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Advanced painting techniques in ancient Egypt

The paintings once decorated the tomb chapel of Nebamun, an accountant at the Temple of Amun at Karnak, who died around 1350 BC. They were intended to impress and entertain Nebamun's friends and relatives, who would visit the chapel to pay their respects, and so ensure his place in the afterlife.

Nebamun hunting in the marshes

This is a fragment of a scene from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun, Thebes, Egypt, Late 18th dynasty, around 1350 BC.

One of the most famous of all ancient Egyptian paintings, this shows a young, fit Nebamun on a reed boat with his wife and daughter nearby.

The marshes are bursting with animal life, including easily identifiable birds (egrets, Egyptian goose and a pied wagtail among others), fish (tilapia) and a tabby cat. During the project,  the cat was discovered to have a gilded eye.

Detail of Nebamun hunting in the marshes

The artist made Nebamun stand out from other figures by painting his skin white and stippling over it with red, making him appear brighter.

Paint was applied with brushes of different sizes made from the fibrous branches of date palms.

Detail of Nebamun hunting in the marshes

The goose standing on the prow of Nebamun's reed boat is the red Egyptian goose (Alopochen aegyptiaca).

The artist used his skills as a draughtsman to add texture to the animals' feathers and fur, making them look more realistic and animated.

Details of Nebamun hunting in the marshes

Butterflies flit about every available space in this painting, including Danaus chrysippus, the African queen.

Most of the animals in Egyptian paintings are there for religious reasons, but butterflies have no iconic significance, says curator Richard Parkinson.

Instead, they are there because the artist wanted to make his paintings beautiful to engage his audience. Tomb chapels were not gloomy places but were meant to attract visits from friends and relatives and encourage them to talk about him, a guarantee of a good afterlife. Pool in Nebamun's estate garden

This is a fragment of another scene from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun. It shows a garden pool full of fish and waterbirds, including a pair of geese with three goslings.

The original blues and greens that dominate the picture would have been much brighter, but blue and green pigments were made from a synthetic glassy material coarsely ground to give intense colour.

The powder needed more binder than other colours and was applied thickly - making it more likely to fall off. This explains why the blues and greens look faded. Conservation expert Eric Miller consolidates the surface of a painting.

In the 19th century, the paintings were mounted in plaster of Paris. This shrank as it dried, pushing the Egyptian plaster skim into humps and cracking the surface.

As part of the British Museum's conservation effort, painted surfaces were stabilised with a thin layer of acrylic emulsion applied with a fine brush. Before applying the acrylic, the surface was wetted with white spirit to encourage suction and draw the acrylic further under the flakes of paint.

Conservation expert Karen Birkhoelzer applies aluminium foil to help stabilise the edges of one of the Nebamun tomb chapel fragments.

The conservation team developed several new techniques during the project and are now advising other museums on how to conserve similar artefacts.Detail of a feast for Nebamun

In this painting, you can see musicians and dancing girls, with a good supply of wine to the right.

This fragment appeared greyish because it was once coated with liquid nylon, which absorbed pollutants from the air. After removal it appears much brighter.

The artist added beeswax to the women's hair and clothes to make them shimmer.

Nebamun views the produce of his estates

In this painting, Nebamun sits comfortably on a chair while farmers bring their geese and cattle to be inspected.

The artist made Nebamun's clothes appear finer by rubbing some of the white paint off while it was still wet, making the cloth of his tunic and kilt appear sheer – and also revealing his muscles.


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