X-Rays Uncover the Secrets of 3,000-Year-Old Egyptian Paintings

A new study provides insight into how tomb painters altered their work over time

Tomb painting analysis
A portrait of the Ramesses II (left) and researchers Philippe Walter and Catherine Defeyt using portable X-ray fluorescence equipment to take measurements (right) Martinez et al. (CC-BY 4.0) and David Strivay, University of Liège (CC-BY 4.0)

Even ancient Egyptian painters made mistakes sometimes.

A new close examination of two paintings in Egypt’s Theban Necropolis has revealed how artists went about creating—and correcting—their works. The findings were published last week in the journal PLOS One.

To understand the making of the paintings, which date to between 1330 and 1069 B.C.E., researchers used portable equipment on site to conduct X-ray fluorescence imaging. This technique examines chemical composition to show what lies beneath the surface of an artwork.

The first painting—a portrait of Ramesses II—is located in the tomb of a cleric named Nakhtamun, and the testing revealed that it underwent numerous alterations. Artists reworked several objects depicted alongside the pharaoh, including a crown, scepter and necklace. For instance, an earlier version of the painting depicted the leader wearing a multi-chain beaded necklace called a shebyu collar, but artists later replaced it with a flat, circular necklace called a wesekh.

According to the researchers, the shebyu collar is “unknown or not very common on the royal images of Ramesses II.” They think that the painting was done after the pharoah’s death, and that artists made the change after realizing they had used the incorrect style of collar.

Peter Brand, a historian at the University of Memphis and author of Ramesses II: Egypt's Ultimate Pharaoh, is uncertain about the researchers’ conclusions. Brand, who was not involved in the study, tells Live Science’s Owen Jarus that his own research indicates shebyu collars were worn during the period, and he thinks the painting instead dates to late in Ramesses II’s reign.

“The tall proportions of the king’s blue crown and his rather ‘chisel’-shaped nose are consistent with the later years of his reign as seen in reliefs at Karnak [a temple complex in Thebes],” says Brand.

The second painting—located in the tomb of an official named Menna—was also altered. Artists changed the placement of Menna’s arm, as a third appendage is visible under a layer of white background. Though scientists have known of this change since the painting’s discovery in 1888, the new imaging provides a more comprehensive understanding of the transformation.

Thomas Christiansen, an Egyptologist with the Danish National Encyclopedia, who also wasn’t involved with the research, tells Science’s Tanvi Dutta Gupta that he was surprised by how much the paintings were reworked. He adds that seeing the alterations can give scientists insight into how projects were carried out: Perhaps, he speculates, a master artist envisioned the project before turning it over to apprentices, later issuing corrections and revisions as the work progressed. “More effort went into realizing a preconceived artistic idea than we thought,” Christiansen says.

The new imaging also helps researchers understand how the paintings changed naturally as they aged. Though paintings like these can appear to be “almost pristine,” they have often degraded significantly over time, with some pigments fading to make others more prominent, Philippe Martinez, an Egyptologist at Sorbonne University in France and lead author of the study, tells Newsweek’s Aristos Georgiou.

“What seems unfinished has often only aged badly,” he says. “What seems to be unchanged is completely different from what the ancient artist saw at the end of his work.”

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