Enter the British Museum##s new Egyptian gallery and you will be struck by a line of painted panels of unexpectedly rich colouring and extravagant composition. On one panel, a pair of female dancers, glide sinuously before a crowd at a banquet. Beside them, a flute player stares out from the painting, her hair shimmering as if she is swaying to the music. Each figure is distinct, individual and freely drawn, their proportions and detail captured perfectly.
Wander further along the main wall and you will find other exuberant depictions of everyday life in 18th Dynasty Egypt: a boy driving cattle along a road and geese, stored in baskets, ready for the market- easily identifiable still.
These are the tomb paintings that once belonged to Nebamun, a court official who lived almost 3,500 years ago, and they are the greatest surviving paintings we have from ancient Egypt. Each was created for Nebamun by a painter as gifted as any of the Renaissance##s finest artists, and they will be revealed to the public this month when the British Museum opens a special gallery dedicated to them, a 10-year project that has cost £1.5m to complete. It will be a striking addition to the museum.
Yet for all the effort that has gone into the studies of the gallery##s paintings, mystery still shrouds the Nebamun panels. For a start, archaeologists have no idea about the identity of the artist who created them and are equally puzzled why a painter of such talent was involved with a relatively minor clerk like Nebamun.
Nor do historians have any record of the original tomb##s location. The man who discovered them was a Greek grave robber called Giovanni d##Athanasi, who dug them up in Thebes (Luxor) and then passed them on, via a collector, to the British Museum. However, in 1835 D##Athanasi fell out with curators 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. Ever since, archaeologists have searched in vain for the tomb of Nebamun and any treasures that it may still contain.
The gallery##s 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. 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.
“These are the greatest paintings we have from ancient Egypt,” Egyptologist Richard Parkinson says. “There is nothing to touch them in any museum in the world. Yet they were created for a relatively minor clerk. It is quite extraordinary.” Parkinson does, however, have an intriguing explanation. The “Michelangelo of the Nile” who created these great tomb panels was almost certainly working on another project in the neighbourhood 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 slipped the artist some extra cash and they stole off to paint his own panels. In short, the secret of his tomb and its great painting lies with one word: backhanders. “Life then was not that different from today,” says Parkinson.
Ironically, the artist##s main project was no doubt a finer work, but it has disappeared, looted and trashed like the vast majority of ancient Egypt##s great treasures. The Nebamun panels are the only record we have of this genius. We have therefore good reason to be grateful to Nebamun, one of life##s perennial opportunists, but an astute collector of fine art just the same.
The panels## importance to modern eyes is clear. They tell us a great deal about ancient Egypt and its everyday activities, and about differences and similarities between life then and now. “The straw crates in which geese are sold at market – you see these on just about every street corner in Cairo,” says Parkinson. “And the women##s jet-black hair and skin colour are just the same as we see in Egypt today.”
However, Parkinson warns about drawing too many parallels between modern life and the scenes depicted in the panels. Objects and animals are often included because they had great symbolic importance. 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.
One or two other fragments did end up in other museums, including the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. 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. 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 are today gathering dust in a dark, lost corner. It is a strange fate and it invites – irresistibly – a comparison with the fictional resting place of the Ark of the Covenant, dumped in a mammoth warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. In short, a fantastic end for some fantastic art.
The Observer (abridged)
Nebamun, his wife and daughter on board a skiff, during a hunting trip. For colours, the unknown ##Michelangelo of the Nile## would have used soot, desert stones and ground glass