Ancient Egyptian Art: Unraveling the Process of Corrections and Fixes , Ancient Egyptian artists created some of the most recognizable art of ancient times. Yet, even for their precision and memorable iconography, they sometimes failed and had to be repainted, according to to new research who scans ancient paintings using X-ray imaging.
The report by researchers from France, Belgium, Egypt and the US aimed to a macro-X-ray fluorescence imaging (XRF) machine on two paintings to analyze the revisions made to them and what they mean.
Ancient Egyptian painting
For red paintings, the ancient Egyptians used hematite, a compound of iron, along with realgar, an arsenic mineral. For blue, they applied a much-read calcium compound, later called Egyptian blue. And for the white, they painted with gypsum, calcite and anhydrite.
No one knows exactly how the Egyptians produced their paintings, but researchers suggest they began by drawing a preliminary sketch on a smooth, plastered wall, with red ocher. They then painted white or colored backgrounds and overlaid them with the final colors. To finish, they outlined the final details with red ocher and cleaned up the paint that had spilled onto the lines.
Philippe Walter of the Sorbonne University and Catherine Defeit of the University of Liège take measurements in the Noble Valley in Luxor. (Credit: David Strivey/CEA/University of Liege)
Change in composition
These ancient artists also made larger corrections when necessary.
In the first painting analyzed for the paper, the artist repositioned the entire hand of Mena, a servant of Pharaoh Amenhotep III, for unknown reasons. The Tomb of Mena, dated to around 1350 BC, contains a painting of Mena with his wife as the two worship Osiristhe god of fertility and agriculture.
While the outline of the first hand position is visible to the naked eye, the researchers used XRF to determine that the second hand was drawn on top of the first (making for the fastest conversion possible). XRF works by analyzing different chemical layers on the surface and thus discovers the colors that the ancient Egyptians used.
The team also concluded that the artist made the change soon after the original decoration of the structure, judging by the similarities between the white overlay of the patch and that seen elsewhere in the tomb chapel.
But why shift the hand slightly? What does a few degrees of rotation matter?
According to the article, “the factual rationale behind this change remains difficult to pinpoint.”
The altered hand (right) next to the outline of the original (far right). (Credit: Martinez et al., PLOSONE)
New jewelry for an old pharaoh
The researchers discovered the second change by accident. It was located in a lesser-known tomb chapel belonging to Nakhtamun, chief of the altar for burial tomb for Pharaoh Ramses II.
The XRF revealed that at some point artists had retrofitted a painting of Ramesses II with a different crown, scepter and necklace.
For these changes, the paper offers a theory: Nakhtamun’s tomb was built many years after the reign of Ramesses, and a craftsman accidentally depicted the ruler in current pharaonic fashion, reflecting the 20th dynasty. Someone later noticed the discrepancy and requested repairs that matched Ramses’ 19th dynasty, resulting in a freshly painted wesekh necklace around his neck, among other changes.
The last portrait of Ramses II in 19th Dynasty outfit. (Credit: Martinez et al., PLOSONE)