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Please take a look at this passage:

It is due to a misunderstanding that most modern sculptures are monochromatic. When ancient sculptures were exhumed years ago, they were discovered to be uncolored. No one at that time had reason to believe, as we now do, that the sculptures had originally been colorfully painted, but that centuries of exposure to moisture washed away the paint.

I can't tell exactly what's the usage of "but" in the last part of the passage. When seeing it as a conjunction, it seems wrong because it should not be preceded by a comma. This is as far as I could go.

So, then, is it an adverbial clause "but + noun clause" meaning "only"? Also, what does the second sentence really mean?

I would really appreciate any helps!

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    The comma is optional, but personally I would omit it. The last part is a coordination construction consisting of two declarative content clauses, the second one introduced by the coordinator "but": "[that the sculptures had originally been colorfully painted], but [that centuries of exposure to moisture washed away the paint]", where the bracketed clauses form the coordinates. "But" introduces a clause whose content contrasts with what is said in the first coordinate.
    – BillJ
    Apr 7 at 7:05
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The sentence is rather long and convoluted. It means:

The sculptures had originally been painted. Over the centuries they were exposed to moisture, which washed away the paint. When they were first discovered no-one had any reason to believe this had happened. These days we do have reason to believe it.

The "but" is being used as a conjunction in the clause

the sculptures had originally been painted but sentences of exposure to moisture washed away the paint

and as you say a preceding comma is not really correct in this situation. The author inserted it as a "pause-for-breath comma" because the sentence had gotten too long. I also think the author's use of the construction "believe that... but that..." is not correct; they should have used "believe that... but..." instead.

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  • Thank you so much, randomhead! But, why the but is not an adverbial clause?
    – Lenny
    Apr 7 at 4:09
  • @Lenny you could read it that way too: The sculptures were painted, only the paint had been washed away.*
    – randomhead
    Apr 7 at 4:13

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