Scientists have used a new imaging technique to re-examine Egyptian art and find details that were previously missing.
Linda Evans and Anna-Latifa Mourad from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia describe in their paper in the Journal of Archaeological Science how they used a technique called DStretch to analyze the ancient paintings. These paintings were found at Beni Hassan, an ancient Egyptian cemetery that’s located near to the city of Minya in modern Egypt.
"Egyptologists have not realised [DStretch's] potential in helping us to examine and record ancient wall paintings," Dr Evans told IFLScience.
First developed in 2005, DStretch allows digital images to be enhanced, helping to reveal faint paintings and engravings. The software analyzes three bands of RGB color in an image, and improves the intensity and saturation of them. It sort of stretches the colors out and then maps them back to normal, to show a greater distinction. It's been used on everything from rock art to Mars rover images.
Beni Hassan, used in the Middle Kingdom period (2050 and 1710 BC), is known for its exceptional artwork. Previously we’ve unearthed some odd things there, like a mongoose being led on a leash.
Tombs cut into the rock, believed to belong to commoners at the time, contain scenes of daily life such as farming, hunting, and fishing. The artwork is all multi-colored, using shades of red, brown, blue, green, black, and white, which made digitally enhancing the images a bit difficult according to the researchers.
But doing so yielded a number of interesting discoveries. For example, they have found a herd of pigs drawn on one of the walls of the tombs, only the second known drawing of pigs from the Middle Kingdom period, and another depicting bats.
“The most surprising outcome of the DStretch study has been the confirmation of new images of animals that are incredibly rare in Egyptian art," said Dr Evans.
“There are virtually no depictions of pigs or bats in all of Egyptian art, but we can now confirm that they appear a number of times at Beni Hassan."
Another image showed people dunking a pig into water, with workmen grasping the creature’s hind legs. It was thanks to using DStretch that the researchers were able to confirm this was a pig, with hooves, a snout, and bristles on its back.
Aother painting described as “highly unusual” in the research shows a figure carrying an animal, possibly a pig, on their shoulders. “The meaning of this somewhat humorous motif remains to be determined,” the paper notes.
There's also that impressive image of a bird at the top of this article. Thought originally to be a hawk, image enhancement revealed it to be a vulture, with its large wings outstretched and its feathers painted in red and bluish-green. Meanwhile, an “egg” it was thought to be carrying actually seems to be the upper half of an ankh sign.
"The image of a vulture holding an ankh-symbol in its claws is also really interesting because it’s a motif that is otherwise only associated with royal monuments," said Dr Evans. "So, what is it doing in the tomb of a commoner? This is a mystery we still have to solve."
These re-interpretations are giving archaeologists a new look at ancient paintings – and it’s hoped there will be more discoveries to come in the future. Beni Hassan is described as a "treasure trove" of animal imagery, so there may be similarly remarkable findings still to be made.
"The new images we have found confirm that animals were a crucial part of ancient Egyptian life," said Dr Evans.