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Hidden Details in Ancient Egyptian Paintings Revealed With Portable Chemical Imaging

Portrait of Ramesses II in Nakhtamun tomb.
Portrait of Ramesses II in the Nakhtamun tomb, Chief of the Altar in the Ramesseum (tomb TT 341, possibly 20th Dynasty, circa 1100 B.C.). Credit: Martinez et al., CC-BY 4.0.
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A new on-site study of portraits decorating the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs has revealed instances where designs were painted over and altered, possibly during subsequent Egyptian dynasties. Published in the journal PLOS ONE, the study suggests that our current model of tomb painting being a highly formalized process may be wrong.

Portable analysis finds changes to portraits of Menna and Ramesses II

This study took place within the tomb chapels of Menna (an overseer during the reign of Amenhotep III, 1391–1353 B.C.) and Nahktamun (chief of the altar in the Ramesseum, circa 1100 B.C.). Both chapels are located in the Theban Necropolis near the river Nile.

Using two portable macro X-ray fluorescence imaging (MA-XRF) guns, the researchers scanned two portraits – one of Menna in the Menna tomb and one of Ramesses II in the Nahktamun tomb [Updated, July 13, 2023]. MA-XRF analysis is non-destructive and can penetrate through multiple paint layers, allowing the researchers to create several chemical imaging maps detailing the locations of pigment in the portraits.

By analyzing the locations of each pigment, as well as assessing any differences in composition between pigments, the researchers were able to identify several alterations in the portraits.

The portrait of Menna depicts him and his wife taking part in a rite of adoration for the god Osiris. Here, Menna is posed such that he raises two arms in front of his face. However, a very close visual inspection shows the shape of something else near one of Menna’s arms. From the MA-XRF mapping, the researchers determined that this was a third arm, which appeared to have been painted over with a white surface layer before a new arm was painted at a slightly different angle – though the reason for this overpainting remains unclear.

“From a strictly visual point of view, it has been described as resulting simply from an esthetic issue. However, this is a modern judgment, and it remains rather difficult to justify what we could declare un-esthetic would have appeared to an ancient Egyptian,” the researchers wrote in the new PLOS ONE paper. “The change in the arm’s position is very slight, and it is difficult to say that it really changes anything to the stance of the worshipper.”

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Ramesses II given new regalia

MA-XRF analysis of the Ramesses II portrait also revealed that adjustments had been made to the pharaoh’s crown and other royal regalia.

As the researchers explain, this royal portrait previously played a key role in helping to date the age of the Nakhtamun tomb, as it depicts Ramesses II wearing a beard. In this era, the beard would have represented grief, and so could indicate that the young pharaoh was grieving the death of his father. Based on this, the tomb was dated as belonging to Ramesses II’s own reign during the 19th dynasty (1292–1190 B.C.), and the jewelry that Ramesses II appears to be wearing also reflects what was known to be in style during this period.

However, the MA-XRF images appear to show that an alternate style of necklace, more common in the later 20th dynasty, was originally painted around the pharaoh’s neck. This would suggest that the Ramesses portrait was first painted in the style of the 20th dynasty and then repainted to reflect his own 19th dynasty fashion at a later date – possibly for some symbolic or cultural reason.

“The hypothetical re-dating of the tomb to the 20th dynasty, instead of the 19th dynasty and the reign of Ramesses II, could be further strengthened by the rather elongated proportions of the figures in the chapel of Nakhtamun,” the researchers wrote.

Rethinking our perspective on Egyptian paintings

Ancient Egyptian paintings, especially those that would constitute royal iconography, are commonly thought to have been the result of a highly formalized process. Alterations have previously been spotted through visual inspections alone, but these were thought to be very rare among such art.

In light of their discoveries, the researchers behind this latest study have called for further investigation of similar works. Further analysis may also help to shine a light on some of the reasons why alterations have taken place and the timings of any overpainting.

“[. . .] due to the rather opaque quality of the paint layers and the fact that most of the scientific inspections of these works of art have been carried out only through direct visual observation, this may very well be but the tip of the iceberg,” they wrote.

“From a methodological perspective, we have shown that the use of MA-XRF is not limited to experiments in laboratories and museums, but is also possible and highly rewarding in the field,” they added.

Reference: Martinez P, Defeyt C, Elleithy H et al. Hidden mysteries in ancient Egyptian paintings from the Theban Necropolis observed by in-situ XRF mapping. PLOS ONE. 2023;18(7):e0287647. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0287647

This article is a rework of a press release issued by PLOS. Material has been edited for length and content.

Correction: The article erroneously referred to macro X-ray fluorescence imaging as MA-XRD when abbreviated. This was updated on July 13, 2023, to correctly abbreviate the technique name as MA-XRF.