Hidden details of Egyptian paintings revealed by chemical imaging

On-site analysis of paint layering identifies history of alterations in ancient paintings

Egyptian paintings revealed by chemical imaging
Portrait of Ramses II in Nakhtamun tomb, Chief of the Altar in the Ramesseum (tomb TT 341, possibly 20th Dynasty, circa 1100 B.C.). Martinez et al., CC-BY 4.0

Portable chemical imaging technology can reveal hidden details in ancient Egyptian paintings, according to a study published July 12, 2023 in the open-access journal PLoS ONE by Philippe Martinez of Sorbonne University, France in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Liège, Belgium.

Ancient Egyptian paintings are commonly thought to be the result of highly formalized workflows that produced skilled works of art. However, most studies of these paintings and the process that created them take place in museums or laboratories. In this study, Martinez and colleagues use portable devices to perform chemical imaging on paintings in their original context, allowing for analysis of paint composition and layering and for the identification of alterations made to ancient paintings.

Egyptian paintings revealed by chemical imaging
MA-XRF study of the painting of Ramesses II. Martinez et al., 2023, PLoS ONE, CC-BY 4.0

Two paintings were analyzed in detail, both located in tomb chapels in the Theban Necropolis near the River Nile, dating to the Ramesside Period. On the first painting, researchers were able to identify alterations made to the position of a figure’s arm, though the reason for this relatively small change is uncertain. On the second painting, analysis uncovered numerous adjustments to the crown and other royal items depicted on a portrait of Ramesses II, a series of changes that most likely relate to some change in symbolic meaning over time.

Such alterations to paintings are thought to be rare among such art, but the researchers suggest that these discoveries call for further investigation. Many uncertainties remain about the reasoning and the timing behind the alterations observed, some of which might be resolved by future analysis. This study also serves to prove the utility of portable chemical imaging technology for studying ancient paintings in-situ.

The authors add: “These discoveries clearly call for a systematized and closer inspection of paintings in Egypt using physicochemical characterization.”

Philippe Walter and Catherine Defeyt taking measurements in the Noble Valley in Luxor (Egypt) using the portable scientific device. David Strivay, University of Liege, CC-BY 4.0

Press release from the Public Library of Science.


Secrets of Egyptian painters revealed by chemistry

  • Contrary to prior assumptions, ancient Egyptian painters did at times push the boundaries of convention.
  • Artistic creations supposed to be copies of canonical images were in fact often adapted and reworked during their execution.
  • This discovery was made using new, portable chemical imaging tools that leave the artworks intact.
Portrait of Ramses II from tomb of Nakhtamon (c. 1,200 BCE). The headdress, necklace, and royal sceptre were touched up during the painting’s execution. © LAMS-MAFTO, CNRS

Within the scope of a vast research program undertaken in coordination with the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities and the University of Liège, an international team—including scientists from the CNRS, Sorbonne University, and Université Grenoble Alpes—has revealed the artistic license exercised in two ancient Egyptian funerary paintings (dating to ~1,400 and ~1,200 BCE, respectively), as evident in newly discovered details invisible to the naked eye. Their findings are published in PLOS ONE (12 July).

The language of ancient Egypt has no known word for ‘art’. Its civilization is often perceived as having been extremely formal in its creative expression, the works completed by the painters of its funerary chapels being no exception.

Yet an international, multidisciplinary team1 led by CNRS researchers Philippe Martinez and Philippe Walter has brought to light pictorial techniques and practices whose faint traces had long allowed them to elude detection. While studying the likeness of Ramses II in the tomb of Nakhtamon2 and the paintings of Menna’s3 tomb—among hundreds of other nobles’ tombs in Luxor—they found signs of touch-ups made to the paintings in the course of their production.

For example, the headdress, necklace, and sceptre in the image of Ramses II were substantially reworked, though this is invisible to the naked eye. And in a scene of adoration depicted in Menna’s tomb, the position and colour of an arm were modified. The pigments used to represent skin colour differ from those first applied, resulting in subtle changes whose purpose still remains uncertain. Thus, these painters, or ‘draughtsmen-scribes’—at the request of the individuals who commissioned their works, or at the initiative of the artists themselves as their own vision of the works changed—could add their personal touches to conventional motifs.

The scientists relied on novel, portable tools enabling nondestructive in situ chemical analysis and imaging to make their discovery. Altered by time and physicochemical changes, the colours in these paintings have lost their original appearance. But the chemical analysis performed by the scientists, together with their 3D digital reconstructions of the works using photogrammetry and macrophotography, should make it possible to restore the original hues—and change our perception of these masterpieces, too often viewed as static artefacts.

The team’s research demonstrates that pharaonic art and the conditions of its production were certainly more dynamic and complex than once thought. The next mission of the scientists will be to analyse other paintings in the search for new signs of the craftsmanship and intellectual identities of ancient Egyptian draughtsmen-scribes.


1.he team in France is based at the Laboratory of Molecular and Structural Archaeology (CNRS/Sorbonne University) and the Institut Néel (CNRS). Its work is part of an ambitious program coordinated with the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities and the University of Liège.
2.Nakhtamon was a priest responsible for the daily provisioning of altars in the Ramesseum, or ‘House of Millions of Years’, of Ramses II.
3.Menna held the title of Overseer of the Fields of the Lord of the Two Lands (i.e., Upper and Lower Egypt) and was responsible for their agricultural production.

Bibliographic information:

Philippe Martinez, Matthias Alfeld, Catherine Defeyt, Hishaam Elleithy, Helen Glanville, Melinda Hartwig, François-Philippe Hocquet, Maguy Jaber, Pauline Martinetto, David Strivay and Philippe Walter, Hidden mysteries in Ancient Egyptian paintings from the Theban Necropolis observed by in-situ XRF mapping, PLoS ONE 18(7): e0287647. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0287647

Press release from the CNRS.

Dove i classici si incontrano. ClassiCult è una Testata Giornalistica registrata presso il Tribunale di Bari numero R.G. 5753/2018 – R.S. 17. Direttore Responsabile Domenico Saracino, Vice Direttrice Alessandra Randazzo. Gli articoli a nome di ClassiCult possono essere 1) articoli a più mani (in tal caso, i diversi autori sono indicati subito dopo il titolo); 2) comunicati stampa (in tal caso se ne indica provenienza e autore a fine articolo).

Write A Comment

Pin It