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Around 1350 BCE, the Egyptian grain accountant, or rather scribe, Nebamun commissioned the walls of his tomb-chapel to be painted with scenes depicting his afterlife and the world in which he lived. the scenes in this tomb far exceed the known contemporary tombs and how one individual in a relatively lowly position was able to commission such beautiful vibrant art is unknown. These paintings are not from the hidden burial chamber, sealed for eternity but from the tomb-chapel above, where family and priests would come to pour offerings. Perhaps that accounts for their slightly informal feeling. But how did a mere civil servant get such wonderful paintings?

Nebamun, and we're only able to reconstruct his name from partial sources, worked in the temple of Amun at Karnak during the reign of Amenhotep III (c. 1390 - 1352 BCE). Amenhotep was one of the most important kings of the Eighteenth Dynasty, one of the high points of Egyptian wealth, but his reign preceded a period of dramatic upheaval in Egyptian society. In 1820 eleven pieces were crudely removed from the walls of the tomb-chapel and the location of the tomb in now unknown; they were acquired by the British Museum and they quickly became one of the centre-pieces of Museum's Egyptian collection.

The artwork that celebrates Nebamun's life bursts with energy. In one panel, he stands on a papyrus skiff at the head of a hunting trip into reed-covered marshes filled with tilapia and puffer fish, Egyptian red geese, tiger butterflies, black and white wagtails and an exquisitely painted tawny cat that is helping itself to the birds being brought down by Nebamun. The cat is a product of particularly grand draughtsmanship, in which stripes and dots have been delicately assembled to produce a magnificently whiskered tabby. Scales on fish, feathers on ducks and soft folds in the clothes of the Nebamun retinue have also been created this way. It is an extraordinary evocation of Egyptian life, its vitality undimmed 3,500 years later. As for Nebamun, in the hunting panel he towers over proceedings, his wife Hatshepsut beside him and their daughter at his feet. Wearing a black wig and a great collar of beads, he strikes a pose that is assured and proud, almost regal. The paintings are vivid and artistically accomplished and have been the subject of recent intensive scholarly and scientific investigation. This work has resulted in the conservation of the paintings and their redisplay in a new permanent gallery in the British Museum.

The tomb was discovered by Giovanni d'Athanasi, a Greek grave robber, from somewhere on the west bank of Thebes (modern Luxor) and the scenes were eventually sold by Henry Salt (British Consul to Egypt) to the British Museum. In 1835 D'Athanasi fell out with curators at the British Museum over his finder's fee and refused to divulge the precise position of the tomb. He took his secret to the grave, dying a pauper in 1854 in Howland Street, a few minutes' walk from the museum. Ever since, archaeologists have searched in vain for the tomb of Nebamun and any treasures that it may still contain.

Richard Parkinson is a curator with the Department of Egypt and Sudan in the British Museum and he said that "these are the greatest paintings we have from ancient Egypt," and "there is nothing to touch them in any museum in the world. Yet they were created for an official too lowly to have been known by the pharaoh. It is quite extraordinary." Parkinson's theory is that the artist must have been working on another project in the neighbourhood of Nebamun's tomb at the time. This building or burial complex would have been constructed, and decorated, on a far grander style for a far more important figure. Nebamun merely commissioned the artist and his team to 'moon-light' on this tomb.

As to their purpose, the paintings were intended to make Nebamun appear important in the afterlife. They would have covered the tomb's upper level, while his body was interred in a chamber below ground. Friends and family would have visited the upper part of the tomb, left gifts and held feasts to commemorate Nebamun's life - the paintings were not buried and hidden away but established a link between the living and the dead. Hence their importance to Nebamun's family. They were to be appreciated, leisurely, after the man's death as reminders of his achievements.

They were certainly not created at a leisurely rate, however, as Parkinson has found in his investigations of the paintings. Once the tomb's stone walls had been erected, they were covered in straw and Nile mud mixed together into a squishy paste. Then, when this was dry, a thin layer of white plaster was added. As that started to dry, the artist and his team began to paint, using soot from cooking pots, desert stones for red, yellow and white pigments, and ground glass for blue and green. Rushes, chewed at the end, would have acted as brushes. Squashed into the dark, narrow upper tomb, the painters would have had to work by lamplight before the plaster dried. The results are almost impressionistic in the freedom of their execution.

Objects and animals are often included because they had great symbolic importance. That great hunt scene is more than a depiction of everyday life: the birds and cat are symbols of fertility and female sexuality, and Nebamun's expedition can also be seen as "taking possession of the cycle of creations and rebirth", as one scholar has put it. Certainly, visitors should take care when trying to interpret the panels' meaning. The paintings repay detailed inspection. On several of them, you can see where d'Athanasi's grave robbers had started to crowbar a panel from a wall only to find it cracking, ready to split. They would then move on to splinter open the panel at a new spot; only sections that would appeal to British audiences were taken: the ones with naked dancing girls and scenes from gardens.

One or two other fragments did end up in other museums, including several that are now kept in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. Evidence also suggests that a handful of fragments may survive elsewhere. For example, records from the Cairo Museum show that, just after the second world war, a few sections from the tomb were about to be exported from Egypt, a move that was opposed by its government - so officials had the panel pieces photographed and stored in the great vaults below the Cairo Museum. And that is where they rest today, though their precise location has been lost. All that is known is that among the tens of thousands of other ancient treasures kept in the museum's store, the missing Nebamun panels may be gathering dust in a dark, lost corner, or more likely have slowly decayed and are lost to history.

 

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Sources:
   Images taken in the The British Museum during May-2009
   The Painted Tomb-Chapel of Nebamun; Richard Parkinson (2008); London: The British Museum Press

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