If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.


Art & Artifacts

Chemical techniques show alterations to ancient Egyptian art

Researchers took portable X-ray fluorescence equipment into tombs to uncover the new details

by Laura Howes
July 13, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 23

MA-XRF study of the painting of Ramses II
Credit: Martinez et al., 2023, PLOS ONE
Chemical analysis of a painting of Ramses II shows how changes were made from the original (green outlines) to the final (red outlines)

Over 3,000 years ago, artists adorned the walls of the ThebanNecropolis with formal paintings and portraits. But they didn’t always get it right first time. Researchers analyzing works in two tombs with macro-X-ray fluorescence have found evidence of touch-ups and changes in design (PLoS One 2023, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0287647).

The group, led by Philippe Walter at the Sorbonne University, took their portable equipment into the tombs and focused on two paintings in the complex. In the first, an alteration was already visible to the naked eye: an arm had been painted over and repositioned. But by measuring the chemical fingerprints, the researchers could show that the pigments used to paint the new arm differed from the original—the second arm employed an iron-containing ochre whereas the first had an arsenic-containing pigment. In the tomb chapel of Nakhtamun, the team turned their attention to a portrait of Pharaoh Ramses II and uncovered hidden details. For example, levels of arsenic suggest that originally the collar and scepter had different shapes and were later adjusted to match other artworks.

Drawing conclusions from just two examples is unwise, the researchers say in their paper describing the work. But Egyptian art is often described as very formalized, with guidelines drawn out by more skilled workers before the paint was laid down to a team of artisans. These corrections suggest more investigation is needed to understand both the workflows used and the reasons why changes were deemed necessary.


This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.