Geek Trivia

Up Until The 1960s A Much Sought After Shade Of Brown Paint Was Made From?

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Answer: Egyptian Mummies

As you can imagine a whole lot of trivia comes across our desk every day. Most of the time we’re left saying, “Ah, interesting. The world is a very interesting place!” but every once in awhile we find ourselves leaning back and announcing “The world is a very strange place.”

The curious case of “Mummy Brown” paint is exactly one of those instances. For centuries and centuries paint makers had been using a very peculiar source of pigment to achieve an easily mixed and pleasant shade of brown: the corpses of pilfered Egyptian mummies.

Why mummies and how did someone come up with the idea of even grinding up a mummy for paint? In the book The Brilliant History of Color in Art, Victoria Finlay explains:

Actually, mummy was first used as a medicinal substance as early as 1300, which is even more bizarre. Virtually all the pigments that were known to painters from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance were also medicines, including lead white, minium, vermilion, chalk, orpiment, sepia, ultramarine … and mummy. These medicines were supplied by apothecaries, who were the main sources of supplies for painters. No doubt an artist somewhere saw mummy in his local apothecary shop and thought, “I wonder if this would make a good bit of paint?”

If you’re curious why mummies would be in an apothecary in the first place, you can blame a mistranslation in the Middle Ages that lead to confusion over what materials mummies were embalmed with and mistakenly gave Europeans the impression that they were of some medicinal value.

While that certainly explains, well enough at any rate, how mummies and artists first intersected, it doesn’t cover why mummies make for such great paint. It turns out that the process of preparing mummies relied heavily on bitumen and other compounds that, especially when kept dry and aged as mummies are, made for a very easily blended and excellent middle-brown pigment that compliments other brown paints.

The practice of using mummies for brown pigment began to decline in the late 19th century when more artists became aware of the method in which their favorite brown paint was created. Despite the decline, the practice didn’t die out entirely until the 1960s when the last and largest paint maker that had relied on mummy remains simply ran out of them.

Image courtesy of Klafubra.