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Work Paintings from the tomb of Unsu

Department of Egyptian Antiquities: The New Kingdom (circa 1550 to circa 1069 BC)

Paintings from the tomb of Unsu

© 2008 Musée du Louvre / Christian Décamps

Egyptian Antiquities
The New Kingdom (circa 1550 to circa 1069 BC)

Author(s):
Sophie Labbé-Toutée

This fragment forms part of a group of mural paintings that decorated the chapel in the tomb of the scribe Unsu, grain accountant in the temple of the god Amun. The scenes depicted here show the succession of agricultural operations which Unsu had to supervise: plowing, sowing, harvesting, and the treading of the corn to separate the grain from the ear. The images read from the bottom up.

A mural painting from the necropolis of Thebes

These fragments were part of the vast collection bought by Jean-François Champollion (1790–1832) in 1826. As the vendor, British consul Henry Salt (1780–1827), provided little information, the exact location of the tomb remains unknown. There is no doubt, however, that it lay in the civil necropolis of Thebes, not far from the Valley of the Kings. This group of pictures can be dated to the early 18th Dynasty, probably during the reign of Thutmosis III, a time when the practice of mural painting became widespread in Egypt.
This enthusiasm for a technique already known for a long time has two explanations: firstly, the limestone in this area was of poor quality; secondly, painting murals was quicker than carving in stone.
The surface of the walls was dressed with “muna,” a mixture of mud and chopped straw covered with a thin coat of plaster. This was used to smooth out the irregularities in the limestone in which the tombs were cut. The painting was in tempera, rather than fresco technique; apart from the carbon black, the colors used were derived from minerals, ground and mixed with a binder that has not been identified.

A scene of everyday life

Though the entrance to the burial chamber was walled up after the burial, the chapel would be left open for the living to perform funerary rites for the deceased. The decoration of the walls would thus be visible for all eternity.
This kind of picture is often called a “scene of everyday life,” and it is true that some such scenes do help us understand the habits and customs of the Egyptians. Very often, indeed, they show the deceased in the exercise of his profession or office. It would seem, however, that most have a primarily magical function in ensuring the survival of the deceased: agricultural scenes would thus have been intended to provide a food supply for the tomb.

Agricultural tasks

Dressed only in loincloths, their heads shaved on account of the heat, the peasants are depicted in three different registers, engaged in the successive operations of the agricultural year.
In the lower part, they cultivate the ground with hoes and a swing-plow. Unusually, the plow is drawn by men rather by oxen, while at their sides a sower broadcasts seed. Some are working in pairs, the presence of the second figure being signaled by the appearance of two eyes together, or the doubled outline of a leg.
In the middle register, the harvesters are cutting the ears with sickles. The stalks were left, to provide food for livestock and to fertilize the earth. The harvesters are followed by the smaller figures of women gleaners, picking up fallen ears of corn.
Finally, in the upper register, men carry baskets filled with ears of corn which are tipped out beneath the hooves of oxen, which tread the corn to separate the grain from the ear.

Bibliography

M. POTVIN, G. PIERRAT-BONNEFOIS, Les conventions plastiques de l’art égyptien Au temps des pharaons, (Louvre, collection « visite jeune public », Dossier pour enseignants, Paris, 2002, p. 24-25

G. ANDREU, M. H. RUTSCHOWSCAYA, C. ZIEGLER, L’Egypte au Louvre, Hachette, Paris, 1997, p. 106-107, notice n° 43

Ch. Ziegler, dans Le Monde de la Bible, 1992, tome 78, p. 38-41, pl. 2

Technical description

  • Paintings from the tomb of Unsu

    New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, reign of Hatshepsut or Thutmosis III (1479-1425 BC)

    Egypt, necropolis of Thebes

  • Paint and pigment on mud plaster

    H. 68 cm; W. 94 cm

  • Henry Salt Collection, purchased 1826

    Agricultural work

    N 1431

  • Egyptian Antiquities

    Sully wing
    Ground floor
    Field work
    Room 4

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