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Virtual rendition of the painting of the leopard face found on the ancient Egyptian sarcophagus.         Source: University of Milan

Rare Masterpiece Uncovered on Ancient Egyptian Sarcophagus

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An Italian-Egyptian team have reconstructed a masterpiece of ancient Egyptian art. They have been able to virtually recreate the face of a leopard that was found on a sarcophagus lid in a necropolis. They recreated the face of the big cat using the latest digital technology.

A team led by Italian archaeologist Patrizia Piacentini, from the Milan State University, found the necropolis under the sands of the desert not far from Aswan. The burial site was unearthed some 15 feet (5m) underground. According to Ansamed, the necropolis “extends for more than 25,000 square meters on the western bank of the Nile River , near the Mausoleum of Aga Khan III.”

Apart from the network of tombs found underground, some burials were also discovered dug into a nearby hill. It is believed that the burial site was in use for a millennium from the 7 th century BC until the 3 rd century AD when Egypt was a Roman province.

Entrance of the newly discovered tomb, where the leopard painting on the sarcophagus was found. (University of Milan)

Entrance of the newly discovered tomb, where the leopard painting on the sarcophagus was found. ( University of Milan )

Treasure of Burial Goods

Ansamed reports that “one of the tombs, number AGH026, already made news last year when a large room was found with about 30 bodies buried during the 2nd century BC.” This had a treasure trove of grave goods, including funerary art and a very rare stretcher for transporting mummified cadavers. 

In this location, the team found a leopard that was painted onto the stucco of a shattered lid of a sarcophagus. In ancient Egyptian culture, this animal was the symbol of power and determination. Live Science reports that the representation of the predator was “likely intended to strengthen the spirit of the recently deceased for the journey to the land of the dead.”

The painted image of the leopard was found in a poor condition and much of it was missing.  It was painted onto the fragment of a lid of the sarcophagus, which was very fragile and full of sand. The experts decided to remove the stucco, with the image, from the lid in order to save the artwork. It was a very delicate task and it could easily have gone wrong. Archaeology.org quotes Piacentini as saying “it was a very delicate operation that had us holding our breath, we had tears in our eyes.”

The fragmentary sarcophagus lid with the painted leopard face on it. (University of Milan)

The fragmentary sarcophagus lid with the painted leopard face on it. ( University of Milan )

Recreating the Sarcophagus’ Leopard Face

At one time, the face of the leopard would have been aligned with the face of the mummy inside the coffin. Live Science quotes the lead researcher Piacentini, that the symbol of the leopard “was common in ancient Egypt, but it is very rare to find it painted.” The team took the fragment with the image of the leopard from the site, in order to preserve it.

Then they decided to use some breakthrough technology in an effort to digitally reconstruct the c.2200-year-old painting.  The researchers were able to recreate the leopard, which was originally very realistically painted, with vibrant colors and wide eyes. Piacentini told Fox News “we made the discovery at the end of January 2019, but just finished the 'virtual' restoration of the fragment.”  The digital reconstruction demonstrates the great skills of Egyptian artists and their ability to create realistic and naturalistic works of art.

Pine Seeds for the Afterlife

Also found in the same tomb as the leopard painting was a dish with some pine seeds.  Based on Roman era cookbooks it seems that these were very popular and used in a variety of foods. It is likely that the seeds were placed beside the burial of a person by his family. The Egyptians believed that the deceased would enjoy them in the afterlife.

The leopard found at Aswan is now being conserved.  Ilaria Perticucci and Rita Reale, both professional conservators, are planning to restore the image in the controlled environments of laboratories in Aswan. It is not known if the restored painting will be put on display in the future. The necropolis, where the remarkable image was found, continues to be excavated by archaeologists.

Top image: Virtual rendition of the painting of the leopard face found on the ancient Egyptian sarcophagus.         Source: University of Milan

By Ed Whelan

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