Although the marbles of the Parthenon admired for centuries for their dazzling white glow, it has long been known that the sculptures were – originally – painted in bright colours.

A new examination of the sculptures, held at the British Museum, using innovative scanning techniques, has revealed impressive evidence of a “wealth of preserved colour”. According to the researchers, painting the marbles was “a more complex undertaking than anyone had ever imagined – possibly as complex as sculpting them”.

The researchers found evidence to suggest that some of the sculptures had heavily patterned motifs, including human figures and palm leaf motifs, painted to match the folds and texture of the marble.

“Generally, in the scientific field, we find very small traces of pigment, so that’s what we usually expect,” said Giovanni Verri, a conservation scientist at the Art Institute of Chicago, who led the research along with a team of conservators, historians and archaeologists from the British Museum and Kings College London.

“And so it was a wonderful revelation to find that there was more than was usually found. Because nothing was really visible to the naked eye. Not even a trace of him. In that sense, this venture exceeded our expectations.”

Verri and his team found traces of Egyptian blue in 11 sculptures and one frieze figure. The researchers used other scanning technology to examine how the statues were carved, discovering that the sculptors used subtly different techniques to represent the different fabrics of the gods’ garments. There was intense treatment for linen and softer for wool, while leather was highly polished.