Colour is one of the most prominent features of human experience, but has often been ignored or overlooked in archaeological research. All practising archaeologists are aware of the colour of the materials which they handle — be they stone artefacts, painted pots, prehistoric monuments (frontispiece) or historical buildings. Yet all too frequently these items are robbed of their colour when they are published as black and white photos, abstract plans or reductionist line drawings. Equally discouraging is the fact that original colours are frequently missing or faded, removed by the passage of centuries. We know, for example, that the famous marble Cycladic figurines were originally brightly painted, but few traces of colouring survive. Yet such traces are enough to alert us to the radical transformation which colour could bring to old and faded remains.
In this Viewpoint feature we have invited a range of specialists to consider the meaning of colour in early societies. The intention has been to focus on those societies where evidence of colour is not so readily apparent. Egyptian art and Palaeolithic caves have their place in this debate, but we are also interested in the selection of stones of particular colours for tools or structures, and for the use of colour in textiles; areas in which almost all early societies must have been engaged.
The meaning of colour may be approached at a variety of levels. In literate societies, or those with a rich and detailed iconographic tradition, it may be possible to explore the particular significance of different colours in myths or rituals. Such understanding is more difficult in the case of prehistoric societies, yet even here we can gain some insight into colour symbolism by careful consideration of context, or by cautious appeal to common human experience. Context may suggest that red ochre in burials equates with blood, common experience that yellow is associated with the sun, and blue with the sky or the sea. The value accorded to particular colours can also be indicated by the workmanship and finish which objects received, and the distances that materials travelled: polished jadeite from the Alps to Scotland, or lapis lazuli from Afghanistan to Mesopotamia.
As the following articles demonstrate, all societies are concerned about colour, and
such concern can be traced back to at least the Upper Palaeolithic, if not before. To what extent particular colours, such as red or black, have cross-cultural significance, is an altogether more difficult question. Colour awareness and colour sensitivity must however be an integral part of any archaeological analysis concerned with the development and nature of human cognition.