Put a Bird on It? Ancient Egypt Was Way Ahead of Us.

A century ago, archaeologists excavated a 3,300-year-old Egyptian palace in Amarna, which was fleetingly the capital of Egypt during the reign of the pharaoh Akhenaten. Situated far from the crowded areas of Amarna, the North Palace offered a quiet retreat for the royal family.

On the west wall of one extravagantly decorated chamber, today known as the Green Room, the excavators discovered a series of painted plaster panels showcased birds in a lush papyrus marsh. The artwork was so detailed and skillfully rendered that it was possible to pinpoint some of the bird species, including the pied kingfisher (Ceryle rudis) and the rock pigeon (Columba livia).

Recently, two British researchers, Chris Stimpson, a zoologist at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, and Barry Kemp, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge, set out to identify the rest of the birds depicted in the panels. An attempt to conserve the paintings in 1926 backfired, causing some damage and discoloration, so Dr. Stimpson and Dr. Kemp had to rely on a copy made in 1924 by Nina de Garis Davies, an illustrator for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Their findings were published in December in the journal Antiquity. Among the riddles they tried to solve was why two unidentified birds had triangular tail markings when no Egyptian bird known today has them.

Plummeting plumage

For many millenniums, great flocks of birds have soared over Egypt on their twice-yearly passage between Europe and central and southern Africa. Beholding these migrations, ancient Egyptians regarded birds as living symbols of fertility, life and regeneration. With the possible exception of cats, no other animal has been so frequently drawn, painted or sculpted in Egyptian art.

Perhaps the most striking is the pied kingfisher, commonly called a helldiver, with its black and white plumage, shaggy topknot and slender beak. The bird hunts by hovering, hummingbird-like, above the water, head tilted steeply downward. On spying movement, the kingfisher folds its wings and becomes a speckled blur, plummeting headfirst below the surface and snatching prey with its long, pointed bill. The kingfisher abounds in Egyptian art; on the wall of the Green Room it appears amid the stems and umbels of a dense papyrus thicket at the moment it takes its helldive.

Pigeons, of course

The wild rock pigeon is the progenitor of the common domestic pigeon, that plump “rat of the sky” that flits from park bench to sidewalk to somewhere dangerously overhead. The painted panels show several rock pigeons, even though they are not native to Egypt’s papyrus marshes; rather, they prefer the region’s arid desert cliffs. Dr. Stimpson speculated that the birds were included in the swampy tableau to “enhance a sense of a wilder, untamed nature” and that they were drawn to the urban setting near the palace because the citizenry was feeding a nascent feral population. “In his religious doctrine, Akhenaten had a firm opinion about nature, which was supported and kept alive by Aten, the sun god that he claimed was the only true divinity,” said Manfred Bietak, an archaeologist with the Austrian Academy of Sciences. “This could explain why nature alone is depicted in the North Palace.”

Heaven scent

The Green Room, so named because of its dominant color, may have been designed to create a feeling of tranquillity for Akhenaten’s eldest daughter (and one of his younger wives), Meritaten, who lived there. “The room may have been adorned with perfumed plants and filled with soothing music,” Dr. Stimpson said, adding that “a masterpiece of naturalistic art would have added to the immersive sensory experience.” One particularly calming painting featured a perched bird with rich, chestnut plumage. The researchers have interpreted the creature as either a turtle dove (Streptopelia turtur), whose emollient purring has been described by one birder as “the color of ripening grain made audible,” or a red-backed shrike (Lanius collurio), known as the butcherbird for its habit of keeping a larder of food impaled on thorns.

A winter’s tail

Aided by an arsenal of previously published taxonomic and ornithological research, Dr. Stimpson and Dr. Kemp were able to identify the species that had been annotated with triangular tail markings. One is the red-backed shrike, a common autumn migrant in Egypt that often roosts in acacia trees. The other is the white wagtail (Motacilla alba), an abundant winter visitor. What accounts for the tail marks? The researchers believe that they may have been the artist’s way of indicating the season in which those birds appeared.

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