Art can reveal so much about a culture. Sadly, many of the masterpieces created throughout the centuries have been lost due to erosion and the passing of time. On a positive note, not all is lost. To determine what our ancestors painted on rocks and engraved into stone, researchers from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, developed a new imaging technique. The technology has allowed them to re-examine Egyptian art and find details that were lost over the years.
In their paper, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, the researchers describe a technique called DStretch. With this tool, they were able to analyze paintings found at Beni Hassan, an ancient Egyptian cemetery located near the city of Minya. “Egyptologists have not realised [DStretch’s] potential in helping us to examine and record ancient wall paintings,” Dr. Linda Evans told IFLScience.
The technique was first developed in 2005 and allows digital images to be enhanced. After the remnants of paint and engravings are analyzed by three bands of RGB color, the intensity and saturation of them are improved. Essentially, the images are “stretched” then mapped back to normal. The resulting product reveals artwork similar to what the original looked like.
Artwork from Beni Hassan, which has been carved into the walls near tombs, contains scenes from daily life, such as farming, hunting, and fishing. Because the artwork is multi-colored, researchers had a difficult time determining the shades of red, brown, blue, green, black, and white used. Using DStretch, the researchers found a drawing of a herd of pigs, as well as a hoard of 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 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 villagers dunking a pig into the water. Only through DStretch were the researchers able to determine that the animal was a pig. Its hooves, snout, and even the bristles on its back had eroded. Another painting, described as “highly unusual,” shows a figure (person?) carrying an animal on their shoulders. It is quite possible the animal is a pig. “The meaning of this somewhat humorous motif remains to be determined,” wrote the researchers.
After analyzing another rock, the researchers found an intriguing image of a bird. It was originally believed to be a hawk, but image enhancement showed it to be a vulture. Its wings are outstretched and its feathers were painted in red and blue-green. The “egg” it was believed to be carrying is actually the upper portion of an ankh sign. This finding mystified the scientists.
“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 Evans. ”So, what is it doing in the tomb of a commoner? This is a mystery we still have to solve.”
So far, DStretch has been used for everything from Mars rover images to rock art. The technology is impressive because it allows researchers in the modern era to learn from ancient civilizations through the artwork they left behind. Hopefully soon, more discoveries will be made using DStretch. One thing is for certain, the Egyptians were intrigued with animal imagery. Evans confirmed this, saying: “The new images we have found confirm that animals were a crucial part of ancient Egyptian life.”
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