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Emblems for the Afterlife

Tomb paintings hold clues to the ancient Egyptian desire to bring order out of chaos

May/June 2018

Beni Hassan Hunter Dog Mongoose


The decorated tombs of Beni Hassan, a cemetery site on the east bank of the Nile in central Egypt, not only bear the stamp of the artisans who decorated them, but also reflect the lives lived by the deceased. The tombs date to the 11th and 12th Dynasties of Egypt’s Middle Kingdom (2050–1650 B.C.) and offer some of the best-preserved examples of how artists and tomb owners conceived of the natural world. Originally surveyed between 1893 and 1900 by Egyptologist Percy E. Newberry, they are now being reexamined by a team of researchers from Australia’s Macquarie University. According to project director Naguib Kanawati, the tombs at Beni Hassan are among the most complete and important of Middle Kingdom Egypt. The works depict a great range of fauna and flora, including species rarely seen in Egyptian art. They have proven especially revealing of the relationships Egyptians had with animals.


Beni Hassan Amenemhat Soldiers TrainingMany of the tombs at Beni Hassan include full-panel representations of animals in their natural habitats, including marsh and desert scenes that show a keen observation of animal behavior. “Sometimes they simply reflect everyday activities,” says Linda Evans, an Egyptologist and ethologist at Macquarie. “We see men driving herds of cattle, donkeys, sheep, and goats, which would have been a common sight in the surrounding fields. Other images show wild animals being hunted in the deserts or encountered in the marshes along the Nile.”


The degree of detail in the paintings can give the impression that they might be an accurate record of extant flora and fauna for the time in which they were produced. But according to Lydia Bashford, whose research at Macquarie focuses on birds in ancient Egyptian culture, the paintings are unlikely to be reliable as sources. “Investigations into tomb decoration and agency have shown that artists frequently replicated the content and scenes from contemporary tomb walls and those of earlier periods,” she says. Furthermore, she explains that certain animal species held significant cultural meaning, and so their images were often reproduced whether the animals were present or not.



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