Light and colour in a Mesopotamian temple (Tell Uqair, LC5)

A conference on the reconstruction of ancient polychromy held in Bordeaux in 2017, organised by M. Mulliez (archaeologist, conservator and specialist in Roman frescoes) and Archéovision “Reconstruction of Polychromy // Restituer les couleurs” (Mulliez 2019), was the opportunity to present hypotheses for the reconstruction of a painted building dated to the end of the 4th millennium BC in Babylonia (Iraq): the “Painted Temple” of Tell Uqair (fig. 1). Excavated in 1941-42 by Fuad Safar and Seton Lloyd (Llyod et al. 1943), it is a monumental complex of mud-brick architecture, entirely covered on the inside with polychrome figurative and geometric paintings.

Fig. 1. Map of sites mentioned in the text. Credit: Université de Strasbourg/infography Philippe Quenet and Terrains Vagues

Set on a double terrace decorated with niches, recesses and mosaics (fig. 2, 3), it was preserved up to 3.80m high. It is one of the rare Late Chalcolithic buildings in central and southern Mesopotamia to display figurative painted decoration. In Uruk, at the same period, the upper parts of the walls were often levelled, and only a few inlaid elements found in the fill – a fragment of an eye, for example (Behm-Blancke 1989, Becker and Heinz 1993) – suggest that there had been figurative scenes higher on the walls.

Fig. 2. The painted temple at Tell Uqair. Source: Lloyd et al. 1943, Pl. IX.
Fig. 3. A model of the painted temple on its terraces. Source: Lloyd et al. 1943, Pl. XIV.

 In the context of the urban expansion that characterised the end of the 4th millennium BC, the paintings at Uqair are, to date, the only example of sufficiently well-preserved architectural decoration that allows the identification of a genuine iconographic programme characteristic of this period (Nunn 1988, Muller 2012): structuring of the painted surface in different registers to reflect a now clearly formalised social hierarchy, depiction of power and social distinctions and representation of the monumental architecture within the temple itself, like a mise en abyme of the latter.

A technical and iconographic investigation

This research was part of a doctoral thesis on the use of colour in the Neolithic and Chalcolithic Near East (Dermech 2018) and the exhibition Ana Ziqquratim – Sur la piste de Babel, held in spring 2016 at the Strasbourg Bibliothèque Nationale et Universitaire, which retraced the birth of terraced temples and Ziggurats (Quenet 2016).

For the purpose of this exhibition, models of several temples and architectural complexes were created in collaboration with Maurice Frey, an architect and model-maker (fig. 4). Experimental archaeology workshops were also held, including the “Paintings Workshop” with Jean François Gavoty, a former painter-restorer, fresco specialist and lecturer at the Haute Ecole des Arts du Rhin in Strasbourg, whose aim was to familiarise us with the different painting techniques (a secco, a fresco, a tempera, etc.) likely to be used in Mesopotamian decoration.

Fig. 4. A model of the painted temple showing different states of the building. Credit: Made for the exhibition Ana Ziqquratim by Margaux Dabin, Sarah Dermech, Catherine Higel, Juliette Floquet, Maurice Frey, Bénédicte Mignet, Philippe Quenet. Photo: D. Schwartz.

We were able to test the technical hypotheses concerning the temple’s decoration. For the exhibition, part of the cella was built to life-size, using some traditional materials and the theoretical and practical knowledge acquired in the workshops (fig.5).

On the basis of the excavation report, our own experiments and a 3D reconstruction of the building produced by the infographist and archaeologist Cyrill Schuppert, we could propose (Dermech 2016a-c, 2018, 2019, Frey and Dermech 2016):

  • hypotheses on the painting technique used in the temple;
  • a re-evaluation of the painted decoration, by completing certain motifs that we have interpreted as representations of buildings with mosaics;
  • reinterpretations of certain scenes, adding to the understanding of the iconographic programme;
  • hypotheses on the colour of the decorations and a consideration of light and internal lighting, raising questions about the visibility of the paintings and possibly explaining the absence of certain colours, particularly green and blue.
Fig. 5. Life-size painted decor of the rear of the cella. Credit: Ana Ziqquratim. Photo: François Duconseille
Exceptional but fragile remains

Apart from Çatalhöyük, the discovery of wall paintings or other types of polychrome decoration in the Neolithic and Chalcolithic in the Near East is sufficiently rare and exceptional for the building in question to be designated by its decoration: the “Painted House” at Dja’de, the “Painted Temple” at Tell Uqair, the “White Temple” at Uruk and the “Mosaic Courtyard” of the Eanna at Uruk.

The list is not exhaustive, but it is nonetheless limited, because the remains disintegrate very quickly once they are uncovered. Excavation reports repeatedly state that the paintings faded shortly after they were exposed (Lloyd et al. 1943) or that they were too altered to be preserved (Muller 2018, citing A. Parrot on the paintings in the Royal Palace of Mari). In such cases, the documentation produced on site at the time of their discovery is often all that remains of the paintings and serves as a basis for any subsequent reflection.

Restore colours, but which ones?

No photographs of the paintings have been published, no doubt because of the difficulty of the excavation and their state of preservation. The excavation report does provide the location of the paintings, some – but not all – of the drawings and a colour copy of a watercolour produced on site (fig. 6).

Fig. 6. Watercolour of the « seated lion » made in situ. Colour version in Parrot, Assur, 1969, fig. 332; original in Loyd et al. 1943, Pl. XI.

By confronting the – sometimes contradictory – information in the incomplete report with the black and white drawings, it was possible to assign colours to the paintings: some are attested because they are described in the report, while others are hypothetical but plausible, and derive from an a priori interpretation of the decor. For example, the geometric patterns about one metre high in the passageways leading from the outside to the inside of the buildings were interpreted as representations of reed lattices, the existence of which is attested by the Ṣarifah, traditional reed constructions in the marshes of southern Iraq (fig. 7). An orange colour was then chosen, based on experiments with traditional materials such as ochre (fig. 8).

Fig. 7. A model of a Ṣarifah. Made for the exhibition Ana Ziqquratim by Cheikhmous Ali, Sarah Dermech, Philippe Quenet. Credit: MISHA/photo Laurent Brancaléoni. Fig. 8. Reconstruction of the paintings of wall C. Credit: Université de Strasbourg/infography Margaux Dabin, Sarah Dermech and Maurice Frey

The best-known paintings are undoubtedly those in the central hall: two leopards stand next to a podium, decorated on the front with geometric paintings reminiscent of the polychrome cone mosaics of Uruk monumental architecture. The colours of the niches and recesses are given in the report, and it was therefore easy to reproduce the colours based on those of the bichrome or polychrome mosaics well known in Uruk: red, black and white (fig. 9).

Fig. 9. Reconstruction of the podium in the cella of the painted temple at Tell Uqair. Credit: Université de Strasbourg/infography Cyrill Schuppert (modified after Dermech 2016b, fig. 1).
Which painting technique?

Another important question concerned the painting technique – excavators call them frescoes. Fresco, from the Italian a fresco, involves applying pigments to a lime plaster that is still damp. As it dries, a thin, transparent and resistant layer, known as cullet, forms on the surface of the plaster, protecting the pictorial layer from alteration. This particular feature of frescoes is a major advantage for the durability of the decoration. To date, however, real frescoes are only attested in the Orient from the 2nd millennium BC onwards, although it seems that experiments took place as early as the Middle and Late PPNB (Gebel 2001, Dermech 2018:304).

Here we had to cross-check the information on the nature of the building’s external plaster (“gypsum plaster”) and the description of the white layer on which the paints were applied inside. Assuming that the exterior and interior plaster was the same, a thin layer of gypsum plaster (or juss) was applied to the interior, ruling out the use of a lime plaster and therefore the fresco technique. Based on Jean-François Gavoty’s experience, we suggested and tested the hypothesis of a lime whitewash applied to a gypsum plaster coating, which would explain why the paintings faded as they dried, since the lime whitewash then acts as a white pigment (fig. 10).

Fig. 10. Painting experiment: mud bricks, mud and chaff mortar, thin layer of gypsum plaster, lime painting.
How much light inside the building?

The painted decoration is only visible if the light shows it: by this we mean that the colour perceived depends on the nature (the “temperature”) of the incident light.

Following discussion between architects and archaeologists in the Ana Ziqquratim team, and drawing on the excavation documentation and current knowledge on mud brick architecture, an elevation of at least 10m was proposed for the 3D reconstruction of the central room (fig. 11). Indirect light came through the side doors and small openings at the back of the niches formed windows. This reconstruction revealed a very dark interior: in other words, the paintings were barely visible. Other 3D reconstructions have shown the same interior atmosphere, whether in the central hall of the White Temple of Uruk (produced by Artefacts-Berlin, Bator, van Ess, Hagenauer 2013) or, at a much earlier period, simulations of the painted interior of a series of Neolithic buildings at Çatalhöyük (Busacca 2020, 2021).

Fig. 11. 3D of the painted temple interior. Infography : Old Polygon Studio (C. Schuppert).

This observation led to the hypothesis of additional light, provided by torches or oil or fat lamps. The colour temperature of this kind of light source is lower than white light, and the spectrum emitted is predominantly yellow-orange, with very little blue. In other words, colours close to this spectrum will be visible; others, such as green or blue, will be less visible, appearing as brown. This hypothesis may explain the absence of green or blue, as noted by the excavators: these colours did not look ‘good’ in a dark and artificially lit interior. Another explanation lies in the nature of the pigments: our experiments confirmed that copper oxides such as malachite (green) or azurite (blue) are altered by lime and are therefore of little interest if used on a lime plaster or in a limewash.


Copies made on site have been preserved in the Baghdad Museum. Today, they remain the best evidence of the painted remains. Their inaccessibility, as well as the absence of archaeometric analysis, have been the driving force behind an experimental investigation into painting techniques. Enriched by interdisciplinary research and the creation of a 3D model, we proposed hypotheses on the technique and colours, as well as on the internal lighting of the temple. We were also able to test the limits of the exercise: in the absence of abundant and accurate documentation on the remains uncovered, colour and lighting renditions remain propositions. However, in the light of current work on the lighting and polychromy of contemporary and older architecture, these hypotheses are credible, and demonstrate the value of such an approach, both in terms of understanding the architectural decoration and in terms of disseminating knowledge to the public.


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Sarah Dermech est Docteur, Membre associée Archimède (UMR 7044), Université de Strasbourg. Boursière postdoctorale Fondation Gerda Henkel

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Sarah Dermech (2023, 24 novembre). Light and colour in a Mesopotamian temple (Tell Uqair, LC5). ArchéOrient - Le Blog. Consulté le 14 juin 2024, à l’adresse

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  1. 1 décembre 2023

    […] Light and colour in a Mesopotamian temple (Tell Uqair, LC5), par Sarah Dermech, sur le Carnet ArchéOrient ; […]

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