Does this ancient Egyptian fresco represent a species of extinct goose?
One of the joys of discovering art is the challenge of understanding the artist’s original intention. Whether it’s a painting or a musical performance, creative motivation is always fascinating – often elusive – for ancient and contemporary works. Mystery surrounds the time of manufacture and will always cover the thoughts of the Egyptian artists who painted the geese of Meidum 4,600 years ago.
Considered a masterpiece and even nicknamed “Mona Lisa of Ancient Egypt”, the fresco was painted on the north wall of what would become the tomb of Nefermaat and Itet, in Meidum, Egypt. We know this pair belonged to a royal family, so they could afford the most sought-after artists of the time, who “took great care in rendering the colors and textures of the birds’ feathers and even included serrated notes on them. of them. geese bending down to graze, ”according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where a facsimile copy is on display.
One theory even goes so far as to say that the original painting is a fake – a reconstruction made at the time of discovery in 1871. What we can safely deduce, however, is that the artists did not expect it to be. that geese in their work be subjected to the rigorous scientific criteria of modern taxonomy.
When Dr Anthony Romilio examined the painting, a speckled-breasted goose caught his eye. “This strange but beautiful bird was quite different from modern Red-breasted Geese. [Branta ruficollis], with distinct and bold colors and patterns on her body, face, chest, wings and legs, ”the University of Queensland researcher said. “The artistic license might explain the differences with modern geese, but the artwork on this site features extremely realistic depictions of other birds and mammals.” This revelation sparked new research that speculates that the birds pictured are a separate (and now extinct) species.
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To pursue this possibility, Dr Romilio applied the “Tobias criteria” to assess the unknown geese, as well as other geese in the fresco. Co-developed by BirdLife taxonomic expert Dr Nigel Collar and Dr Joe Tobias in 2010 to provide a more consistent way of recognizing species, the Tobias method is a fast, reliable, point-based system that assesses the different characteristics of an animal. The method is at the heart of the taxonomic classification of species that underpins BirdLife’s work on the Red List, and species are the most fundamental unit of biology, conservation and environmental legislation.
“The Tobias method is a very effective method of identifying species, using quantitative measures of the main characteristics of birds,” says Romilio, “and greatly enhances the value of the information for zoological and ecological science.”
The results of Romilio’s investigation showed that while the other geese depicted were very consistent with two known species (Greylag Anser Anser and a larger one with a white front Anser albifrons – both notoriously not found in Egypt today), the speckled-breasted bird was similar, but very poor, to the Red-breasted Goose.
This study of course raises many questions. If the geese in the mural were indeed red-breasted, why are they so different – with predominantly white necks – from the species we know today, when other geese have been portrayed so accurately? Was it perhaps a copy of a copy of a copy, becoming less and less precise as artistic license grew? Or could it represent a globally extinct species, matching the bones of a species found in Crete? And finally, what were the artists thinking while painting? One thing is for sure – this is a very original application of the Tobias criteria and shows the value of art far beyond the original intention of the artists.
“The art provides cultural insight, but also a valuable graphic record of animals unknown today,” says Romilio, whose work also focuses on other potentially extinct species, such as the Aurochs, a predecessor of modern cattle. . “I also see it as a reminder of the influence humans have on the survival of the species that are with us today.”