Nebamun Paintings - from the Lost Tomb of Nebamun

musicians from the tomb of nebamun

One of a few instances in all of 3000 years of ancient Egyptian art where faces are presented in full frontal view

Photo from Egypt Archive

The Nebamun paintings are among the most famous images of Egyptian art, published in nearly every fancy illustrated book of ancient Egypt. These "jewels" of the British Museum have been part of the Egyptian collection since 1820. They depict different aspects of the idealized daily life of an 18th Dynasty noble, his family and friends in work and leisure activities concerning a man of his social status, such as surveying his estates, inspecting cattle and geese, enjoying banquets and hunting in the marshes. The Nebamun paintings are not merely a decoration of his tomb, but an account of his successful life and a recreation for his ka to enjoy for all eternity.

Nebamun herdboy wall painting
Replica by Ben Morales-Correa

Little is known about the man himself. His mummy has never been found. His tomb is now lost. By what may be surmised from the paintings, Nebamun (Amen is Lord) was a wealthy official, the “scribe who counts the grain in the granary of divine offerings”, an accountant from the Temple of Amen at Karnak, who lived under the reign of either Thutmose IV or Amenhotep III, at the peak of Egypt's glory. One painting shows that Nebamun owned horses and chariots, quite a luxury fit only for royalty. But we must understand that ancient Egyptians did not consider actual facts as the only dimension of reality. Since life did not end at the moment of death, another possible explanation for the presence of these costly items in the tomb paintings is to represent property that the deceased wanted to own and enjoy in the afterlife. For all we know, Nebamun, whether filthy rich or not, might have been a nice fellow who befriended the best of painters and builders to create for him a small but truly beautiful house of eternity.

The Lost Tomb of Nebamun

Giovanni d’Athanasi found Nebamun’s tomb-chapel in the necropolis of the nobles on the west bank at Luxor in the autumn of 1820. The astonishingly beautiful and well preserved paintings were quickly removed and shipped to the British Museum, eleven painting fragments in total. The private journal of d’Athanasi disappeared soon after being written, and with it the actual location of the tomb, believed to be under the dwellings that presently populate the area.

Research at the British Museum and clearance and excavation work in Luxor might finally reveal the location of the lost tomb of Nebamun. At Luxor, villages are being bulldozed and their dwellers moved to new housing projects provided by the government with allegedly better living conditions, though there is resentment among the villagers. Once this area is clear and excavations begin, one of the tombs then unearthed might be that of Nebamun. At London, the mud plaster and fragments of the base rock of the Nebamun paintings are carefully studied to pinpoint the area where this exact type of soil exists in the excavation field. The composition of the pigments might also provide clues to the final identification of the lost tomb of Nebamun among possible sites.


NEBAMUN FOWLING IN THE MARSHES: A Masterpiece of Ancient Egyptian Design

nebamun hunting birds in the marshes
Replica by Ben Morales-Correa

The artist develops a special theme dear to Nebamun as lord of his surroundings, a fowling scene in the marshes of his estate. The Osiris Nebamun is standing on a light boat and, in perfect balance, captured birds in one hand and throw-stick in the other, proceeds to enter into the thicket of papyrus where some birds have already noticed the intention of the intruder, while others tend to their nests on top of the flowers. Nebamun is not alone. Between his feet we see the small figure of his daughter, seated with one arm grabbing the strong leg of his father for protection, while picking lotus flowers. The child has no intention of being witness to the killing his father is about to commit and thus turns her head in the opposite direction where her mother, standing at the stern, seems passive but aware of the entire event. Her figure is poised as a second axis parallel to that of her husband, bringing perfect equilibrium to the composition. The fact that she is dressed as if to attend a formal banquet, while her husband is wearing a princely collar and fine kilt, betrays the fact that this scene is not an accurate representation of the sport, but a blissful recreation for the deceased, so he may be accompanied by his family as he wishes it to be forever in the afterlife.

What is truly remarkable about this masterpiece of the Egyptian style is the design, the proper arrangement of the elements in harmonious proportion where the interaction of positive and negative space reinterprets the arcane rules of hieratic representation and converts it into a living expression of shape, color, drawing and texture. Every element of the composition plays within the setting as a "perfect picture moment". We can tell we are close to the end of the breeding season. A few birds are still sitting on the nests they have built on the papyrus reeds swayed by the winds, while others are flying about seeking food for their young. The cat is looking up to his master with a captured bird in its mouth, the large butterflies flutter wildly about the place, as the fish swim calmly unperturbed. The integration of the hieroglyphic characters with the composition is absolutely brilliant.

Category: Ancient Egypt

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book the painted tomb chapel of nebamun by richard parkinson

The paintings from Nebamun's tomb chapel are among the greatest and most famous of the British Museum's treasures, yet much about them remains mysterious. The Painted Tomb-Chapel of Nebamun is concerned with the detective work undertaken to help us to understand and see them properly displayed in a new permanent gallery. Richard Parkinson discusses each painting fully, with reconstructions and translations of the hieroglyphic texts, a discussion of the other known fragments (now in Berlin and Avignon) and a reconstruction of the whole tomb chapel. Every fragment is fully illustrated in color, doing full justice to an artist who has been described as 'antiquity's equivalent of Michelangelo'.