because paint gets rubbed away,” Bond explains.“But at the same time it’s not something that is a reality, it’s a fiction that we really like telling ourselves.”

This segment originally aired July 17, 2017, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.