The Power Of Red

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THE POWER OF RED Mark Jarzombek


In 2010, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in the state of Massachusetts hosted an exhibition that featured a Chinese tomb from the Northern Wei dynasty (386–535 CE). The structure, made of stone panels and buried in a crypt five or six meters below ground, had been taken apart, shipped to the United States, and reassembled in the museum.i It was about 7 feet high and 10 X 6 feet in plan. Though made if stone, it was clearly meant to resemble a wooden structure. Needless to say it was a remarkable edifice. The accompanying article in the catalogue, written by a leading scholar in Chinese archaeology, explained its use and purpose and discussed many aspects related to its architecture. But the author, for whatever reason, did not mention a feature of the building that was strikingly obvious to anyone looking at it. It had been painted red. Traces of red mineral paint were clearly visible on the stone. Red is, without doubt, the most ancient of colours. It is made from ochre, known scientifically as hematite, a reddish iron‐containing rock that is then ground into a powder and mixed with animal fat to make a paint. Stone balls coloured with ochre were recovered from Olorgesailie, Kenya and date to around 340,000 years ago. An

even more remarkable find was at Blombos Cave (ca. 140,000 – 80,000 BCE) in South Africa [34 24 48 S, 21 13 06 E]. Though the cave with its tools, fishhooks, scrapers, and hand axes gave us invaluable insight into the food acquisition of our early ancestors, what surprised archaeologists the most were the hundreds of small chunks of ochre, some pieces fashioned into crayons. The crayons were probably used to paint the skin and to rub onto the bones of the deceased. In Zambia, for example, at Kabwe (Broken Hill), archaeologists found ochre with skeletal remains that date back to between 200,000 and 125,000 BCE indicating its early use in mortuary rituals. ii We today assume death to be equivalent with the termination of life, but in ancient times, death was a transition between our mortal world and our existence with the spirits. The dead were considered to be very much alive in the form of spirits or animals. This viewpoint is still clearly evident at the tomb on display at the Clark Art Institute. In this respect one might even suspect the same to be true for the famous “Chapelle Rouge” [25 43 13 N, 32 39 27 E]. The walls were made of red quartzite, now dulled with age, but once polished to a mirrored surface.iii It was constructed around 1460 BCE during the reign of Hatshepsut at Karnak Egypt and was where the sacred barque was housed. The barque was believed to transport the dead to the afterlife and facilitate the pharaoh’s transition into a deity [Figure 1].


Red was, therefore, not so much the colour of death, as it was the colour of spirit‐life. For the Native American Cherokee, special red coloured beads were used to insure long life and recovery from sickness. Redness did not have to be a paint. It could also be intrinsic to animals and plants many of which were given sacred status. For the Andaman Islanders, the bird known as the Scarlet Minivet (Pericrocotus flammeus) is particularly important. As its Latin name suggests, it is bright red. As to its black head,

the Andaman Islanders interpret this as scorch marks, the reason being that the bird stole fire from the deities and taught the humans how to use it [Figure 2].


The power of red did not derive from the colour as such, but from the fact that it came from the earth. It is difficult for us moderns to full appreciate the significance of this, but the ancients, wherever ochre appeared in the landscape as a red vein in a hillside, interpreted it as the earth’s blood, and indeed its association with blood and its life force is still part of the mythology of many indigenous peoples who view it as having magical and healing properties relating to birth and life [Figure 3]. The !Kung, who live in the Kalahari Desert of Botswana [19 29 S, 21 23 E] and who are among the oldest of the surviving First Society people in the word, use the pigment in rituals dealing with a woman’s first menstruation. A female initiate, on emergence from seclusion, would present the women of her kin group with lumps of ochre for decorating their faces and cloaks and also for adorning the young men to protect them when out hunting.iv Historically and cross‐culturally in southern Africa, women played a major role in the quarrying of earth pigments as well as in their processing.v The !Kung will speak of an impending ritual action by referring metaphorically to the sound of women pounding The Himba women in Namibia in southwest Africa still grind ochre by hand and rub it on their bodies head‐to‐toe, mixing it with butter and sweet smelling plants. [Figure 4]. For all First Society people everywhere around the globe, the sites where ochre was quarried was sacred and it was not harvested without a great deal of ceremony, feasting and gift‐giving. Native Americans were known to have travelled hundreds of miles to these special sites. One was the “Pipestone Quarry” in Minnesota [44 00 50 N, 96 19 14 W], where Plains Indians harvested red steatite to not only make paint, but to also make their sacred, tobacco‐smoking pipes. In Australia “Wilgie Mia”

(Place of Ochre) [26 56 S, 117 42 12 E] was one of the most preeminent ochre mines on the continent. First used already some 40,000 years ago, it has been estimated that forty thousand tons of material were excavated over the millennia.vii For thousands of years aboriginal tribes would send out expeditions of people who would walk for two months in some cases to make the thousand‐mile round trip to collect this ochre. They would return loaded down with up to twenty kilos of ochre per person in possum or kangaroo skin bags. Today, if you want to collect any you still have to ask permission from the aboriginal owners and also from the sacred beings who live beneath its ancient chambers.


Painting the body with the magic of the earth was above all a way in which a person became linked to the creative forces that shaped the world.viii It was not as we moderns might call it “ornamentation.” Among the Andaman Islanders [11 33 N, 92 14 E], who like the !Kung are the oldest still surviving First Society people in the world, clay‐based paints are perceived as having the quality known as kamakulehlekwe (efficacy) in that they bind and confine smells to its source of emission. Smell? What does that have to do with colour? The spirits of the ancestors do not see, but smell. Red and yellow are particularly important as they make the body hot and induce “smell,” thus making the human recognizable to the spirits who can perceive these “smells.”ix In other words, body paint is not just a visual cue, but conceptually and primarily part of an olfactory‐based system of exchange between the world of the living and the world of the spirits. To better understand the Andaman Islander’s understanding of colour, let me create an analogy. A radar machine sends out waves that produce a dot on the screen when an object is encountered. The spirit world of the ancients is much like that radar machine, searching for contact with the human world. The spirits will want to make

contact with that ‘dot’, but in some cases, the spirits are benevolent and in other cases they are not. The Andaman Islanders want, therefore, to control these encounters. In some cases, they want to be ‘seen’ (or as they describe it ‘smelled’) by the spirits, in other cases they do not, depending on whether the nearby spirits are benevolent or evil. The paint on their bodies and its design allows the proper spirit to ‘target’ the proper person, which is particularly important in death since it allows the ancestors to attach themselves to the body of their relative and safely transport it to the spirit world. Colour is thus the liminal surface that produces social continuity over the generations. It stabilizes the always uncertain relationship between human world and the spirit world. The word that the Andaman Islanders use to describe body paint means literally ‘to remember.’ Red and the various shades associated with ochre from yellow to purplish brown, along with white (ash) and black (charcoal) were the basic elements of the ancient colour pallet. Blue was unknown. The Himba and even the ancient Greeks had no concept “blue.” Homer, for example, did not describe the ocean as blue, but as “wine dark.” Blue did eventually come into use among the Native Americans because of turquoise and the Blue Bird, both of which had enormous sacred potencies. But it was red that remained the prime colour of the ancients. The Blackfeet of the American Plains referred to it as nitsisaan or “real paint” and profusely daubed it on their ceremonial garments. It was thought to represent the sun and the energy that permeates all things, making a person rubbed with it appear holy and powerful.”x Its brilliance signaled supernatural potency overlapping with a range of cosmological concepts revolving around rain, fertility, hunting, and death. The many ancient mounds in the southeast part of the United States, (of which there were thousands from Florida and Louisiana in the south to Minnesota in the north) are now covered with grass, but were originally mostly red or yellow depending on the type of clay used. Indeed we have to imagine these mounds as colour‐ monuments, intensifying the communication between human and spirit worlds. Perhaps in that sense, they could also be seen as sound‐architecture, for the purpose of the mounds, which stood as backdrops to the all‐important dancing areas, was also to serve as a type of speaker‐system that allowed the spirit world to better hear human voices of the sacred songs. Take for example, the great mound at a site known as Poverty Point, Louisiana on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. It is a tall, flat‐topped mound—known archaeologically as Mound A—that in plan seems to have the shape of a sacred bird. It is huge, the second‐largest earthen mound in North America. It consists of a 22‐ meter‐high cone with an addition on its east side of a ten‐meter‐high platform with a ramp‐like element leading up the face of the cone. At its base, the whole stretches out for an astonishing 210 meters. The mound is today overgrown with grass and trees, but was originally carefully made. Its builders first chose a marshy depression, burnt the vegetation in it and presumably performed some sort of purification ceremony. In this depression, they then placed a thin layer of white, sandy silt taken from areas to the north. The light‐ coloured layer of sand was clearly meant to contrast with the dark black soil of the

earth under the mound, in essence, separating the mound from its base and indicating its singularity. As soon as this roughly two‐hundred‐meter‐diameter circular “foundation” of white sand was completed, the rest of the mound was erected using multicoloured soils. The significance of the coloured soil is intriguing and was to remain a common feature of many mounds in the Mississippi tradition. It is likely that the dark soil on which the mound rests was associated with the underworld. If the mound then represented “the earth” floating on top of the underworld, the various colour soils might represent multiple zones or states of being or the different spirits that are being called forth. The coloured clay was also perhaps associated with the different clans or different tribes who combined their efforts in building the mound, carrying tons of coloured soil to the site, basketful by basketful from miles away. For the North American builders, mounds were, therefore, not heaps of dirt.xi Colour for the Native Americans was also directly related to the horizontal and vertical dimension of shamanistic universe, where it was not the singularity of the colours that was important, but their combination and particular sequencing.xii From ethnographic studies, we also know that colours had symbolic and geographic connotations. For the Utes, who live in Colourado and Utah, the main colours were red, yellow, turquoise, white and black. The sky is considered white, the mountains yellow, the basins red, the underworld black, and the mountainside turquoise. Colours were also related to the seasons: spring is red and relates to the northwest, summer is yellow and relates to the northeast, autumn is white and relates to the southeast, and winter is black and relates to the southwest. White is the most important (eagle), then yellow (mountain lion), turquoise (wolf), red (weasel) and black (rattlesnake). Since red symbolizes the weasel, Utes will paint their moccasins red since weasels can kill a rattlesnake. In this way the red paint protects its wearer from the snake.xiii


All of this is to remind us that for First Society people, in a tradition that begins over two hundred thousand years ago, colour was not an abstraction. Nor was it just something that one applied to a surface. More ‘real’ than human relations, it was a communication device equivalent to voice itself, a ‘voice’ that connected the living with the largely invisible world of animal‐ and ancestor‐spirits. It did not matter if the colour was in the shape of a stone, a feather, a clump of clay, an animal or a plant. The painter George Catlin made a remarkable image in 1837 of a group of Sioux worshiping red boulders on the open prairie [Figure 5.] We have no idea what these men ‘saw’ in the boulders, but they certainly did not see just big rocks, but perhaps the great mythological Red Bear and its cubs. As modern people it is impossible for us to recreate the ancient meaning of colour, but we should not ignore colour in how we describe First Society life, because from the perspective of the First Society, we moderns may have every shade of colour in the spectrum available to us on our computer screens, but we live in an essentially colour‐less world.

Figure 1: Chapelle Rouge, Egypt. (28 August 2005, Neithsabes)

Figure 2: Scarlet Minivet Pericrocotus speciosus. (16 March 2008, J. M. Garg),_Duars,_West_Bengal_W_Pictu re_395.jpg [accessed: Oct 20, 2012]

Figure 3: Roussillon Ochre Fields, France. (30 December 2007, Jean‐Christophe Benoist)‐CheminOcres.jpg [accessed: Oct 20, 2012]

Figure 4: A Himba woman, Mbapaa, and some of her children, nieces and nephews, standing before her father (Katere)'s homestead. (13 May 2009, Jescapism). [accessed: Oct 20, 2012]

Figure 5: Sioux Worshiping at the Red Boulders, George Catlin, 1837‐1839 [] [accessed: Oct 20, 2012]

i Sections of this article will be published in my forthcoming The Architecture of First Societies: A Global Perspective (John Wiley and Sons, 2013). It was the sarcophagus of Song Shaozu (d. 477 CE), made during the Northern Wei dynasty (386–535 CE), and unearthed 2000 at Caofulou Village, Datong, Shanxi Province. [accessed: Oct 20, 2012]. ii For discussions of ochre see: H. J. Deacon, “Two late Pleistocene‐Holocene archaeological depositories from the southern Cape, South Africa,” South African Archaeological Bulletin 50 (1995): 121–131; Peter Beaumont and A. Boshier, “Mining in Southern Africa and the Emergence of Modern Man,” Optima 4 (March 1972): 19– 29; J. Velo, “Ochre as medicine: a suggestion for the interpretation of the archaeological record,” Current Anthropology 25 (1984): 674; Curtis W. Marean et al, “Early Human Use of Marine Resources and Pigment in South Africa During the Middle Pleistocene,” Nature 449 (2007): 905–908. iii What we see today is reconstructed from its original materials. The building had been demolished sometime in antiquity. It was not rebuilt in its original location, however, which was probably in the central court of the temple of Amun at Karnak. The black base blocks are associated with the black, life‐giving soil of the Nile. The blocks are decorated with etchings portraying Nile gods and goddesses and even buildings or other structures including canals. iv Roger L. Hewitt, Structure, Meaning and Ritual in the Narratives of the Southern San (Hamburg: Buske, 1986), 281; J. David Lewis‐Williams, Believing and Seeing: Symbolic Meanings in Southern San Rock Paintings (London: Academic Press, 1981), 51. v Ian Watts, “The Origin of Symbolic Culture,” in The Evolution of Culture, ed. Robin Dunbar, Chris Knight, and Camilla Power (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), 133. vi Megan Biesele, Women Like Meat (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1993), 163, 196. vii Mike Smith and Barry Fankhauser, “Geochemistry and identification of Australian red ochre deposits,” Palaeoworks
 9 (Canberra, National Museum of Australia, 2009), 8. viii Howard Morphy, “Encoding the Dreaming – A Theoretical Framework for the Analysis of Representational Processes in Australian Aboriginal Art,” Australian Archaeology 49 (December, 1999), 13‐22. ix Vishvajit Pandya, Above the Forest: a Study of Andamanese Ethnoanemology, Cosmology, and the Power of Ritual (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1993). See also: Above the Forest: a Study of Andamanese Ethnoanemology, Cosmology, and the Power of Ritual (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1993). x James R. Walker, The Sun Dance and other Ceremonies of the Oglala Division of the Teton Dakota, Anthropological Papers of the Museum of Natural History Volume 16,

Part 2 (New York: 1917), 155. See also Colin F. Taylor, The Plains Indians: The Cultural and Historical View of the North American Plains Tribes of the Pre‐Reservation Period (New York: Crescent Books, 1994), 195–197. xi Tristram R. Kidder, Anthony L. Ortmann, and Lee J. Arco, “Poverty Point and the Archaeology of Singularity,” Society for American Archaeology ‐ Archaeological Record 8, no. 5 (November 2008): 9–12; Jon L. Gibson, “Navels of the Earth: Sedentism in Early Mound‐Building Cultures in the Lower Mississippi Valley,” World Archaeology 38, no. 2 (June 2006): 311–329; Vernon James Knight, Jr., “Symbolism of Mississippian Mounds,” in Powhatan’s Mantle: Indians in the Colonial Southeast, ed. Gregory A. Waselkov, Peter H. Wood, and Tom Hatley (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), 421–434. xii Warren R. DeBoer, “Colours for a North American Past,” World Archaeology 37 (2005): 66–91; Nicholas J. Saunders, “The colours of light: materiality and chromatic cultures of the Americas,” in Colouring the Past: The Significance of Colour in Archaeological Research, ed. A. Jones and G. MacGregor (Oxford: Berg, 2002), 209– 226. xiii James A. Goss, “Traditional Cosmology, Ecology and Language of the Ute Indians,” Ute Indian Arts and Culture: From Prehistory to the New Millennium, Edited by William Wroth (Colorado Springs: Taylor Museum of the Colorado Fine Arts Center, 2000), p. 47‐49.