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The Use of Portable Chemical Imaging Technology in Ancient Egyptian Art

Hidden intricacies in ancient Egyptian paintings have recently been brought to light through the utilization of portable chemical imaging technology, as detailed in a groundbreaking study published in the open-access journal PLOS One.

This particular investigation centered on two ancient paintings from the Theban Necropolis near the Nile River, dating back over 3,000 years. Not only does this research signify a considerable step forward in Egyptology, but it also showcases how such compact and transportable technology can be harnessed to study ancient historical sites.

The method used in this research, known as x-ray fluorescence (XRF) imaging, empowers the researchers to delve into the chemical composition of the paint, and analyze its layering. This gives an unparalleled insight into how the artists of the time created each masterpiece.

In their examination, the researchers pointed out that previous investigations have formulated theories about the working methods of artists during that period. These theories have generally concluded that the ancient Egyptians seldom made changes to their paintings, either during the creative process or afterward.

For this study, the researchers specifically chose works that were known to have alterations. Their goal was to comprehend why these changes were made and to investigate the ancient Egyptians’ working methods through chemical imaging technology.

The authors of the study expressed an interest in exploring “whether there is more to see than what meets the eye.”

Historically, scientific inquiries into ancient Egyptian art have usually relied on analyzing pigment samples in laboratories. These traditional methods were, as the researchers observed, often consistent with archaeological observations.

The authors, spearheaded by Philippe Martinez of Sorbonne University in France, stated, “XRF-imaging is well suited for the investigation of Egyptian paintings.” They further elucidated that the pigments employed by the ancient Egyptians contained elements like calcium, copper, and silicone, which can be detected with XRF imaging. This technique allowed them to identify colors like the iconic Egyptian Blue.

The researchers’ examination uncovered hidden details, such as a concealed third arm in a scene depicting the ancient Egyptian official Menna and his wife admiring Osiris. This specific alteration has been known since the tomb chapel of Menna was unearthed in 1888, as it is perceptible to the naked eye.

Moreover, the team unearthed adjustments to the crown and other regal artifacts in a portrait of Ramesses II, previously hidden from view.

The study notes, “The significant retouching of the royal figure and its own dating remain very difficult to determine and to understand.”

It concludes with the observation that these modifications differ greatly from the visible correction in the tomb of Menna, an adjustment that remains challenging to interpret but might stem from a flawed preliminary design.

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