Researchers have used cutting-edge portable chemical imaging technology to uncover hidden details in two ancient Egyptian paintings dating back over 3,000 years.
The paintings were discovered in the Theban Necropolis, situated near the River Nile, within the tombs’ chapels where people gathered to commemorate the deceased.
Traditionally, studies of ancient Egyptian paintings were conducted in museums or laboratories. However, this study sought to challenge convention by performing the analysis in the tombs themselves, utilizing advanced portable devices.
This approach allowed researchers to identify alterations made by the artists, which is uncommon in Egyptian paintings that were thought to follow highly formalized workflows.
The innovative chemical imaging technology involved X-ray fluorescence, which created a molecular-level map of the painting’s surface, revealing its chemical properties.
Hyperspectral imaging was also utilized to analyze the artwork on multiple wavelengths, unveiling details not visible to the naked eye.
Two paintings from the Ramesside Period (1292 BC to 1075 BC) were examined in the study. The first painting, found in the tomb chapels of Menna, depicts an official who served under Pharaoh Amenhotep III. Alterations to the painting were detected, such as an additional hand hidden beneath the white background layer.
The reasons behind this change remain uncertain, but it provides intriguing insights into the painting process and suggests that different groups might have worked on the artwork in separate sessions.
The second painting, located in the tomb of Nakhtamun, a cleric, revealed various adjustments made to the depiction of pharaoh Ramesses II, including a rarely seen portrayal with a budding beard. Such a representation is unusual since ancient Egyptian pharaohs were typically depicted with a more idealized and eternal appearance. The changes made to the painting’s composition and symbolism over time have raised questions that warrant further investigation.
These findings challenge previous assumptions about ancient Egyptian art production and offer a new perspective on the artists’ approaches and intentions. By studying the physical composition of the paintings on-site, the research provides a deeper understanding of the ancient Egyptian representations and their significance.
Philippe Martinez, an Egyptologist at Sorbonne University and lead author of the study said: The corrections also show an image that was not perfect. Egyptians liked perfection and beauty, but this is not that because the shape of the scepter is slightly weird: It touches the face of the king.
“This shows how the artist was actually working and how corrections can lead to something that is less perfect than before. It must have meaning, but that still escapes us.”
The application of portable chemical imaging technology has opened up new avenues of research in Egyptology and provided scholars with a unique opportunity to gain fresh insights into the ancient world’s artistic techniques and cultural expressions.
More information: Philippe Martinez et al, (2023). Hidden mysteries in ancient Egyptian paintings from the Theban Necropolis observed by in-situ XRF mapping, PLOS ONE. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0287647