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Natural Pigment Called Ochre


The Painted Cliffs, sandstone stained with iron oxide forming an intricate pattern, Maria Island National Park, Tasmania, Australia, Australasia
Grant Dixon/ Lonely Planet Images/ Getty Images

Ochre (also spelled ocher) and hematite (or haematite) refer to several forms of iron oxide, a type of clay or sandy clay mineral found in natural deposits in many different regions of the world. Ochre's primary use prehistorically was as pigments--coloration for everything from rock art paintings to pottery to human tattoos.

Ochre is often associated with human burials: for example, the Upper Paleolithic cave site Arene Candide has an early use of ochre at a burial of a young man 23,500 years ago. The site of Paviland Cave in the UK, dated to about the same time, had a burial so soaked in red ochre he was called the "Red Lady". A second "Red Lady", this time actually referring to a female burial, was discovered at the Maya site of Copan. There are many other examples.

Similar terms for ochre seen in scholarly records are ferrous oxide or iron oxide, limonite, hematite, red ochre and yellow ochre.


Ochre comes in a variety of colors, from brown to red to yellow; and interestingly enough, it does change color under circumstances. Red ochre is associated with sesquioxide of iron (i.e., it forms in areas where the soil is well-drained), while the yellow ochre (called limonite or goethite) is hydrated iron oxide (i.e., where iron was allowed to freely combine with water). Yellow or brown ochre can turn to red as the mineral picks up water and converts to hematite.

Ochre and Archaeology

Ochre is very common on archaeological sites world-wide, and it is generally assumed to be a coloring agent. The earliest possible use of ochre is nearly 300,000 years old, in the site of GnJh-03 in the Kapthurin Formation of East Africa, and at Twin Rivers in Zambia. Often associated with religious ceremonies, ochre is was (and still is) a popular pigment choice for artists beginning right with the first art of the Middle Stone Age (MSA). The assemblages of MSA sites including Blombos Cave and Klein Kliphuis in South Africa have been found to include examples of engraved ochre, slabs of ochre with carved patterns cut into the surface.

Recent studies researching the potential to source ochre--that is, to determine where the ochre came from at a particular site or instance--have been attempted in the Tucson basin of Arizona. Using instrumental neutron activation analysis (INAA), researchers were able to identify specific geochemical characteristics of three sources, based on percentages of their metals and rare earth elements.

Investigations at Sibudu Cave, a Middle Stone Age site in South Africa, revealed that ochre was often associated with a starchy plant resin used to attach stone tools on wooden shafts or handles. The association with mastic substances was also discovered at Enkapune Ya Muto in Kenya, and a handful of Upper Paleolithic sites in France, suggesting that the practice may have been wide spread and in use over a very long period of time.


This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Raw Materials, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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