Thursday, 22 October 2015

Black or white?

Wouldn't it be nice if you could research ancient people without getting tangled up with white supremacists (who insist that all the great ancient civilisations were white) and black supremacists (who insist that all the great ancient peoples were black), and someone who appeared to be asserting that every single ancient civilisation (except the black africans) had the identical mid brown skin colour to her son.

They sling insults and racial epithets at each other, assume bad faith of everyone of 'the other race', selectively choose only the pictures that might seem to support their assertions, and are completely incapable of analysing ancient pictures rationally.

It's so silly. Your value as a human being does not rely on people of your skin colour ruling the world in ancient history.

Plaster cast of a relief from the temple of Beit el-Wali, 1279-1213BC. In the British Museum.

I've seen this picture used as 'evidence' that Egyptians were 'black'. I don't doubt that some of them were, but in the context of the whole painting these ladies are clearly from further south in Africa.

I wouldn't be surprised if someone some time tries to claim that the right-hand lady proves the Egyptians were blond aryans with a bit of a suntan - stranger claims are made :-)

What it does show is that the Egyptians were well aware that - shock horror - there can be a number of different skin colours in a single civilisation.

That's how I approach my illustrations. I use a large mix of skin colours - in which I am more fortunate than the egyptian artists who had a very limited pallette. Most people are brownish/olive. Egyptians tend to be darker than Israelites, but there's no hard dividing line, and a fair bit of overlap - both Moses and the apostle Paul were mistaken for Egyptians. Outdoor people are darker than people with indoor, sedentary jobs - meaning poor people are darker than rich people who can keep out of the sun. Women on average are paler than men - which was exagerated greatly in ancient pictures, adding to the confusion.

We know there was migration, slavery and intermarriage, meaning you can add a bit of a mix. Moses married a Cushite (african) wife. David happened to have a Cushite in his army. Ebed-Melech the Cushite happened to work in the Israelite palace, and rescued Jeremiah. By the time you get to the New Testament, you can add in the results of Roman slavery, making black africans, blonde scandinavians and ginger celts all reasonable gentile minorities. Herod had a Gaulish bodyguard. Haven't drawn any of these yet.

I do tend to lean towards the darker colours for my Bible people - when you look at real people, you can easily get a white person who is much darker than a middle eastern person. But in a simple style of drawing, you don't have the subtleties, so I use skin colour. Strikes a balance with all the illustrations out there that seem to think Bible people were just europeans/white americans in funny clothes.

Oops - I'm supposed to be researching the widow of Zarephath (Phoenician) - I didn't mean to get waylaid!

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