Egyptian archaeologists have rejected allegations that a celebrated ancient Egyptian painting may be a 19th-century fake, reports Nevine El-Aref
Egyptian archaeologists have reacted with anger to claims that the “Meidum Geese” painting, on display in the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, is a fake. According to a recent study, the scene was in fact created in the 19th century and painted over a real Pyramid Age painting.
Francesco Tiradritti of Kore University, director of an Italian archaeological mission to Egypt, published his findings in Live Science magazine and suggested that the painting may be a forgery.
The painting was discovered in 1871 by the Italian curator Luigi Vassalli in a chapel dedicated to Princess Atet, the wife of the vizier Nefermaat, the son of the Fourth Dynasty pharaoh Senefru, inside his mastaba tomb near the Meidum Pyramid in Fayoum.
Vassalli took the painting off the wall and put it on display at the then Bulaq Museum. In 1902, the painting was transported with the rest of the Bulaq Museum collection to the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square where it has remained until today.
The painting depicts three kinds of geese —white-fronted, bean and red-breasted —and is considered to be a masterpiece of ancient Egyptian art.
Although Tiradritti believes that doubting the authenticity of the painting is a painful step, he spent months on its study and used high-resolution photographs as part of his research.
When he realised that the bean and red-breasted geese were unlikely to have been seen in ancient Egypt, being native to Greece and Turkey, he took a more critical look at the painting. He also found that some of the colours in the painting, especially the beige and mauve, were not used by other ancient Egyptian artists.
“Even the shades of more common colours, like orange and red, are not comparable with the same colours used in other fragments of paintings coming from Atet’s chapel,” Tiradritti told Live Science magazine.
He said that the way the geese were drawn, so that they appear to be the same size, was also unusual. The ancient Egyptians drew animals and people in different sizes, sometimes in order to convey their different importance, he said.
Tiradritti said the cracks in the painting “are not compatible with the supposed ripping of the painting from the wall.” He said that in his opinion the geese were actually painted in the 19th century by Vassalli, a trained artist, over a real Pyramid Age painting.
“The only thing that in my opinion still remains to be ascertained is what was, or is, painted under them. But that can be established through non-invasive analysis,” he told Live Science.
The claims have triggered the anger of many Egyptologists who see Tiradritti’s research as being based on visual examination and not on proper scientific research and technical study.
“We cannot prove the painting is a forgery unless state-of-the-art scientific study is used, and this was totally absent from Tiradritti’s research,” Mahmoud Alhalwagi, director of the Egyptian Museum, told the Weekly.
Alhalwagi added that modern scientific technique could also decide the date when the painting was made. Such equipment and techniques are available at the Ministry of Antiquities and the required procedures will now be undertaken to respond to these “lies”, he said.
Islam Ezzat, a restorer at the Egyptian Museum, said that magnetic and free electron equipment could be used to determine the date of the painting without taking a sample from it. “Electron spin resonance is the perfect technique to determine the age of the Meidum Geese painting,” Ezzat said.
“There is no reason to doubt the authenticity of the Meidum Geese painting,” Tarek Tawfik, director of the Grand Egyptian Museum overlooking the Giza Plateau, told the Weekly, adding that the painting was part of a larger scene inside the mastaba tomb of Nefermaat, who was known for his fondness for innovation.
The scenes were painted using the tempera painting technique, he said, which painted images on gesso before drying. This technique was pioneered by Nefermaat and was often used by ancient Egyptians artists, even though it could lead to cracks after drying.
What proves the authenticity of the painting, Tawfik said, is the fact that the upper limit of the painting bears the remains of the rest of the scene on the wall of the chapel, including the feet of hunters gathering birds, geese, and ducks with nets. Such hunting scenes were common in ancient Egyptian tombs from the Old Kingdom.
In response to Tiradritti’s theory that the geese are not like those found in Egypt at the time, Tawfik said that the area of the Meidum necropolis was located in Fayoum, which is on the birds’ migration path, and that they would have rested in the area during their annual trip from north to south and vice-versa.
“It is probable that the ancient Egyptian artists were inspired by the shapes, colours and sizes of the birds and then drew them in their paintings,” Tawfik said.
“Nefermaat’s mastaba tomb contains rare paintings as its owner was fond of innovations and applied new techniques in the decoration of his tomb,” Tawfik said. He added that Nefermaat decorated his tomb using a technique known as coloured pasti, even though this was not always successful after drying.
“The technique leads to cracking after drying, meaning that the paintings cannot remain perfect for eternity,” he said.
“Tiradritti’s arguments are based on mere speculation about the scene and one of the discoverers of the tomb, Vassalli,” Mohamed Megahed, a researcher at the Czech Institute of Egyptology at Charles University, told the Weekly.
He said that the bean and red-breasted geese depicted in the painting were not absent from ancient Egypt, but on the contrary archaeological excavations of the tombs and chapels of high officials from the Old Kingdom have brought to light the remains of bean geese, proving the existence of this species at the time.
Meanwhile, the red-breasted goose was depicted on wall decorations of the causeway of the pharaoh Sahure at the Abusir Necropolis from the beginning of the Fifth Dynasty onwards, indicating that it lived in or migrated through Egypt at that time.
As for the argument about the colours, Megahed said the same shades have been found in other tombs from the Fourth Dynasty and later from the Old Kingdom. For instance, the orange shade was used in the tomb of Queen Mersyankh III in the eastern cemetery on the Giza Plateau, he said.
Inside the offertory chapel of the queen’s tomb a scene with a procession of geese was represented, he said, and one of them had an orange beak in the same style as one of the Meidum Geese.
Concerning the size of the geese and manner in which they were drawn, something which in Tiradritti’s opinion was unusual, Megahed said that this was another false argument. “Comparing this feature to the cranes and geese depicted in the tomb of Mersyankh III, we can see the birds are the same size in this scene,” Megahed said. He added that it was usual in Old Kingdom tombs for geese depicted in the same scene to be shown the same size.
Tiradritti had claimed that the scene was painted over another painting, which was why the background had different colours in some places, he said. However, no traces of the supposed older scene can be seen, Megahed said, and Triadritti had not said what kind of scene the older one could be. A difference in background colour might also have been the result of older restoration.
“Not mentioning anything about the scene does not mean that Vassalli faked the Meidum Geese painting, as Tiradritti claims,” Megahed told the Weekly, adding that notes of the discovery had also been kept by Vassalli’s colleagues.
According to Albert Daninos, the deputy of Egyptologist Auguste Mariette at the time, Vassalli had moved the Meidum Geese painting from the tomb’s corridor “with marvelous patience and care.” Petrie, another contemporary who was not an admirer of his colleagues, claimed that Vassalli had “hacked away much of the fresco” to remove the painting.
It is known from Mariette’s records of the Meidum excavation in 1871 that the work was not always carefully done, since much of his attention was given to the mastaba of Rehotep and Nefret where he found the two famous statues of the owners of the tomb that are today in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Tiradritti also mentioned another painting, which in his view could have been done by Vassalli. This is a fragment depicting the remains of two hieroglyphic letters, a basket with a handle that represents the hieroglyph K and a vulture that represents the hieroglyph A. Tiradritti said that these two signs were intended as a reference to Vassalli’s second wife Gigliati Angiola.
However, Megahed said that if the context of the tomb was studied it would be clear that these two signs were perhaps the remains of the names of Nefermaat and Atet’s son Serfka. The names appear in the tomb a number of times.
“Moreover, the scene of the Meidum Geese and the hieroglyphs come from the north wall of the east corridor inside the chapel of Atet, where a large figure of Serfka was depicted standing and catching birds amid an agricultural scene,” Megahed said.
It should also not be forgotten that when Vassalli removed the painting of the Meidum Geese from the north wall of the corridor, he cut into the scenes above and below the painting to make sure that the geese would not be damaged during this process, he said.
Therefore, traces of feet, a hand and the top of a hieroglyph were preserved on the outside edges of the panel. “The rest of the wall decoration was affected by this action,” he said.
Megahed said that the tomb of Nefermaat, the son of the pharaoh Huni and his wife Atet, was the largest known tomb from the Old Kingdom, and Nefermaat was the earliest known Egyptian vizier to be attested.
As a result, scholars should be careful about doubting one of the most beautiful ancient Egyptian works of art and should take into consideration the wider context of the scene and its discovery, in order to do more than simply feed speculation, he said.
“We should not think about doing more studies to accept or refute the ideas of the Italian researcher because this way we would open the door to discrediting the great civilisation of ancient Egypt,” Megahed concluded.
Former minister of antiquities Zahi Hawss described Tiradritti’s claims as “unfounded,” accusing him of breaking the antiquities law and the ministry’s regulations which stipulate that any new discovery or research should first be presented to the ministry and its permanent committee for approval before being published. Tiradritti published his theory in Live Science without doing this, he said.
“He must be penalised for not following the rules, and the permanent committee could now stop his mission from resuming its archaeological work in Luxor,” Hawass said, who added that during his tenure as minister he had taken action against several foreign missions for breaking the ministry’s regulations.