Munsell Color System; Color Matching from Munsell Color Company > Color & Science > What Scientists Think of the 2015 Pantone Color of the Year: Marsala

What Scientists Think of the 2015 Pantone Color of the Year: Marsala

A view of the Pantone Color of the Year, Marsala, as seen through a Munsell soil color chart.

Color lovers who follow the latest color trends would know that Pantone’s Color of the Year for 2015 is Marsala, also known as Pantone 18-1438. For Pantone, “Much like the fortified wine that gives Marsala its name, this tasteful hue embodies the satisfying richness of a fulfilling meal while its grounding red-brown roots emanate a sophisticated, natural earthiness.”

To some people, the natural earthiness is not “emanated” from Marsala, but is actually earth itself! There are many other color lovers who are less concerned with fashion, but literally happier playing in the dirt. For scientists, especially archaeologists and soil scientists, Marsala is better known as Munsell 5R 4/6. To see what the color of the year means to scientists, we asked some of them in varying fields what comes to mind when they see Munsell 5R 4/6.

Image of bowl containing Pantone's color of the year 2015, Marsala, 18-1438.

Bioarchaeology Digger: 40,000 Years of Human History in One Colour

Wow. Now this is a colour that takes me back. And when I say back, I mean right back beyond my childhood to when our ancestors first put paint to rock 40,000 years ago. From the rock shelters of Sulawesi, Indonesia, to the deep subterranean chambers of Lascaux, France and the caves of Laas Gaal, Somalia, this distinctive blend of crushed hematite and clay ochre, all mixed up with a little cave water, has been a key colour on the early cave-painters’ palette across the world.

View of a section of the Lascaux cave paintings, part of a replica in the Brno museum Anthropos.

Since then, it’s a colour that’s been at the heart of some of the world’s most striking civilisations – Aztec, Incas and Mayans all used it in their impressive murals. But it’s not just the colour of artistic revolution. This colour also smacks of technological revolution, of the ore, earthen furnaces and smelting slag that kicked off the Iron Age. And today? Well, it just so happens that today, it’s the exact same colour as the weather-beaten handle of my very own trowel. So there you have it, 40,000 years of human history – all in one colour.

Pantone 18-1438 Marsala chip drive, the 2015 color of the year. The trowel of an archaeologist, the handle is Marsala, 5R 4/6 colored.

Photo of Maiya Pina-Dacier, community manager for Dig Ventures.Maiya Pina-Dacier graduated from UCL with an MSc in Skeletal and Dental Bioarchaeology. She’s worked on excavations as far afield as Rwanda, Spain, the Caribbean and Coventry. Maiya is currently the Community Manager for Dig Ventures, a UK-based organisation that puts archaeology back in public hands. Always wanted to try archaeology? Now’s your chance!


Archaeologist: The Color of Bricks and Bourbon

5R 4/6 Moderate Red? The 5R page isn’t even included in my 1975 Edition of the Munsell Soil Color Charts! Working in Kentucky I spend most of my time with yellows, browns, and grays. When I encounter a red hue it almost always means heat: bricks, fire-cracked rock, soil baked by constant heat from a hearth. These are all good things to find in my research on whiskey distilling. Heat is critical to Kentucky’s distillery industry. It powers the copper stills. Flames char oak staves for coopers to make barrels. Clear corn whiskey (or moonshine if you haven’t been paying taxes) is barreled and placed in warehouses to age. Our hot summers and cold winters force the whiskey in and out of that char layer and it acquires color and taste. As early as the 1800’s folks were requesting that red whiskey (Bourbon) from Kentucky. I’m not sure if there are any 5R 4/6 Bourbons on the market today, but I’ll take one for the team and start looking!

Nicholas Laracuente doing a Ground Penetrating Radar Survey at the James Pepper Distillery in Lexington, KY. (Photo: Camille Westmont)

Nicholas Laracuente doing a Ground Penetrating Radar Survey at the James Pepper Distillery in Lexington, KY. (Photo: Camille Westmont)

Old Taylor Distillery ruins in Kentucky.

Old Taylor is one of hundreds of distillery ruins throughout Kentucky. Built in the 1800’s, Old Taylor was used for distilling whiskey and entertaining. Recently purchased this distillery is currently being restored to its former glory, hopefully maintaining a Marsala colored roof. (photo: Nick Laracuente)

Photo of Nick Laracuente, archaeologist.Nick Laracuente is the Director of the Jack Jouett Archaeology Project in Woodford County, Kentucky. You can join the project or read updates at



Anthropologist: Color Names and Cultural Assumptions

The diversity of human life creates a marvelous range of color, though much of the archaeological traces of past lives could be called some form of reddish brown—precisely the realm of “Marsala.” Although classifying color was part of the history of science, it was equally a systematic sorting of vivid, even tantalizing cultural assumptions. All the food and plant terms in older archaeological reports make them seem almost like a recipe book of sorts. More problematic, however, is that using terms such as “Marsala” or “Morocco Red” to describe artifacts from a 1,500 year old Maya city seems another kind of colonization. Names seem to give researchers a conceptual purchase on the idea of the color that numbers do not, which is precisely why names matter. Of course, the relatively simple nomenclature of Munsell is a product of the culture of science, which has its own set of values and priorities. The Munsell value of “Marsala” is 5R 4/6—not nearly so romantic, but intriguing enough, as archaeologists tend to inhabit the YR hues. The closest color to “Marsala” in Kaminaljuyú ceramics is 10R 4/6. The less vivid names unfetter, even unsettle, ways of thinking about the color, with the effect of re-thinking relationships.

Auger sampling of clay soil from the historic Cherokee town site of Cowee, near Franklin, North Carolina. (Photo: Kathryn Sampeck)

Auger sampling of clay soil from the historic Cherokee town site of Cowee, near Franklin, North Carolina. (photo: Kathryn Sampeck)

A photo of Kathryn Sampeck with mountains in the backgroundDr. Kathryn Sampeck is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Illinois State University. Her research focuses on the archaeology and ethnohistory of Spanish colonialism, Mesoamerican literacy and writing, and the social history of American commodities such as cacao, and blogged for us about the Color of Chocolate. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram and her blogs on and Dr. Sampeck will be appearing again in the Munsell Color Blog to dive deeper into the anthropological study of Marsala or 5R 4/6.


Environmental Consultant: Rusty Soils in the Boreal Forest

The color Munsell 5R 4/6, as well as many similar reddish colors, often indicate oxidation or rust – the presence of iron oxide – in Boreal Forest soils. The presence of these deep reddish and orangey colors can help environmental consultants determine where the water table sits within a soil. Iron is a common mineral in soils, but it only turns such red colors as a result of a chemical reaction (oxidation) that occurs in the presence of both air and water. Iron in Boreal Forest soils turns red most readily in zones where there is both plenty of oxygen and plenty of water: right at the edge of the water table, or where the water table fluctuates. If soils are full of red, blotchy spots, or “mottles” close to the surface, it is likely that the soils have a highly fluctuating shallow water table. Rusty mottles are a good indicator of seasonally wet soils (e.g. spring flooding).

Soil profile in river alluvium, Gt Ouse floodplain SE of Bedford, coarse rusty mottles are prominent (photo: Rodney Burton)

Soil profile in river alluvium, Gt Ouse floodplain SE of Bedford, coarse rusty mottles are prominent (photo: Rodney Burton)

For more details, stay tuned for an upcoming blog post about reddish Boreal Forest soils from Alison Borealis.

Photo of Alison Borealis, environmental scientist and sustainability advocate, in a costume.Alison Borealis is an environmental scientist and sustainability advocate in Alberta, Canada, focused on sustainability, biodiversity, climate change mitigation, community betterment, and making a positive impact.


Punk Archaeologist: When the Digging Day is Done

From where I have dug in Greece and Italy, I would have been troubled to discover marsala in the earth and on the pottery we found. The color is alien to that ground where strata are all different shades of brown. But after work each night, I’d see marsala in my glass, a Tuscan or Nemean red, with which to toast the sunset, light and wine merging to a color I can still taste from my New Jersey porch in winter, dreaming of summer, of seeing that color again. My American-based friends find marsala in chunks of chert, or in their spading of Oklahoma dirt. But the marsala I love I’ll only find in that sun-illuminated wine.

Glass of red wine in the sunlight.

Andrew ReinhardAndrew Reinhard, punk archaeologist, with a glass of wine. is the Director of Publications for the American Numismatic Society and a punk archaeologist without borders. His blog Archaeogaming explores the archaeology of (and in) video games. He is also, as far as we know, the only person to have composed a punk love song about Albert Munsell.



What Do You See?

We hope you enjoyed learning about the scientific side of the Color of the Year, and want to know in the comment section below, what do YOU think of when you see the color Marsala, or Pantone 18-1438 or Munsell 5R 4/6?

Munsell soil color chart, showing the color 5R 4/6. Pantone 18-1438 Marsala - the 2015 color of the year, large color chip.



















Posted by .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *