Major discoveries in the Valley of the Kings : The portable laboratory opens an unprecedented window on Egyptian art



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As part of an international project run jointly by the European Centre for Archaeometry (CEA) at the University of Liège, the Molecular and Structural Archaeology Laboratory (LAMS) at Paris-Sorbonne University and the Centre for the Study and Documentation of Ancient Egypt (CEDAE) of the Supreme Council of Egyptian Antiquities (SCA)1, an interdisciplinary team recently carried out an unprecedented campaign of physico-chemical analyses in the tomb of Thutmose III. The measurements were carried out using the joint CEA and LAMS portable laboratory, a lightweight, non-invasive piece of equipment that also makes it possible to improve the preservation of the monuments analysed.

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t's a long-term project that began in 2018 in the Theban necropolis and focuses on the study of tomb wall paintings, adopting an innovative systematic approach: rather than limiting itself to one-off analyses, the team has adopted a rigorous and systematic methodology, enabling a precise comparison of the painted motifs and materials used in the tombs of the pharaohs and their high dignitaries. "With these analyses, we hope to understand the choice and application of the pigments and binders used in these wall paintings," explains David Strivay, a researcher at the Centre Européen d'Archéométrie at the University of Liège, "but also to be able to establish points of comparison between the analyses already carried out and those that we will have to carry out in the future."

As part of a close collaboration with the CEDAE's Egyptian teams going back fifty years, the project was recently extended to include all the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, a World Heritage site. This marked a turning point in the research. With more than sixty royal tombs, this enormous open-air museum contains a priceless historical treasure trove that also provides access to the work of the finest Pharaonic craftsmen. It was in the tomb of Thutmose III - the first of many - that a major discovery was made. "The analyses carried out during the 2024 campaign revealed the rare use of pigments of superior quality, as well as an unprecedented mixture of colours," explains Catherine Defeyt, a FED-tWIN researcher at the CEA. "This observation calls into question what was perceived as established knowledge about Egyptian art. The techniques used could be the result of intense cultural exchanges with the Minoan world, as already demonstrated by the use of an innovative ornamental repertoire during the 15th century BC," continues Philippe Martinez, Egyptologist at the Paris Sorbonne and head of the project.

In-depth study of the materials and artistic techniques used has also enabled us to gain a better understanding of the symbolism behind the choice of pigments and the stylistic developments that can be discerned. For example, the black lines of the oujdat eye (photos) are composed of galena, a black mineral powder used for make-up and magical and medical eye protection. Thanks to Philippe Walter's work on the subject 2,3, this use has attracted particular interest, highlighting the complexity of artistic and magical practices in ancient Egypt.

DEFEYT Louxor detail oeil ©ULiège

Multi-spectral imaging and chemical analysis of the Udjat Eye from the Sarcophagus of Thutmes III (From top to bottom and left to right) : High-resolution daylight photo, photo under UV light, infrared luminescence, chemical imaging.

The portability of the state-of-the-art equipment at the University of Liège's European Centre for Archaeometry was crucial to the success of the fieldwork. Despite the logistical challenges encountered, such as difficult access and delicate working conditions in a poorly ventilated area, the team succeeded in collecting an impressive amount of data, including a 3D model of the tomb of Thutmose III highlighting its integration into the landscape of the royal necropolis. The precision of the model makes it easier to follow the fluid process involved in building a monument dug blindly into the compact, opaque heart of Theban limestone to create an architectural model that would be used and refined for almost 150 years, until the reign of Akhenaten.

Philippe Martinez, Egyptologist at LAMS lab at the University of Paris Sorbonne, underlines the importance of this research for a better understanding of ancient Egyptian culture. The results of this study offer new perspectives on Egyptian art and Pharaonic beliefs. In all their complexity, they provide a completely new overview of the situation and pave the way for future research missions that could feed into restoration campaigns carried out by the Supreme Council of Antiquities. Through this research programme of international importance, the Council has set itself the task of preserving and reopening a large number of royal tombs of prime importance.

In the light of these fascinating discoveries, a new campaign is planned for late 2024, early 2025, promising to reveal new secrets buried in the tombs of ancient Egypt.

Scientific references

  1. Martinez, M. Alfeld, C. Defeyt, H. Elleithy, H. Glanville, M. Hartwig, F.-P. Hocquet et al. Hidden mysteries in Ancient Egyptian paintings from the Theban Necropolis observed by in-situ XRF mapping, PLoS ONE, 2023. (DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0287647)
    Read Non-invasive chemical imaging reveals the art of ancient Egyptian painters. Read the article
  2. Walter, P. Martinetto, G. Tsoucaris et al. Making make-up in Ancient Egypt, Nature 397, 1999, 483-484. (doi.org/10.1038/17240)
  3. Tapsoba, S. Arbault, P. Walter and C. Amatore, Finding Out Egyptian Gods' Secret Using Analytical Chemistry: Biomedical Properties of Egyptian Black Makeup Revealed by Amperometry at Single Cells, Analytical Chemistry, 82 (2), 2010, 457-460 (DOI: 10.1021/ac902348g)

Your contacts at ULiège

Catherine Defeyt

David Strivay

 

Your contacts at Paris Sorbonne

Philippe Martinez

Philippe Walter

Maguy Jaber

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