Updated: Nov 9
Object Type: Tomb painting
Material: Fresco, paint on plaster
Date: c. 1350 BC
Dimensions: 98 x 115 x 22 cm (Fragment 1)
Period: Dynasty 18, New Kingdom
Findspot: Tomb Chapel of Nebamun (unknown location), Theban Necropolis
Current Location: Fragment 1 - British Museum EA37977, on display in Room 61. Fragments 2 and 3 – Current location unknown, known only from photographs.
Print Reference: DP81A
This reconstruction is based on a wall painting from an 18th Dynasty tomb chapel located in ancient Egypt's Theban Necropolis on the west bank of the Nile in Egypt. It belonged to Nebamun, a wealthy, middle-ranking official scribe and grain counter at the temple complex in Thebes.
Nebamun’s tomb chapel was a place for people to come and commemorate him and his wife after his death with prayers and offerings. Its plastered walls were richly and skilfully decorated with lively fresco paintings, showing visitors how Nebamun wanted his life to be remembered and what he aspired to do in the afterlife.
In this fragment, Nebamun is shown twice, hunting birds with a throwing stick and spearing fish from reed boats in the marshes of the Nile. He is accompanied by his wife Hatshepsut and their young children and surrounded by the flora and fauna of the wetlands. This magnificent fresco is a testament to the significance of hunting and leisure activities in ancient Egyptian society. The intricate details and vivid colours offer a glimpse into the opulence and joy that once filled Nebamun's life, capturing a timeless moment of pleasure and abundance he wanted to last forever.
The ‘Hunting in the Marshes’ fresco is just one of several famous pieces of ancient Egyptian art from this tomb, the precise location of which has been lost. Hacked out of the walls of the tomb by unscrupulous archaeologists and antiquities dealers, the fragments of the chapel’s decoration hint at the magnificence and opulence of the original decoration. This reconstruction is based on three fragments which Egyptologists have suggested coming from the same painting:
Fragment 1 – Purchased from Henry Salt in 1821 for the British Museum collection. It is now on display in Room 61. It measures 98 x 115 x 22 cm, museum number EA37977)
Fragments 2 & 3 – Acquired from antiquities dealers by Moïse Lévy de Benzion, whose collection was sold after his death and then confiscated by the Egyptian government. They were stored in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo but their current location is unknown. They are now only known from catalogue photographs taken in the 1950s.
Symbolism in Ancient Egypt
Nebamun's tomb contains what is perhaps the most iconic rendition of the 'marsh hunting’ scene within the rich tapestry of ancient Egyptian funerary art. Found on the walls of tombs and tomb chapels, these depictions connected the deceased with the afterlife, emphasised the importance of the natural world and its cycles, and demonstrated control over the chaotic forces of nature.
The marshes and wetlands of the Nile were vital for Egypt's fertility, with the annual Nile floods replenishing fields with nutrient-rich silt, ensuring bountiful harvests. In art, the marshes are depicted as fish- and plant-filled waterways surrounded by lush green vegetation bursting with life. Creatures were depicted in lively, naturalistic poses which give scenes a sense of bustling movement, contrasting sharply with the still form of the hunter in the classic smiting pose, conforming to every rule of proportion and artistic order.
The origins of these hunting scenes can be traced back to the Predynastic period (c. 6000-3100 BC) when they were often depicted on pottery, palettes, and small artefacts that were commonly placed in graves. While these early portrayals were relatively straightforward, they underscored the integral role of hunting and the natural environment in daily life.
Explore my reconstructions of the ‘Hippo Hunter’ and ‘Three Hippos’ pre-dynastic bowls to delve deeper into the predynastic art and culture of ancient Egypt.
The production of marsh hunting scenes continued for thousands of years, evolving in style and symbolism over time. The marshes were associated with the primaeval waters of creation, and hunting in such an environment symbolised the deceased person's journey through the chaos of death toward rebirth and eternal life. These scenes were particularly common in tomb paintings and reliefs of the Old and Middle Kingdom (c. 2686-1759 BC) and persisted well into the New Kingdom (c. 1550-1070 BC).
Beyond their symbolic weight, these scenes also provided glimpses into the daily lives and activities of society's most privileged members. Hunting was a pastime reserved for the affluent, and these public tomb chapel depictions served to underscore the high social status of the tomb's owner. They represented not only wealth but also the leisure pursuits of the individual, adding a personal touch to the tomb's narrative.
By the Late Period (c. 664-332 BC) and the Ptolemaic period (c. 332-30 BC) when Egypt came under foreign rule, there was a noticeable decline in the production of traditional tomb art. The art of these later periods often reflected a fusion of Egyptian and Hellenistic influences, resulting in new artistic styles and themes. The focus on traditional hunting scenes in the marshes diminished as the culture and art of Egypt changed.
Reconstructing The Scene
I was inspired to start the project whilst reading Richard Parkinson’s invaluable guide ‘The Painted Tomb-Chapel of Nebamun’ (2009), which contained the tantalising fact that two further fragments of the same scene might be known. He created a line drawing (on page 130) reconstructing the Hunting in the Marshes scene incorporating these fragments, which is the major inspiration for this piece.
I created a reproduction of Fragment 1 several years ago when I was first starting on my journey into Egyptian art. I didn’t have the confidence to fill in the missing pieces back then, but after several years of practice honing my skills, and armed with Richard Parkinson’s drawing, I thought I was ready to give it a go!
Along with Richard Parkinson’s book, I used the museum’s online collection record (museum number EA37986) for high-quality images. I was also lucky enough to visit the British Museum to see the object first-hand and was able to take detailed close-up photographs of the original fragment and study the paint marks and colours used.
As this reconstruction required me to fill in more than half of the canvas with reconstructed art, I spent some time reviewing other marsh scenes from the same period or location, to see what themes and decorative elements are commonly used.
Tomb-chapel of Menna (TT69), 1 mid-8th Dynasty, Theban Necropolis (Metropolitan Museum 30.4.48).
Tomb-chapel of Nakht (TT52), mid-18th Dynasty, Theban Necropolis.
Tomb-chapel of Neferhotep (TT A5), mid-18th Dynasty, Theban Necropolis (Louvre Museum E 13101).
Tomb-chapel of Suemniut (TT92), mid-18th Dynasty, Theban Necropolis
Tomb-chapel of Sabni (QH26), 6th Dynasty, Aswan.
Tomb-chapel of Khnumhotep II (BH3), 12th Dynasty, Beni Hassan
From these examples I saw, several common themes emerged. The scenes are usually symmetrical and mirrored down the central axis, with a clump of papyrus in the centre and a boat on either side of it. The water is always shown as a band across the bottom and is filled with fish, flowers and reeds, as well as the occasional hippo or crocodile. The figure of the deceased in the boat is shown fishing with a spear and hunting with a throwing stick, and the birds are shown in a state of flight or movement. Other creatures including cats, rats, mongoose and butterflies can be seen within the foliage.
Organising The Fragments
The first step of the reconstruction was to organise the three fragments onto my digital canvas in Adobe Photoshop. Each fragment was added as a transparent layer, which allowed me to move it around the canvas to find where it fits. Knowing the missing right side was essentially going to be a mirror image of the major elements of the left side made visualising the final layout easier.
One of the fundamental principles of ancient Egyptian art is the organisation of space. Scenes are organised with reference to an underlying baseline, with horizontal guidelines used to order scenes. In this example, I was lucky enough to have the waterline in Fragment 1, which served as the horizontal baseline for the image. From this, I was able to approximate the height and width of the final design.
The second fundamental principle is the convention employed to depict the standing human form, whereby the feet are planted on a baseline, and up to eight parallel guidelines pass through the body at equal intervals to align features (hairline, shoulders, elbow, lower buttock, knee, calf and sole). By using the full figures of Nebamun, Hatshepsut and their daughter in Fragment 1, I was able to create these parallel guidelines to show where the figures in Fragments 2 and 3 would be positioned. The spear being held by Nebamun in Fragment 2 is just visible in the corner of Fragment 3, which enabled me to align the three fragments horizontally and vertically.
I use a simple black pencil tool to create the lines for each figure on a new layer in Photoshop. I zoom in as close as I can to achieve the precision the original artists employed in their paintings. For highly detailed parts such as the birds, I add background layers containing high-resolution closeup photographs, enabling me to recreate the remaining details.
When it came to filling in the missing details on the left of the picture, I was able to make extensive use of the mirror tool in Photoshop. This was particularly useful for working out the location of items missing on the left when compared to the right of the picture. For example, I was able to see how big the thicket of papyrus was in the centre of the picture, by mirroring the right side to the left. As the ancient Egyptians used heavily stylised and standardised ways of drawing most things, it is possible to recreate quite accurately the missing elements if the size and location are known.
It wasn’t possible (or desirable) to fully mirror the right side as the left Nebamun is engaged in a different activity to the right one, and the creatures around him would be reacting differently. I took inspiration from the birds, butterflies and fish in Fragment 1 to fill in the scene, and inserted a little mouse creeping along one of the reeds to balance the cat on the other side. This is a direct copy of the mouse in the marsh hunting scene from the Tomb of Menna.
Ancient Egyptian art uses polychromy, filling in the outlines with solid blocks of contrasting colours which were chosen as much for their symbolic meaning as they were to accurately illustrate the subject. They utilised standard colours and patterns for most of their depictions and hieroglyphs, so even when the paint layer has been lost or faded, we have a good idea of what colour the original was.
For this reproduction, I could look at the colours and painting styles used in other scenes within the tomb and create a reference board to ensure I selected the right colours and patterns. In this period, we see more shading and layers of paint to produce special effects, like the transparent linen of Hateshepsut’s dress or the speckled feathers of the birds.
To add colour to my reproduction, I select the spaces between my lines and add a colour fill to a layer beneath my line drawing. This enables me to save a monochrome line drawing of the finished artwork, as well as a full-colour version. Just like the ancient Egyptians, I have my standard palette of colours I use for each of my pieces.