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Work Nile Fishing Scene

Department of Egyptian Antiquities: Objects from everyday life

Les poissons du Nil, scène de pêche

© Musée du Louvre/C. Décamps

Egyptian Antiquities
Objects from everyday life

Pierrat-Bonnefois Geneviève

This fragment of an Old Kingdom mastaba includes a total of ten fish, all clearly identifiable and depicted with careful attention to detail, together with a frog, a hippopotamus, and a crocodile. The scene depicts the natural environment of the Nile marshes, a source of both recreation and sustenance for the tomb's noble occupant, during his life.

A detail from a larger scene

This fragment comes from the wall of a funerary chapel, one of the mastabas (or superstructures) that surmounted the sepulchers of prominent figures during the Old Kingdom. The principal figure - the owner of the tomb - is lost apart from his left foot, standing in the bow of a small boat. The boat 'floats' on a line in horizontal relief, representing the water-line, above and below which finely-painted vertical waves indicate the waters of the Nile, full of fish. A variety of Nile algae, known as Potamogeton lucens, emerges above the surface, with a tiny blue frog seated among its fronds.The vertical representation of the river surface, around the central figure, has enabled the artist to depict his hero in a proud, upright stance, harpooning the fish horizontally, with no need to stoop towards the water. The upper section of the scene has been lost; all that remains is a small harpoon, probably held by a secondary figure.

A densely-figured fragment

The artist uses the low relief technique to differentiate between the underwater and surface features of the scene. Figures and motifs on or near the surface are carved in low relief and painted; fauna beneath the water are rendered with paint alone, except for the hippopotami and the crocodile, whose contours are lightly incised. Modern viewers may be surprised by the disregard for scale in the depiction of the various figures. The harpooner's foot is disproportionately large, and the fish are as large as the hippopotami and the crocodile. Ancient Egyptian art does not seek to provide a visually-accurate depiction of a coherent scene; it should be "read" as a kind of pictorial notation, juxtaposing the objects observed. The central message in this work is the depiction of the fauna, the center of the action.
In this context, the scene provides an accurate and exceptionally well-preserved illustration of the natural history of the Nile marshes.The animals depicted are, from left to right, a Mormyrus (recognisable by its trunk-like snout), a catfish, two hippopotami and a mullet. In front of the crocodile are a Citherinus latus, a Malopterurus electricus, and a Nile perch. Above the boat, from left to right: a Tetrodon fahaka, a second Mormyrus, an eel, a Synodontis batensoda, and a Tilapia nilotica.

The Nile marshes: a richly-symbolic world

To the ancient Egyptians, who made the transition from a nomadic to a settled existence as farmers in the Nile Valley, the residual marshes were the waterland from which life sprang when the world was created. They were also an important source of sustenance: the habitat of the fish that were a staple food. For high-ranking civil servants, fishing and hunting were also highly-prized leisure activities in the cool, restful marsh environment. Images such as this reproduce the typology of official scenes showing the Pharaoh engaged in similar activities - a personification of Egyptian mastery over the natural world. In the context of a mastaba, scenes such as this are intended to represent a source of life and renewal.


J. VANDIER, "Un don des Amis du Louvre au département des Antiquités égyptiennes", La Revue du Louvre et des Musées de France, 1969, tome 1, p. 1-6.

Ch. ZIEGLER Musée du Louvre Département des Antiquités Egyptiennes - Catalogue des stèles, peintures et reliefs égyptiens de l'Ancien Empire et de la Première Période Intermédiaire (vers 2686-2040 avant J.-C.), Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, Paris, 1990, p. 41-42, 298-301, notice n 61.

Technical description

  • Les poissons du Nil, scène de pêche

    vers 2350 avant J.-C. (fin 5e - début 6e dynasties)

  • calcaire peint

    H. : 0,55 m. ; L. : 1,57 m. ; Pr. : 0,03 m.

  • Don de la Société des Amis du Louvre, 1969 , 1969

    E 26092

  • Egyptian Antiquities

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