Modern analysis of an ancient painting found on the walls of an Egyptian prince’s tomb has revealed very interesting and surprising results. The artwork, which was discovered back in 1871 at an Egyptian archaeological site called Meidum, depicted a never-before-seen species of goose.
New analysis was conducted last year by Anthony Romilio from the University of Queensland in Australia who studied in greater detail the six birds that were depicted in a 4,600-year-old painting known as the “Meidum Geese” that was found in the burial chambers of Prince Nefermaat I and his wife Itet (the painting is now in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo). It has been described by historians as being “one of the great masterpieces of the Egyptian animal genre.” And it wasn’t just geese that were represented in the paintings inside of the tomb as dogs, leopards, cattle, and white antelope (called addax) were also depicted in great detail.
The geese, however, were incredibly unique as two of them belonged to a completely unknown species. “Artistic licence could account for the differences with modern geese, but artworks from this site have extremely realistic depictions of other birds and mammals,” Romilio explained.
It is believed that two of the three birds that were looking towards the left were white-fronted geese (also called Anser albifrons). These birds are medium-sized and are still present in the Northern Hemisphere and North America. The first and last birds could have either been greylag geese or bean geese.
As for the two birds facing to the right, they looked similar to red-breasted geese (Branta ruficollis) that live in the western part of Europe; however, there is doubt as that species has never been found in Egypt. With so much uncertainty surrounding that species, Romilio compared thirteen visible characteristics from the pictures of the two right-facing birds in the painting to the red-breasted goose species. “
His analysis revealed that there were too many differences so the birds in the painting couldn’t have been red-breasted geese. “This is a highly effective method in identifying species – using quantitative measurements of key bird features – and greatly strengthens the value of the information to zoological and ecological science,” he noted.
So, what species of bird was it? Based on their extended flank plumes, they would have stood out compared to other geese – a feature that hasn’t been identified in modern species, indicating that it is probably extinct. “From a zoological perspective, the Egyptian artwork is the only documentation of this distinctively patterned goose, which appears now to be globally extinct,” Romilio stated. The reasoning behind that specific species going extinct is currently unknown. (Pictures of the painting can be seen here.)
The research was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports where it can be read in full.