Paint Made From People: The Fascinating History Behind Extinct Colors

You’d think a paint named “mummy brown” would be the product of good marketing. In fact, it dates back to the 16th century, when actual mummies were ground up and sold as paint. On Hyperallergic today, Allison Meier takes a look at the surprisingly riveting history of extinct pigments.

It’s common knowledge that certain pigments—including the green paint that likely killed Napoleon—were eventually discovered as toxic, and abandoned. But there are plenty of common colors that went extinct for other reasons. A few highlights from Meier's list:

  • Indian Yellow, unique because it contained the urine of Bihar province cows that were fed only mango leaves and water (it was eventually outlawed).
  • Lapis Lazuli, the deep ultramarine that Yves Klein must’ve admired, made from the ground-up, eponymous precious gem (today, it goes for $360 per five grams).
  • Mummy Brown, the aforementioned pigment made from the ground-up remains of actual Egyptian mummies (both of the human and cat variety). “By the 16th century, despite legal restrictions, exporting mummies from Egypt to Europe to be ground up and used as ‘medicine’ was big business,” explains Art in Society. It was used up until the 19th century, when the supply of mummies ran dry.

It’s also worth pointing out that there’s a whole industry dedicated replicating these colors, if only just for preservationists working on restoring great works that used them. NPR did a great story on the topic last year, but meanwhile, Meier is updating her post with new colors as the tips roll in—so be sure to check it out. [Hyperallergic]