The ‘Mona Lisa’ Of Ancient Egyptian Art Depicts Extinct Goose

A 4600 year old painting from a tomb in Egypt depicts an extinct and previously unknown species of goose

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Meidum Geese (Detail), Tomb of Nefermaat and Itet. Is this an extinct goose species? (Credit: … [+]

An extinct and previously unknown species of goose has been identified from an ancient Egyptian painting that once adorned the walls of a mastaba, or tomb, according to a recently published analysis. This mudbrick tomb was the final resting place of Nefermaat, a prince in Egypt’s Fourth Dynasty (c. 2600 BCE), and his wife, Itet (Figure 1).

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The oldest son of king Sneferu, Nefermaat ruled Egypt from 2610 to 2590 B.C. According to New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Nefermaat and Itet were a powerful couple who could commission works from the most sought-after artists of the day (more here).

F I G U R E 1 : A, Locality of Meidum, Egypt, Africa; B, Satellite image of the Ancient Egyptian … [+]

Although many of the walls in the tomb’s Chapel of Itet were decorated with paintings applied onto mud plaster, some of these paintings were quite innovative, involving applications of colored paste inlayed into deeply incised images carved into the chapel’s outer limestone walls. This, the finest paste-inlay painting of the age, is an exquisite depiction of six geese, formally known as the ‘Meidum Geese’.

“The painting, Meidum Geese, has been admired since its discovery in the 1800s and described as ‘Egypt’s Mona Lisa’,” Anthony Romilio, the author of the study, said in email. Dr Romilio is an evolutionary biologist and palaeontologist at the University of Queensland.

Rediscovered in 1871, this painting was removed from the northern wall of the Chapel of Itet and re-assembled in what is now the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, where it still resides. Part of a much larger work of art, the painting depicts six geese: three facing to the left and three facing to the right. Each group of three consists of one goose with its head bowed as it eats from the ground and two others with their heads held up (Figure 2).

F I G U R E 2 : The Meidum Geese originally from the outer wall of the Chapel of Itet, mastaba of … [+]

“In addition to being a scientist, I am also an artist, so this blends my love of animals with my interest in historical artworks,” Dr Romilio said in email. “So I have known about this artwork for decades.”

The coronavirus lockdown combined with consistent access to his university’s library system provided Dr Romilio the time and resources he needed to finally study the Meidum Geese painting in detail.

“Much more recently, I wanted to find out what researchers were saying about these geese,” Dr Romilio said in email. “I found there was pretty much consensus in the species identification with two of the depicted species (Greylag, and Greater White-fronted Geese) but polarised viewpoints for the birds depicted with red colouring.”

Left: Greylag goose (Anser anser) (Credit: Diliff / CC BY-SA 3.0) Right: greater white-fronted goose … [+]

Dr Romilio noted that both greylag and white-fronted geese are common subjects in ancient Egyptian depictions, but the Meidum Geese is the only depiction known of a waterfowl that vaguely resembles a red-breasted goose, Branta ruficollis.

Considering that this is the oldest painting of birds rendered with enough accuracy that their species can be easily identified, it is surprising that the species of one pair of these geese still inspires rigorous dissension more than a century after the painting was unearthed.

The coloring of these two still-unidentified geese makes them quite striking, both for the beautiful execution of the art itself but also because this pair of ‘Meidum Geese 3’ are markedly different from any living modern species. But how to determine whether these geese are the result of subjective ‘artistic license’ or if they accurately portray a species that is no longer alive today?

Dr Romilio’s study proposes three possibilities for the dramatic differences between the Meidum Geese with their peculiar red markings and those of modern red-breasted geese, which are considered by some to be their most likely candidate species:

“A clue to which is most likely may lie in other animal depictions from the same chapel. Dogs, jackals, leopards, and antelope had all been accurately painted to permit species-level identification (along with the other two goose species),” Dr Romilio elaborated in email. “It follows that this goose depiction is also accurate, despite being very different from the modern proposed species.”

That is a good argument for the accuracy of the mysterious Meidum Geese 3, but could Dr Romilio objectively compare these geese to their proposed species, the red-breasted goose?

Red-breasted goose (Branta ruficollis). (Credit: Mehmet Karatay / CC BY-SA 3.0)

“Since these and many other of these identifications in ancient art used subjective rather than objective approaches, I thought it would be of value to use a method to evaluate them,” Dr Romilio explained in email. “I first learnt about the Tobias Criteria from one of the bird books from Lynx Edicions.”

The superior quality and overall accuracy of birds depicted in Lynx Edicions books is legendary amongst birders and ornithologists around the world.

The Tobias Criteria was invented by a team of British ornithologists led by Joseph Tobias, a Reader in Biodiversity and Ecosystems at the Imperial College London. This biodiversity indicator is a quantitative method that is highly effective for objectively and consistently identifying bird species from museum study skins based on a variety of measurements of key physical traits (ref). The Tobias Criteria are particularly useful when there is little or no DNA sequence data available for analysis. With this in mind, Dr Romilio adapted the Tobias Criteria to analyze the Meidum Geese and to compare them to their proposed modern species.

“This method is typically used on closely related modern bird populations to see if the differences exceed what we consider to be the same species,” Dr Romilio explained in email. “My research is the first to use this biodiversity indicator on an ancient artwork of animals, to see if they match with the species that others have identified as depicted.”

Dr Romilio measured 13 visual traits of the Meidum Geese. Analysis revealed that each Meidum Goose had traits that were identical, or nearly identical, with those of their purported candidate species.

“Keep in mind that the biodiversity indicator (Tobias Criteria) found differences with all the tested species and their proposed ancient portraits,” Dr Romilio cautioned in email.

“There has been a consensus among researchers that one of the depicted geese are Greater White-fronted Geese,” Dr Romilio said about ‘Meidum Geese 2’. “The results from my study support that.”

The Tobias Criteria also narrowed down the species identification for ‘Meidum Geese 1’ to one of two very similar species.

“My results indicate both Greylag and Bean Geese are possible, but provided more support for Greylag,” Dr Romilio said in email. The greylag goose, Anser anser, is a widespread species that was domesticated as early as 1360BC, and is the ancestor of domestic geese.

Although a few traits showed minor or moderate differences according to the Tobias Criteria, none of the Meidum Geese showed exceptionally dissimilar features that set them apart from their proposed species — except ‘Meidum Geese 3A and B’, which are very different from their most-often proposed candidate species, the red-breasted goose.

Besides the obvious differences in plumage colors and patterns, especially on the face and neck, there is an overwhelming difference in bill size and color between ‘Meidum Geese 3’ and modern red-breasted geese (Figure 3). Additionally, the back and wings of the ‘Meidum Geese 3’ are pale grey instead of black, as seen on a modern red-breasted goose. Most notably, their enlarged flank plumes are distinctive enough to make them stand out as unique, indicating it’s likely that we just don’t see them any more. In fact, the Tobias Criteria showed that ‘Meidum Geese 3’ did not closely match any goose species alive today.

“From a zoological perspective, the Egyptian artwork is the only documentation of this distinctively patterned goose, which appears now to be globally extinct,” Dr Romilio concluded.

F I G U R E 3 : Meidum goose (left panel) and visual comparison (right panel) between an artist’s … [+]

Although the Tobias Criteria was not originally designed to identify bird species from paintings, Dr Tobias nevertheless found this application to be intriguing.

“Behold the ‘Tobias criteria’ applied to a 4600-year-old painting. Sequence that, suckers!” Dr Tobias exclaimed on Twitter.

Indeed, the overall similarities between the Meidum Geese and their contemporary species were astounding.

“These paintings are not from memory and also not just from skins,” Dr Tobias added on Twitter. “The artist(s) clearly had field experience, as well as skins, or perhaps captive birds, to work from.”

“These ancient artisans were obviously highly skilled,” Dr Romilio agreed in email. “They had a clear understanding of avian morphology and were capable of executing very fine details in their work (including scales on legs, serrations on bills, veins on feathers).”

It is also interesting to note that bones from red-breasted geese have never been found at any Egyptian archaeological site.

A quick online search of the history of this painting reveals a bit of a kerfuffle in its recent past. Six years ago, a claim was made that the Meidum Geese is a nineteenth century forgery (more here), possibly painted 150 years ago by its co-discoverer, Luigi Vassalli. This claim was vigorously dismissed the very same day that it went public by Egyptian archaeologist, Egyptologist, and former Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs, Zahi Hawass, and other Egyptian authorities.

“I don’t see any reason not to think it was painted by ancient artisans, when viewed in context with the other artworks from that chapel,” Dr Romilio replied when I asked whether the ‘Meidum Geese’ fresco was a forgery. “In addition to those geese, you’ve got other animals that are really quite detailed and naturalistically portrayed.”

“Importantly, in the six years since Tiradritti’s interview, he hasn’t consolidated this work in a publication, so it is difficult to assess the argument or even if this is a view he still retains.”

Why were geese featured in this painting? Do they symbolize everlasting love?

“Hmmmm … ‘everlasting love’??!! (… and just a few weeks past Valentine’s Day),” Dr Romilio mused in email. “It is difficult to say if that is THE reason. Mind you, Itet and her husband Nefermaat were buried in the same mastaba (No. 16), with beautifully adorned chapels. As for ‘everlasting’, her husband Nefermaat did introduce a new design for graphical representations — engraving the images in stone and then filling these with coloured plaster.”

This paste-inlay method, unique to the Chapel of Itet, did increase the durability of Egyptian paintings over the millennia but was not employed by later artisans for reasons that remain unknown.

The symbolism in these paintings is quite subtle. Most archaeologists agree that the ‘Meidum Geese’ reflect the general ancient Egyptian belief: Balance. Egyptians — the country, their rule, their culture, their beliefs — are balance, whereas ‘the other’ — wildlife, foreign cultures, foreign beliefs — are chaos.

Additionally, each group of three animals represents many geese, because three represents the plural in Egyptian imagery.

“Of the noted features of the beautifully rendered Meidum Geese is the symmetry of their portrayal: a single register on which the left has a grazing bird followed by another pair, which is mirrored on the right,” Dr Romilio speculated in email.

Of course, these geese are not perfect mirror images of each other. There are minor differences in the plumage of the paired birds that break the overall symmetry of the scene.

“Perhaps this symmetry is to reflect ‘life in balance’ and translating this to a form of balance in the afterlife (just a thought).”

Another argument made regarding the painting’s authenticity are the three geese species themselves. None of them live in Egypt, which makes one wonder how they came to be depicted in this famous masterpiece. Did they migrate to Egypt?

We do know that 4600 years ago, the Sahara was not a desert at all. Instead, it was much greener, with woodlands, lakes and vast grasslands stretching as far as the eye could see, and it supported farms along with a diversity of birds and wildlife that either moved on — or disappeared entirely — after the desert appeared.

“I am in agreement with most that the ancient Egyptians painted creatures that they coexisted with,” Dr Romilio said in email. “I am also in agreement that modern Egypt has an impoverished faunal diversity when compared with those encountered by the ancient culture.”

Ancient art from Egyptian tombs and temples often depicts lost animals. Species of animals that are not alive today but are present in Egyptian art include the auroch, Bos primigenius, which is an extinct predecessor of modern cattle, as well as variety of gazelle, oryx, antelope, and a donkey (Figure 4).

“Even Sacred Ibis, which were mummified in the millions, no longer call Egypt home,” Dr Romilio pointed out in email.

F I G U R E 4 : Reconstructions of extinct animals portrayed in Egyptian Old Kingdom Art. (Credit: A … [+]

Is it safe to say that Meidum Goose 3A and 3B represent a species that is new to science? It’s difficult to know for sure, but it’s certainly plausible, especially considering that a goose skull was discovered on Crete not too long ago that is similar, but not identical, to the red-breasted goose.

“As a person who is fascinated with the diversity of animal life, I find it amazing that the ancients co-existed with so many different types of animals. And if this is indeed a new (but extinct) species, then this ancient artwork is our only record that it existed on the planet.”

A. Romilio (2021). Assessing ‘Meidum Geese’ species identification with the ‘Tobias criteria’, Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 36:102834 | doi:10.1016/j.jasrep.2021.102834

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