Birds Identified In Ancient Egyptian Mural 3300 Years After It Was Painted – Forbes


An ancient naturalistic wall painting depicting birds from Dynastic Egypt is so skillfully rendered that the actual species can be identified
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This painting is a facsimile of a scene of marsh life that formed a continuous frieze in the … [+] so-called ‘Green Room’ in the North Palace at Amarna. (Artist: Nina de Garis Davies (1881–1965) and Norman de Garis Davies (1865–1941).)
More than 100 years ago, a team of archaeologists excavating the North Palace in the Egyptian city of Amarna unearthed a 3,300 year old wall painting of birds and wildlife in a lush marsh that was so carefully observed and skilfully rendered that it is possible to identify the species depicted.
This lavish mural, filled with images of water lilies, papyrus plants and birds is often described as “a masterpiece”. It decorated the walls of “a relaxation chamber”, now referred to as the “Green Room”, within the palace. The Green Room was probably designed to create a serene sensory experience for rest and relaxation by Princess Meritaten and her staff.
The North Palace dates from the late Eighteenth Dynasty (ca. 1353–1336 BCE). It is located at Tell el-Amarna (or simply, ‘Amarna’) in Egypt. This was a short-lived capital city, known then as Akhetaten (’the horizon of the Aten’), built some time between 1347 and 1332 BCE by Pharaoh Akhenaten. The city was abandoned shortly after Pharaoh Akhenaten’s death in 1332 BCE, probably because Akhenaten was viewed as something of a heretic by the polytheist society of the time after he changed Egypt’s religion to focus on just one god, Aten, the sun god. (Pharaoh Akhenaten’s son, Tutankhamun, later reversed this breach in protocol.)
The Amarna Palace is located about 186 miles (300 kilometers) south of Cairo, the current capital of Egypt (Figure 1).
F I G U R E 1: Geographic location of Tell el-Amarna.
The North Palace may have been originally built for either Nefertiti (Akhenhaten’s queen) or Kiya (a queen who was prominent in the earlier part of Akhenaten’s reign), according to inscriptions discovered in the North Palace. But it was later converted into a palace for his eldest daughter and heiress, Princess Meritaten, whose name meant “she who is beloved of Aten”, in reference to the sun deity worshiped by her father.
Meritaten’s Palace is an isolated building facing the river Nile, located between the North Suburb and the North City (Figure 2). This ancient structure was originally excavated by the Egyptian Exploration Society between 1923 and 1925.
F I G U R E 2. Locations of the North Palace, the North-East Court and the Green Room, Amarna … [+] (original plans by B. Kemp). (doi:10.15184/aqy.2022.159)
Shortly after the palace was abandoned, the ceiling and upper walls collapsed. The rubble protected and preserved the lower portions of the walls and the painted plaster panels of the masterpiece.
After it was rediscovered, the fragile mural adorning the west wall of the Green Room was copied in the 1920s by Nina de Garis Davies, an Egyptologist, artist and copyist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MoMA). It is this facsimile, currently housed at the MoMA, that was examined by two British researchers, zoologist Christopher Stimpson, an Honorary Associate at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, who specializes in the recovery and analysis of archaeological and palaeontological animal bones, and archaeologist Barry Kemp, a Senior Fellow at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge, who collaborated to finally identify all the bird species depicted in the painting.
“The art of the Green Room has not received as much attention as you would perhaps expect”, Dr. Stimpson elaborated. “This may have been because the original plaster panels did not survive well.” Attempts at conserving the painting in 1926 accidentally damaged and discolored the artwork.
Curiously, in spite the growing popularity of birding in the 100 years since the painting was unearthed, and despite the overall quality of the paintings themselves, at least some of the bird species it depicts have not been formally identified. Dr Stimpson’s and Professor Kemp’s new study is the first to closely examine the birds, some of which have unnatural markings, with the goal of identifying their species. As a result of Dr Stimpson’s and Professor Kemp’s efforts, and with the help of modern ornithological data and a re-examination of de Garis Davies’s high-quality facsimile of the original painting, the team has identified all the different bird species in the artwork.
F I G U R E 3 : Detail of the waterbank design from the west wall of the Green Room, Amarna, showing … [+] a pied kingfisher (Ceryle rudis; upper center) and decorated niche. (Detail from Facsimile painting of the west wall from the “Green Room” in the North Palace at Amarna; by Nina de Garis Davies, Public Domain; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: accession no. 30.4.134).
The birds in the painting are exceptionally lifelike and probably depicted birds that lived locally at the time they were painted. For example, Dr Stimpson and Professor Kemp identified a pied kingfisher, Ceryle rudis (Figure 3), common residents in the local marshes.
Previous work identified kingfishers and pigeons in the painting, but in this study, Dr Stimpson and Professor Kemp newly identified a red-backed shrike, Lanius collurio, a white wagtail, Motacilla alba (Figure 4).
F I G U R E 4 : Top panel) birds g and h, interpreted as red-backed shrike (Lanius collurio) and … [+] white wagtail (Motacilla alba), respectively (detail from N. de Garis Davies, Facsimile painting of the west wall from the “Green Room” in the North Palace at Amarna; Public Domain; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: accession no. 30.4.134); bottom left). (doi:10.15184/aqy.2022.159)
Curiously, both species are depicted with triangular tail markings that the birds don’t have in real life. Dr Stimpson and Professor Kemp speculated that the artists may have drawn these markings to indicate that both bird species visited Egypt seasonally.
“[R]ed-backed shrikes are common autumn migrants in Egypt between August and November; they are also rare visitors in spring, from February to May”, Dr Stimpson and Professor Kemp write, noting that “this species of shrike is not explicitly associated with papyrus marshes, but the habit of perching conspicuously while hunting would probably have made them a familiar site along the Nile Valley.”
“The white wagtail is a common passage migrant from October to April, where it is a particularly abundant winter visitor in cultivated areas”, Dr Stimpson and Professor Kemp point out.
Dr Stimpson and Professor Kemp also identified palm doves, Streptopelia senegalensis, and rock pigeons, Columba livia (Figure 5).
F I G U R E 5 : Birds a and b: rock pigeons (Columba livia (detail from N. de Garis Davies, … [+] Facsimile painting of the west wall from the “Green Room” in the North Palace at Amarna (Public Domain; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: accession no. 30.4.134). (doi:10.15184/aqy.2022.159)
The presence of rock pigeons is strange because this species does not live in papyrus wetlands, as portrayed in the painting, but instead, they live in rocky cliffs. Were ancient rock pigeons attracted to the Palace by human activity, just as rock pigeons are attracted to cities today? Or maybe they appear in the painting due to artistic license — to send a message to the viewer, perhaps?
“If rock pigeons in their wild state were associated with the natural landscape of the cliffs and removed from the city, then their presence may have been a simple motif to enhance a sense of a wilder, untamed nature, thus presenting another example of artistic licence sacrificing realism for emphasis”, Dr Stimpson and Professor Kemp write, adding that although the artwork of the Green Room “is an exemplar of naturalistic execution it is not a dedicated ornithological treatise.”
What was the purpose of the Green Room?
“No one knows for sure, although the Green Room was most likely a place of rest and relaxation. Illustrations in rock tombs at Amarna possibly show similar settings where women relax, socialize and play music”, Dr. Stimpson explained. “In the Green Room, the atmosphere was likely enhanced by the visions of nature. The calming effects of the natural world were as important then, as they are (more than ever) today.”
The authors suggest that live plants may also have been kept in the room, which may have been perfumed and filled with live music.
“A room adorned with, by any measure, a masterpiece of naturalistic art, and filled with music and perfumed by cut plants, would have made for a remarkable sensory experience.”
Christopher M. Stimpson & Barry J. Kemp (2022). Pigeons and papyrus at Amarna: the birds of the Green Room revisited, Antiquity | doi:10.15184/aqy.2022.159
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