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Red Ochre (resource)

Dates of Use: Before 1 million years BCE–still in use today

Source: Natural inorganic pigment from a natural mineral

Chemical Name: Anhydrous iron (III) oxide

Formula: Fe2O3 (plus natural mineral impurities such as silica, calcium silicate, silicon, aluminum, phosphorus, and sulfur)

 

  • Red ochre comes from a naturally occurring mineral that is composed mainly of iron oxide. As a natural mineral it can include many impurities such as silica, calcium silicate, silicon, aluminum, phosphorus, and sulfur.
  • Red ochre can be found throughout the world in many different red tones and levels of transparency and opacity. 
  • Many ancient cultures used the pigment in burials. It was sprinkled through graves and also sometimes used to paint the deceased person.
  • A common name for red ochre is hematite or “bloodstone.” In ancient Greek the prefix “hem” means blood, and the suffix “-ite” means stone.
  • Red ochre is chemically stable and resistant to fading. It was used and valued by almost every culture in every time period. It is still used extensively today.
Image courtesy of Professor Christopher Henshilwood

Red ochre is a pigment that has been used by humans for more than a million years. It was highly prized and used by almost every culture in every time period. The earliest known human-made object that might be considered an artwork is an engraved lump of red ochre. It is Piece M1-6 (pictured above) from the Blombos Cave excavation. It has been dated to approximately 100,000 years ago. The worn corner at left could be a result of grinding to draw or produce a powdered pigment.

Red ochre stones can be mined straight from the earth and used like crayons for drawing.

Ochre can be ground against the surface of a stone to create a fine powder.

The powdered pigment can be made into paint by mixing with media. The media could be oil, egg, watercolor gum, or glue. Media could be anything that helps bind the pigment to the surface it’s being applied to.

Red Ochre in North Carolina

A natural source of red ochre in North Carolina is “bog iron.” These are hematite-cemented sandstones and concretions. Bog iron mineral nodules are hollow. Pure red ochre forms inside the hollow rock formations. Once broken open to access the ochre, the curved inner surface creates a bowl shape. This shape makes it easy to work with the ochre inside. These “paint rocks” were a source of ochre for Native Americans in North Carolina. The examples pictured here are from an archeological site in Hoke County, NC. The site is associated with the Ancient Keyauwee and Cheraw tribes, parent tribes of the Lumbee.

Native American Use of Red Ochre

For many Native Americans red ochre body paint offered a bond with nature. The paint transferred its power to the wearer. Red body paint often symbolized power, success, and strength in battle. A red handprint could signify success in battle. A warrior might apply it to themselves and their horse. Success in hunting and battle also meant survival of the tribe. The handprint is one of the most common elements of ancient art. The meaning of which is likely to be as numerous as the prints themselves. Almost all Native American cultures have made use of ochre, especially as body paint. Some believe that red is the only color the spirits can see.

The oldest known mine in North America is called the Powars II site. It is an archeological site at the edge of the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming. Indigenous people began mining red ochre there around 13,000 years ago.

A molecular model of iron oxide, the main chemical in red ochre.