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Ancient Egyptian Painters Screwed Up, and Had to Fix Mistakes

While master craftsmen, these painters sometimes had to go back and redo important work, such as when they adorned a dead pharaoh with the wrong jewelry.

By Matt Hrodey
Jul 19, 2023 3:30 PM
Egypt painting
The corrected portrait of Ramesses II. (Credit: Martinez et al., PLOSONE)


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Ancient Egyptian painters produced some of the most recognizable art of ancient times. Yet, even for their exactitude and memorable iconography, they sometimes made an oops and had to paint a do-over, according to a new study that scanned ancient paintings using X-ray imaging.

The paper by researchers from France, Belgium, Egypt and the U.S. aimed a macro X-ray fluorescence imaging (XRF) machine at two paintings to analyze revisions made to them and what they mean.

Read More: The Mummification Process: How Ancient Egyptians Preserved Bodies for the Afterlife

Ancient Egyptian Painting

For red paintings, ancient Egyptians had used hematite, an iron compound, along with realgar, an arsenic mineral. For blue, they applied a much-relied-upon calcium compound later labeled Egyptian blue. And for white, they painted with gypsum, calcite and anhydrite.

No one knows exactly how the Egyptians produced their paintings, but researchers assume they started by drawing a preliminary sketch on a smooth, plastered wall, in red ochre. Next, they painted white or colored backgrounds and overlaid those with the final colors. To finish, they outlined final details with red ochre and cleaned up any paint that had spilled over the lines.

Philippe Walter of Sorbonne University and Catherine Defeyt of the University of Liège take measurements in the Noble Valley in Luxor. (Credit: David Strivay/CEA/University of Liège)

A Change of Composition

These ancient painters also made larger corrections, when necessary.

In the first analyzed painting for the paper, the artist repositioned the entire arm of Menna, an official under pharaoh Amenhotep III, for reasons unknown. Menna’s tomb, dated to about 1350 B.C., contained a painting of Menna with his wife as they both worshipped Osiris, the god of fertility and agriculture.

While the outline of the first arm position is visible to the naked eye, the researchers used XRF to determine that the second arm was painted on top of the first (making for the quickest possible do-over). XRF works by analyzing different chemical layers on a surface and thereby detecting the colors ancient Egyptians had used.

The team also concluded that the artist had made the alteration soon after the structure’s initial decoration, judging by the similarities between the correction’s white overlay and that seen elsewhere in the tomb chapel.

But why shift the arm slightly? What meaning did a few degrees of rotation convey?

According to the paper, “The factual reasoning behind this alteration remains difficult to define precisely.”

The altered arm (right) next to the outline of the original (further right). (Credit: Martinez et al., PLOSONE)

New Jewelry For an Old Pharaoh

The researchers found the second alteration by chance. It was in a lesser-known tomb chapel belonging to Nakhtamun, chief of the altar for the mortuary tomb for pharaoh Ramesses II.

XRF revealed that at some point, painters had re-outfitted a painting of Ramesses II with a different crown, scepter and necklace.

For these changes, the paper suggests a theory: Nakhtamun’s tomb was built many years after Ramesses’ rule, and an artisan accidentally depicted the ruler with up-to-date pharaonic fashions reflecting the 20th dynasty. Later, someone noticed the mismatch and requested a do-over that matched Ramesses’ 19th dynasty, resulting in a freshly painted wesekh necklace around his neck, along with the other changes.

The final Ramesses II portrait with 19th dynasty accoutrements. (Credit: Martinez et al., PLOSONE)

Read More: We Celebrate King Tut, But He Was Once Erased From Ancient Egyptian History

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