The Egyptian Tomb-Chapel Scenes of Nebamun at the British Museum
In 1821 ten paintings were purchased from Mr. Henry Salt (1780-1827) and arrived at the British Museum. The eleventh painting was acquired in 1823. Each painting appeared to have been mounted with a slightly different support material. Finger marks and hand prints on the backs of many of the paintings suggest that the paintings were laid face down onto a surface and that a thickened slurry-mix of plaster was applied to the back of the mud straw. All these paintings have undergone extensive conservation.
In 1835, the paintings were put on display to the public within the “Egyptian Saloon” (now the Egyptian Sculpture Gallery) at the British Museum. They were then given the inventory display numbers (nos. 169-70, 171-81). However, at the beginning of the 20th century they were given their current inventory numbers of EA37976-86. There is little indication that they originally came from the same tomb-chapel.
“We cannot learn from what part of Egypt they came, nor in what kind of place they were found;” this is what one of the earliest guidebooks of the British Museum said. Actually, the paintings’ biographies and sources were very fragmentary and frustratingly vague, as recording of the exact find-spot of objects was not a priority during that period.
Mr. Salt was the British consul-general who took office in Egypt in 1816. He got legal permission from the Ottoman authorities for excavating, removing, and shipping ancient objects to England. He employed many agents, and one of them was a young Greek man whose name was Giovani (known also as ‘Yanni’) d’Athanasi (1798-1854). D’Athanasi excavated an area on the west bank of the River Nile at Thebes (modern-day Luxor). At the same time on the eastern bank, a team of workers belonging to the Italian-born French consul Bernardino Drovetti (1776-1852) were also excavating the land for mummies. However, both teams continually fought about the division of ground and many clashes, often physically violent, occurred. This hostile environment encouraged an atmosphere of secrecy with respect to their daily activities and it unfortunately obscured the exact find-spot of many excavated objects.
So where were these paintings found and when? Though d’Athanasi was very secretive about his work and excavated materials some clues have been found in water-color paintings. During his mission, d’Athanasi resided in a house on the west bank of Thebes, very close to the well-known 18th Dynasty tomb-chapel of Nakht at Gurna village. During his way to explore Upper Nubia Louis Linant de Bellefonds (1799-1883) a French artist and explorer passed through Luxor and met d’Athanasi. Linant visited d’Athanasi’s house and while there drew water-colors of two of the paintings (the Nebamun in the marshes and the musicians playing at the banquet). From these we can recognize the date of July 5, 1821. Therefore, we can conclude the Nebamun in the marshes and the musicians playing at the banquet were recently excavated and within d’Athanasi’s house.
Mr. John Carne (1789-1844) a British author and traveler, wrote to his father that he had spent an enjoyable few weeks with Mr. Salt in the city of Alexandria; the letter was dated August 25, 1821. Carne stated that Salt “had brought with him, from Cairo, some valuable paintings, lately discovered at Thebes.” So far, the paintings had reached Alexandria city and were ready for shipping to the British Museum in London. Mr. Bonham Richard, Salt’s agent and friend, sent a letter to the British Museum saying that a shipload of objects excavated in Egypt by Salt had arrived on the Kate and was currently in quarantine in the Medway estuary; the paintings were among them. The letter was written on the Christmas day of 1821. Mr. Richard included some extracts from Salt’s letters dated back to October 5 and 10, 1821; Salt said that his man (referring to d’Athanasi) discovered ten paintings in the last year (i.e., 1820).
The tomb-chapel’s interior decorated walls were thought to be largely intact when discovered by d’Athanasi. These paintings are probably only a fraction; d’Athanasi’s men perhaps recovered the best-looking or attractive scenes. D’Athanasi’s workmen seemed to remove the smaller scenes at first, but they altered their plan and instead removed larger pieces of the walls. Initially, they probably used saws and knives to cut into the plaster surface of the walls. This had outlined the rectangular pieces chosen for the removal to be pried away later on from their walls with crowbars. Some pieces were removed with their full-thickness intact, while other were very thin and suffered great damage at their edges. D’Athanasi probably deliberately destroyed or at least heavily damaged the tomb-chapel when he had finished his mission. Researchers think that it lies within an area called Dra Abu el-Naga at Luxor.
The hieroglyphic inscriptions on the paintings mention the name of “Nebamun” several times, which means “My Lord is Amun.” However, the name was damaged and the best reserved instance is above a cattle (a caption in the scene of the cattle). Nebamun’s full title was “the Scribe and Grain-accountant in the Granary of Divine [Offerings of Amun].” This title puts him on the lower social range of people with tombs; however, his job and duties connected him to a very powerful institution. Amun was the state-god of the period and was worshipped widely. Nebamun tomb-chapel dates back to the New Kingdom period of the 18th Dynasty, circa 1350 BCE.
The paintings were removed several times, from one safe place to another, during the first and second world wars. They finally returned to their home, the British Museum, on May 7, 1947. During their storage and transportation, some of the paintings suffered some damage. The paintings have been displayed in various halls within the Museum after the years. They underwent extensive and lengthy conservation from 2001 to 2007. Currently, they are on display in Room 61 (the Michel Cohen Gallery, the upper floor). These eleven magnificent pieces of wall paintings from Nebamun’s ancient Egyptian tomb-chapel are among the greatest treasures the British Museum has. They are displayed vertically, but slightly tilted backward at an angle. Each scene is contained within a separate large case and a compact description can be found at the foot and sides of the displaying cases. Smaller fragments can be found in other museums, such as the Egyptian Museum in Berlin (Germany) and Musee Calvet at Avignon (France).
Now, enjoy the paintings:
Surveying the field for Nebamun
Nebamun’s Garden of the West
Nebamun hunting in the marshes
Offerings for Nebamun
A feast for Nebamun
Nebamun viewing his geese and cattle
To draft this article, I depended on the following:
These photographs and their captions represent the whole Nebamun’s tomb-chapel paintings in Room 61. This is a virtual cyber-tour! At the end of the day at the British Museum, March 14, 2016, I was very exhausted! After I finished photographing all of the 11 paintings using my Nikon D750 camera, I stood far way, at one of the corners of Room 61, watching visitors as they enter into this room. I observed them for about a quarter of an hour. Some of them passed through the room rapidly, some were taking selfies with the paintings, and some shot the paintings using their phones or digital cameras. None of the visitors spent some time reading the captions and examining the paintings thoroughly. This is understandable, as the Museum is quite large and you have to go here and there rapidly!
Before I left the room, I stood in front of the painting of Nebamun in the marshes. I closed my eyes, and asked the time machine to take me back. Who built the tomb-chapel? Who were the artists who designed and made the paintings? How many people visited the tomb-chapel and what they were doing there? Did Nebamun think, even for a fraction of a second, that his tomb-chapel paintings will be displayed in a country other than his Egypt?
No words can express my sincere gratitude towards the British Museum in London; it has housed, protected, conserved, and displayed this magnificent and stunning world-class Egyptian art. I was with diverse people within this Room 61, many people, of different races and colors, different religions, different citizenship; I was with humanity and ancient history, the spirit of eternity!
Finally, I stood at the room’s door, turned back my face and looked at the paintings for the last time. Through this article, I have successfully put myself on the path of eternity, with Nebamun; I have left a legacy too!
Osama graduated from Baghdad University, College of Medicine and was the valedictorian student in internal medicine. He got membership diplomas of the Royal Colleges of Physicians of Ireland (MRCPI) and Glasgow (MRCP Glasg) and then became Board-certified in neurology. Osama is a Fellow of the American College of Physicians (FACP), Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow (FRCP Glasg), Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (FRCP Edin), Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland (FRCPI), Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of London FRCP Lond), and Fellow of the Stroke Council of the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association (FAHA). Currently, he is a Clinical Associate Professor at the Clinical School of the International Medical University, Malaysia. Osama published more than 50 articles in international peer-reviewed neurology journals and 5 self-assessment books for the membership diploma of the Royal Colleges of Physicians of the United Kingdom and Ireland. He is an associate editor, guest editor, reviewer and former editor-in-chief in several international peer-reviewed internal medicine and neurology journals. Osama is very interested in Mesopotamian history and always tries to take photos of archaeological sites and artifacts in museums, both in Iraq and around the world. He is a contributor/team member of "Medical MasterClass," the online educational arm of the Royal College of Physicians of London, UK.