Scientists identify bird species depicted in ancient, finely detailed Egyptian painting


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). Credit: Antiquity

A masterpiece of ancient Egyptian art found in a palace is so finely detailed that researchers have been able to identify the species of bird it depicts. These images of the natural world likely created a space for relaxation and recreation within the palace.

The artwork was discovered at Amarna, the site of the capital of Pharaoh Akhenaten (1347–1332 BC). Excavations in 1924 revealed a palace belonging to Meritaten, daughter of the pharaoh and Nefertiti, with several lavishly decorated rooms. One of these, the so-called Green Room, has a rare depiction of birds in a wild papyrus marsh with no signs of human activity.

“They have since been regarded as masterpieces of ancient Egyptian art,” said Dr Christopher Stimpson and Professor Barry Kemp, “In these paintings are some of the most skillfully rendered and naturalistic images of birds known from dynastic Egypt.”

Despite the quality of these images, they have received relatively little attention. As such, not all of the bird species in the art had been identified in the nearly 100 years since it was found.

“The art of the green room has not received as much attention as you might expect. This may have been because the original plaster panels did not survive well,” said Dr Stimpson, an honorary fellow at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Attempts to preserve the painting in 1926 accidentally damaged and discolored the artwork.


Credit: Antiquity (2022). DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2022.159

So Dr. Stimpson and Professor Kemp set out to identify the birds in the Green Room. The pair consulted modern ornithological data and a high-quality copy of the artwork made in 1924 by Nina de Garis Davies to identify the birds. Their work has been published in Antiquity.

The researchers were eventually able to identify several species, including thorn and wagtails. These join the kingfishers and pigeons identified by previous work. They also found that the artists may have included hints for ancient bird watchers: Migratory birds are marked with a triangle, perhaps indicating a seasonal element in the art.

The artwork may also depict an ancient Egyptian pigeon problem. Rock pigeons are depicted but are not native to the papyrus marshes, instead associated with nearby desert cliffs.

Perhaps, as in modern cities, pigeons were attracted to the area of ​​human activity.

Although the researchers cannot rule this out, they believe that the artists may instead have included these birds to make the scene seem wilder and untamed – an atmosphere the realistic artwork seems to create. The team suggest that these images of the natural world have made the Green Room a place of relaxation.

“No one knows for sure, although the Green Room was most likely a place of rest and relaxation. Rock tomb illustrations at Amarna possibly show similar settings where women relax, socialize and play music,” said Dr. Stimpson, “In the Green. Room , the atmosphere was probably enhanced by visions of nature. The calming effects of the natural world were as important then, as they are (more than ever) today.”

More information:
Christopher M. Stimpson et al, Pigeons and papyrus at Amarna: the birds of the Green Room revisited, Antiquity (2022). DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2022.159

Citation: Scientists identify bird species depicted in ancient, finely detailed Egyptian painting (2022, December 27) Retrieved December 27, 2022, from

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