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Ancient Egyptians used a variety of compounds for their colors, such as the iron-based hematite for red and a calcium–copper silicate for Egyptian blue. While the precise production process is unknown, it is believed artists started with a red ochre sketch, added background and some final colors, and finished with red ochre outlines and a clean-up.
An international research team analyzed two paintings from two separate tombs using a macro X-ray fluorescence imaging (XRF) machine. The tool analyzes the chemical layers on the paintings’ surface to detect the color the early painters used.
The first painting was in the tomb of Menna, an official under Pharaoh Amenhotep III. The artwork depicted Menna and his wife worshipping Osiris, the god of fertility, agriculture, and the afterlife.
The researchers used the XRF and found that one of Menna’s arms was painted on top of the other – making for the quickest possible do-over. They added that the changes were made soon after the tomb’s initial decoration, but they are not sure why the painter made this alteration.
For the second painting, scientists looked at the tomb of Nakhtamun, chief of the altar for the mortuary tomb of Pharaoh Ramesses II. Using XFR, they found that the painters had re-outfitted a picture of Ramesses II with a different crown, scepter, and necklace.
The authors believe this was a case of historical inaccuracy on the artists’ part: Nakhtamun’s tomb, constructed long after Ramesses’ reign, contained an unintentional depiction of the ruler in the fashions of the 20th dynasty. Upon discovery of the mistake, an artisan was asked to redo the artwork to align the attire with Ramesses’ 19th dynasty.
It seems even ancient Egyptian painters got do-overs.