The British Museum's new Egyptial gallery





Enter the British Museum's new Egyptian gallery and you will be struck by a line of painted panels of unexpectedly rich colouring and extravagant composition. On one panel, a pair of naked female dancers, their fingers interlaced, glide sinuously before a crowd at a banquet. Beside them, a flute player stares out from the painting, her hair shimmering as if she is swaying to the music. Each figure is distinct, individual and freely drawn, their proportions and detail captured perfectly.

Wander further along the main wall and you will find other exuberant depictions of everyday life in 18th Dynasty Egypt: a boy driving cattle along a road; geese, stored in baskets, ready for the market; a farmer, stooped and balding, checking his fields, and a hunt through reed beds that burst with creatures - shrike, wagtails and pintail ducks - easily identifiable still.

These are the tomb paintings that once belonged to Nebamun, a court official who lived almost 3,500 years ago, and they are the greatest surviving paintings we have from ancient Egypt. Each was created for Nebamun by a painter as gifted as any of the Renaissance's finest artists, and they will be revealed to the public this month when the British Museum opens a special gallery dedicated to them, a 10-year project that has cost £1.5m to complete. It will be a striking addition to the museum.

Yet for all the effort that has gone into the gallery's construction and the studies of its paintings, mystery still shrouds the Nebamun panels. For a start, archaeologists have no idea about the identity of the artist who created them and are equally puzzled why a painter of such talent was involved with a relatively minor clerk like Nebamun.

Nor do historians have any record of the original tomb's location. The man who discovered them was a Greek grave robber called Giovanni d'Athanasi, who dug them up in Thebes, as Luxor was then known, and then passed them on, via a collector, to the British Museum. However, in 1835 D'Athanasi fell out with curators over his finder's fee and refused to divulge the precise position of the tomb. He took his secret to the grave, dying a pauper in 1854 in Howland Street, a few minutes' walk from the museum. Ever since, archaeologists have searched in vain for the tomb of Nebamun and any treasures that it may still contain...


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