top of page

MADDER RED: A Story of Art and Science

Imagine for a moment that you could travel four thousand years into the past, to a marketplace in Egypt. Not just any marketplace. You are in Thebes, in Upper Egypt. In the year 2000 BC. The pharaoh Mentuhotep II has recently died, but in the course of his reign Egypt was reunified and Thebes is now the capital. Thebes is growing into a powerful city. And where there is power, there is colour.

You come across an archer’s quiver, and marvel at its intricate woven design. But it’s the colour that impresses you most. It’s a beautiful, intense red. What you hold in your hands is no minor achievement. There is ingenuity there, a great deal of skill, and a secret.


Herein lies the artisan’s challenge.  Nature is full of colour. But extracting that colour and getting it to permanently adhere to stone, to cloth, to pottery, to leather, that is not easy at all.

The colours come to Thebes from all over the kingdom and beyond it. Ochres in brownish yellows and reds are easy enough to procure. Gold is mined from Nubia in the south. Green rock (malachite) is mined in Maadi just south of Cairo to your north, but demand is so high for the colour that mining has begun in Sinai. Blue rock (lapis lazuli) is imported from the distant northeast, this is rare indeed and worth more than gold. But artisans are not easily dissuaded when it comes to the colour of the heavens. They have found a way to make blue of their own, crush the green rock, mix with sand and limestone. The heat required is intense, and difficult to sustain. The salts they add foul the air but, despite complaints, this is necessary.  The process is arduous and painstaking, an apprentice’s bane no doubt, but the result is a blue powder that seems to appear as if by magic – summoned by an exacting ritual of ingenuity, hard work and days of an artisan’s life. When used in paints and applied to stone, it is beautiful and endures.

But this red, which has seeped into the soft, pliable leather and remains there, well this has you intrigued. It’s a strong colour, vibrant. It catches the eye. You’ve seen other items, too, not just leather but cloth as well. It’s not as if red dye has never been attempted here, but nothing has worked quite so well as this. Whatever method is being used to make this pigment, it’s foreign to Thebes. You want to learn and learning requires a journey.

First, you must reach Memphis, 400 miles to the north. The voyage is nearly two weeks by land and faster along the Nile, if the boat is light and the wind in your favour. In 2000 BC, Memphis is no longer the capital but it is still the heart of commerce and has been for centuries.

There are artisans here and merchants, and you find spices, and craftwork and what might catch your eye most of all would be the wonder of colours. You follow the red: red fabric and red-stained leather. A shoe perhaps. A blanket. Another quiver for an archer. The craftsmanship is exquisite. You ask questions and follow the answers, joining a caravan travelling into northeast along the Mediterranean coast.

The weeks pass as you journey through Jerusalem and into Damascus, following the colour. Goods from Mesopotamia are brought in from trade routes that run through Damascus. You see more and more of the red everywhere you go, you ask questions and learn that Mesopotamia is your destination. This is far away to the south east, but crossing the desert is not the wisest of decisions, so instead you would follow the trade routes. Continue north, edging east along the inner curve of a fertile crescent, until you reach the Euphrates.

That this great river runs south would be a strange thing to someone more familiar with the north-running Nile. You’ve come this far, so south you go.

If your mind doesn’t wander too much beneath the warm sun you might notice an increasing abundance of tall stemmed bushes, with long, pointed leaves and small yellow flowers. They are pleasant, and green the landscape, but are otherwise unremarkable if you knew nothing of their potential. There is no red that you can see. But initial appearances can be deceiving.


You stop in a port town called Babylon. It’s young and still small, unremarkable too, and prone to the floods of a temperamental Euphrates. There is no indication that it will one day become a centre of power. There is no hanging garden yet, no steep manmade embankments. No great temple of E-temen-an-ki (Sumerian for House of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth) that will one day rise some seven levels high and inspire cautionary myths about the perils of hubristic engineering. For now, it is still only the 20th century BC. Even Hammurabi will not show up until another two hundred years pass. These are early, early days.

The river splits and splits again as you travel toward the once great Sumerian city of Ur, but this is not your destination. You’ve spoken to many merchants on the way, told them about the red leather and learned that its Larsa you want. You veer east along a tributary. Larsa is small but strategic, a tiny hub of commerce in the river delta of the Tigris and Euphrates and not far from the northern tip of the Persian Gulf.  As you arrive, it is the final days of the Sumerian empire, already fractured into city states. But Larsa is valuable and in the sights of rising powers.


But then, you aren’t here for the politics. There are artisans here, and good ones at that.  This is what you’ve come for.

One would imagine their knowledge is fiercely protected. But perhaps you find yourself in luck, or make your own by offering gold, or some knowledge worth even more. One doesn’t follow trade routes if one doesn’t intend to trade.

This is what you learn:

In your journey from Damascus, all those green bushes you saw — the tall, weedy ones with yellow flowers and no hint of red whatsoever — this is where the red dye comes from.  Here, these plants are called hurratu, it’s an old Akkadian word. One day, elsewhere in the world, they will be called madder. There are two species actually, both native to this area: wild madder (Rubia peregrina L.) and another which lends itself better to cultivation (Rubia tinctorum L).

The question, then, is how do you make red from something with ostensibly so little of it?

The madder is grown to the north, it prefers the dryer soil than what is found in the flood prone delta. Fields and fields are grown, harvested and brought in. The stem and the flowers are of little interest to the artisans, but when you see the long narrow roots, you begin to get an idea of the plant’s value. They are a dark colour, more blood-brown than anything. When sliced though they are brighter at the centre, almost red-orange. This will stain, but that stain won’t last so there’s little point. We’re only at the beginning.

Rubia Rote.PNG

Bushels and bushels of madder root are collected and pre-soaked, while water is warmed in the sun. You want warm water, but not too hot. The madder is chopped into small pieces and added to the water and allowed to ferment in the open for days, sometimes weeks. Slowly the roots release their colour. If you stopped here, the water would stain fabric, but not very well. For one thing the colour doesn’t seem to stay in solution that well, nor does it adhere to cloth or leather in any lasting way.

So this is an important step: add soda ash, a powdery substance found on dry lake beds.

But you still aren’t finished.

In Larsa, they use a type of rock that is tart to the taste. The locals call it allaharum. It’s used for many things, but in this instance the allaharum is crushed and added to the fermented roots.  It’s such a critical step in the dye making process that allaharum will earn a place next to the word ‘hurratu’ on texts relating to the dye. They are equal partners:

                                                                                                          hurratu + allaharum

For more modern sensibilities:

                                                                                                          madder + aluminium

Dyeing a cloth can take only a day or two, then allowed to dry in the sun.

Dyeing leather takes longer.

To do it well, dying ox hide with madder dye can take up to two years.

All of this is reached through trial and error, and a great deal of ingenuity. The recipes are passed down, the skills learned and, over time, the knowledge spreads.

That quiver, with its red dyed leather, the one that made it all the way from southern Mesopotamia to Upper Egypt is buried in Thebes during the time of the Middle Kingdom (around 2000 BC).  Nearly 4000 years later, in 1911, an 11cm by 13 cm fragment is discovered during a museum excavation.  After all this time, the dyed leather is still red.

Let’s now take a closer look at madder with a modern eye. Madder contains organic anthraquinone compounds: ruberythic acid and pseudopurpurin. They are found at similar concentrations in cultivated madder (Rubia tinctorum L). Wild madder (Rubia peregrina L.) contains more pseudopurpurin. During fermentation, ruberythic acid converts to alizarin, and psuedopurpurin decomposes into purpurin. Both alizarin and purpurin are red in colour, though alizarin is has a bit more of an orange hue. Purpurin skews toward pink.





In 2009 Dr Marco Leona and his colleagues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, develop a new technique for safely analysing dye content of ancient and priceless works of art. They examine the quiver from Thebes and the chemical fingerprint is unambiguously that of an anthroquinone confirming that the leather’s dye came from madder.

Ancient Mesopotamians may not have known about anthroquinones, much less their chemical structure, but they did know that for the best results they needed the colour to stay in solution rather than precipitating to the bottom of the vat.

There would have been a great deal of trial and error to arrive at the discovery that allaharum could do help them with this. It was essentially the discovery, around 2000BC and possibly earlier, that aluminium can make certain chemicals soluble in water.

Fixing the dye to a fabric or other surface, was yet another step in ancient ingenuity.

One must imagine many things that were tried before finding good use for that salty powdery stuff on surface of dry lake beds.  This is soda ash. It’s sodium carbonate:  Na2CO3

It’s an alkaline and sets the dye well.

Evidence suggests that artisans varied elements of the dyeing procedure to produce different shades, producing more alizarin for a more orange red, or enriching with more purpurin for a more vibrant pink-red. 























Sometime around the middle of the second millennium BC (~1500 BC), there are reports that a Phoenician trader arrived at Nuzi in Mesopotamia presenting a variety of coloured wool. Among them is a crimson blanket, made with a red dye ‘produced from worms’.  This is the earliest evidence of a new red dye made from Kermes insects (specifically females containing eggs). Extracting an enduring dye from crushed insects is another tale of ingenuity, and now Madder has competition. Kermes dye is a bold, rich red and rises in popularity in biblical times. Power and colour and all that. The word ‘crimson’ derives from kermes. But although Kermes technically grows on trees (the insects live on the Kermes oak), it is expensive, and madder continues to be widely used until the invention of synthetic pigments in the 1800s. It is still used today, just to a lesser extent.

This story isn’t just about the surprising sophistication of artisanal chemistry 4000 years ago. Yes, it is impressive, but equally interesting is the fact that the artisans who developed the technique were also using the dye. In other words, development of technology was not separate to artistic expression and the creation of beauty.

Curiosity, experimentation, an understanding of the natural world, the making of beautiful things. It was all part and parcel.

The Metropolitan Museum’s Marco Leona recently explained at the 2017 World Science Festival Brisbane that well into the European middle ages you don’t really see much distinction between art, craft, and technology.

Of course there were practical separations between certain occupations. Indeed division of labour and specialisation have arguably enabled stunning advances throughout human civilisation. Organised agriculture frees up a lot of time for rocket science. So yes, the blacksmith did the blacksmithing and generally left the pottery to the potter. And as far as we’re aware, no one asked a glassblower to paint the Sistine Chapel, though apparently a sculptor decided to branch out a bit. Anyway, you get the idea. Specialisation existed, but the idea of delving within an artisanal specialty and extracting out the technology and setting that aside as something separate and unrelated to the art form for which it was used, well that wasn’t done. The tools, and the development of those tools, were as much a part of the artisan’s life and work as what they created with them.

But stirrings began in the Middle Ages and by the Renaissance a cultural split begins in earnest. According to Leona, the liberal arts eventually become separated from the mechanical arts.  One was better than the other, of course. It just depended on whom you asked and in what year. And within those divisions, further divisions emerged. By the time Romanticism emerges in the late 18th century, says Leona, we encounter the idea of an artist as a visionary existing quite separately from reality. Enter the concept of the solitary, tortured genius. This would have been a wholly unrecognisable concept to artisans of Larsa and Thebes, the likes of Da Vinci and his ilk, and anyone else from antiquity to early modern times for whom artistic vision was inextricably entwined with skill and practice.

This strange notion has since compounded into stereotypes about scientists and artists, and fierce academic divisions. This was not at all helped by the popularisation of the idea that we have a left brain and a right brain, where the left is wholly analytical and the right brain is full of creative rainbows.

Professor Marcello Costa, a neuroscientist at Flinders University explains that this idea began in the middle of the twentieth century with the observation that we process concrete language in a different side of the brain (left) than where we process abstract language (right). Consider the following:

                                                                                                              Red leather

                                                                                                           Beautiful leather

The first is more concrete. The second more abstract. Your brain just processed those two statements using different regions.

The problem, Costa says, is that this concept of lateralisation was extrapolated way too far beyond language. Unfortunately, too many of us have been told that a scientist is more analytical and therefore ‘left brained’ and that an artist is more creative and therefore ‘right brained’.

Neurologically speaking, Costa says that artists and scientists are intensely similar. The stereotype of a creative person as intuitive and irrational is simply wrong.  Artists, he points out, must have discipline, skills, and persistence. So, too, for scientists.

And the funny thing is, during all this time we were told that the artistic mindset and the scientific mindset were so terribly different, painters were playing with colour and light and shape. Impressionists, neo-impressionists, cubists and more were tapping into the way the brain sees form and motion, developing novel techniques that play tricks on the mind. This is now helping modern neuroscience better understand mechanisms of perception in the brain. And all the while, Leona says, artists continued to have a close relationship to the materials they use. This never stops.

Meanwhile, scientists were changing the way we live and understand the universe not only through analytical reasoning and experimentation but also through improvisation and wild imagination. Professor Tanya Monro, a physicist at the University of South Australia puts it nicely: there is a great deal of creativity in deciding what questions to ask.

In other words, Science is analytical but it is also an immensely creative endeavour. Art is imaginative, but it also requires thoughtful trial and error, and the honing of skills. They are more similar than they are different.

The artisans of Larsa could have told us that.

After all, as Marcello Costa points out, the word artisan only ever meant one who does something well through learning and practice. Such expertise is something to be celebrated.

We should probably tell the kids.




Special thanks to Dr Marco Leona (Metropolitan Museum of Art), Professor Marcello Costa (Flinders University) and Prof Tanya Monro for sharing their insights into art and science leading up to and during the 2017 World Science Festival Brisbane.  I would also love to thank Prof Judith McLean (QPAC) and Dr Drew Berry who were also involved in the Art and Science panel discussions, and conversations with whom also helped me better understand the nexus of art and science.

Additional sources:

Leona, Marco (2009) “Microanalysis of organic pigments and glazes in polychrome works of art by surface-enhanced resonance Raman scattering” PNAS vol 106 no 35, 14757-14762.

Daniels, Vincent (2014) “Technological Insights into Madder Pigment Production in Antiquity” British Museum Technical Research Bulletin, volume 8

Bucklow, Spike (2016) Red: The Art and Science of a Colour

chemical structure_edited.jpg
bottom of page