Painting considered masterpiece of ancient Egypt may be an 1870s fake
A painting that was considered a masterpiece of ancient Egyptian art may have been faked in the 1870s by an archaeologist excavating the pharaonic family tomb in which the painting was found.
Live Science reports that the painting “Meidum Geese” was supposedly discovered by Luigi Vassalli in 1871. Another Italian archaeologist, Francesco Tiradritti, intends to publish a paper next week exposing the painting as a likely fake, Live Science says.
The painting was in an underground tomb or mastaba near the Meidum Pyramid, built by Pharaoh Snefru, who reigned from 2610 to 2590 BC. The painting was in the tomb of Snefru’s son, Nefermaat, in a chapel possibly devoted to Nefermaat’s wife, Atet. Vassalli removed the painting, now in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum.
The painting Meidum Geese, found in the tomb of a pharaoh’s son, may be fake. (Wikimedia Commons)
Tirandritti also said Vassilli may have faked a painting showing a vulture and a basket that Vassilli said he found in the mastaba. Vultures and baskets correspond to the hieroglyphs “G” and “A,” the initials of Vassilli’s second wife, Gigliati Angiola.
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Though the step pyramid at Meidum is considered a mausoleum, no sarcophagi have been found in it in recorded history, according to Ancient Egypt Online. It is called the Collapsed Pyramid because it is in ruins. Egyptian history al-Maqrizi reported in the 1400s that only five of the original seven steps remained. When Napoleon and the French arrived, there were three steps left.
The Meidum Pyramid (Neithsabes/Wikimedia Commons)
In Arabic it is called the False Pyramid because it doesn’t even look like a pyramid anymore.
“It seems to have been designed as a seven-step pyramid with a further step being added once construction was in a fairly advanced stage,” Ancient Egypt Online writes.
It was then turned into the first true pyramid by filing in the steps and capping them with limestone. From the entrance on the north face just above ground level, a steep passage descends to meet a horizontal passage just below ground level. This passage has a small chamber on its left and its right and connects with a vertical shaft which rises 10 meters (33 feet) to meet a small burial chamber. The burial chamber is the first to have been cut into the core of the pyramid, and to bear the weight of masonry above it has a corbelled roof. No sarcophagus was found inside the chamber and there is no evidence that Sneferu or anyone else was ever buried in this pyramid.
Nefermaat’s tomb and the tombs of others of Snefru’s sons were in underground mastabas near the Meidum Pyramid. The mastabas have chambers aboveground in which offerings were stored. It is possible Pharaoh Huni started construction on the pyramid, but it has been attributed to Snefru because he had no other known pyramids and his sons are buried nearby.
The aboveground offering chamber of the mastaba of Nefermaat with his father’s step pharaonic pyramid in the background (Kurohito/Wikimedia Commons)
Nefermaat and Atet’s mastaba was built from mud brick, its inner walls covered in limestone. It has two small shrines or chapels, one for each personage.
“The chapels were beautifully decorated with scenes of hunting, fishing and farming and the western wall of each chapel contained an elaborate and beautiful false door,” Ancient Egypt Online says. “This mastaba is famous because of the beautiful wall paintings. Sculptors cut the designs deep into the plaster and then filled the incisions with colored paste. This technique was labour intensive and the paste had a tendency to crack and fall away so it was soon abandoned. However, some of the scenes created in this manner are exceedingly beautiful. The shrine of Atet contains a scene known as the ‘Meidum Geese’ which is particularly lovely and is generally considered to be one of the great works of art of the Old Kingdom.”
An authentic ancient Egyptian painting from the tomb of Nefermaat showing the trapping of birds and harvesting crops (The Yorke Project/Wikimedia Commons)
The painting, though, has a number of clues that it is not authentic, Tirandritti told Live Science. Two of the geese species were unlikely even to winter as far south as Egypt, he said. This in itself does make the painting a fake, but it made Tirandritti suspicious.
When he began looking he found other problems. He told Live Science some colors were not used by other ancient Egyptian painters; having the figures of the geese the same size was unusual in ancient Egyptian artistic depictions because size of figures varies with importance of the subject; the cracks in the painting don’t correspond to how the painting was supposedly removed from the wall; and it seems to be painted over another image that is still visible underneath the geese painting.
Vassilli was a museum curator and an accomplished artist in his own right, says Live Science. He never wrote about the “Meidum Geese” painting.
Featured image: Detail of the painting, which dates to 2600-2550 BC. (Wikimedia Commons)
By Mark Miller