Scholars look right through ancient Egyptian paintings

Scholars look right through ancient Egyptian paintings

Beautiful details hidden under ancient Egyptian paintings. These have now been discovered using a new device that makes it possible to analyze images layer by layer.

Using this portable chemograph, scientists studied two royal portraits that can be found in the burial chapels of the famous Theban temple complex near the Nile, known today as Luxor. Both paintings date back to the Ramesside period, when pharaohs of the Nineteenth and Twenty Dynasties ruled Egypt.

on the first plate We have researchers Slight changes in the position of the arm were detected during the drawing, but it is unclear why this was done. In the second panel, Portrait of Ramesses II, several alterations are found in the underlying layers of paint. For example, the shape of the crown and other royal objects has changed a lot. This may have been done because the symbols depicted took on a different meaning over time.

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He speaks to researcher Philippe Martinez of the Sorbonne University in Paris Saintias He explains that these types of alterations to ancient art are rare, and thus this find is very special. It is still not clear what are the reasons for the alterations and how much time goes by for the different paint jobs. Further research may provide answers to these questions. In any case, portable chemoimaging technology is ideal for analyzing Egyptian paintings in situ and will be used a lot in the future.

The painting was studied layer by layer. Photo: Martinez et al.

“Several years ago, the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities banned sampling (temporarily) abroad, no matter how small,” says Martinez. It is an understandable decision in a country where much of the historical heritage is still being plundered, but the new law makes our work much more difficult. We have now succeeded in developing a portable device in our laboratory with which we can perform analyzes on site in Egypt, although it is not as detailed as in the laboratory. The Portable Alchemist illustrator does not detract from the art in any way. The technology works on the basis of different wavelengths of light – it can be ultraviolet, infrared or X-rays – which are partially reflected and from which we can identify specific molecules in the substrates,” the researcher explains.

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Divine beauty and perfection
Scientists decided to start studying known images with the new technique. We have analyzed two paintings and in this way we learn more and more about the mysterious ancient Egyptians, their customs and the values ​​of their society over the years. What is the role of this type of art in the Ramesside era? As far as we know, they didn’t have a word for “art”. For them it was a kind of expression “nefer”, which can be translated as “beauty”, but also as “divine perfection”. These kinds of artifacts – whether they were statues, paintings, stone reliefs, or wooden dolls – had a deeper meaning in the search for eternal life and the transition to the underworld of Osiris. Although the elite of the ancient Egyptians certainly felt an earthly pleasure and longing from looking at the artifacts,” Martinez explains.

Mysteries hidden in ancient Egyptian paintings from the Theban necropolis have been noted through in situ XRF mapping
Portrait of Ramesses II in the tomb of Nakhtmun, circa 1100 BC). Photo: Martinez et al.

Philosophical reflections
A lone moment in the dimly lit temple complex caused the eyes of the Egyptologist to open. I have visited some of these cemeteries many times over the years. I talked about it during the lectures, both at home and on the site. I thought I knew the content like the back of my hand, but when we started this interdisciplinary project something in me changed. My classmates each looked at the paintings with different eyes, we talked about them together and I decided to be completely alone in the chapel for a while. In the warm, damp, dimly lit, silent tomb, I began to look at the ancient walls and creations very differently. In the end, I realized that everything is much more complicated than what was written about this art in the past. Martinez said that unfiltered reality goes hand in hand with unfiltered imaging technology.

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The world feels like it’s investigating many paintings. “The discoveries we made in the Theban temple complex demand a comprehensive and systematic examination of all the paintings of the ancient Egyptians. The portable chemograph, which we used with great success in this study, is crucial in understanding the physical and chemical backgrounds of art.”

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