It is very strange that these days we sometimes hear people appear suddenly to talk nonsense about famous objects in the Egyptian Museum. We have heard stories about the golden mask of Tutankhamun, for example, with some people claiming it is a fake. This of course is completely false.
More recently, an archaeologist from Italy, Francesco Tiradritti, who has been excavating and restoring tomb TT37, the Cenotaph of Harwa, near Thebes on the west bank of the Nile, told the publication Live Science that “Egypt’s Mona Lisa may be fake,” in reference to the ancient Egyptian painting of the Meidum Geese.
The announcement is strange because Tiradritti is working in Egypt and he knows the law which states that any announcement or discovery has to be submitted first to the head of the antiquities department before it can be made public. I do not understand why Tiradritti said what he did without giving prior warning to the Ministry of Antiquities, instead of which he said the painting “may be fake.” Moreover, Tiradritti is an archaeologist and not an art historian, and therefore what he says about art should be questioned.
The painting of the Meidum Geese was found in 1871 in the tomb-chapel of Atet, or Itet, the wife of Prince Nefermaat, who was the son of the 4th Dynasty pharaoh Sneferu. The latter is believed to have ruled Egypt for 54 years and built four pyramids at Sila-Meidum and two in the Dahshur Necropolis.
The first two pyramids were built as step pyramids, but at the end of his reign Sneferu completed the Meidum pyramid as a true pyramid. The tomb of Nefermaat and Atet was built beside Sneferu’s pyramid at Meidum, and the painting of the Meidum Geese was found by an Italian artist called Luigi Vassalli who took the painting from the tomb and gave it to the Egyptian Museum.
In his interview, Tiradritti said that he had studied the painting for several months, and that he believed another painting could be hidden underneath the painting in the museum. However, if this were true this second painting could easily be detected using the new technology.
Tiradritti claimed that the geese shown in the painting were not known in Egypt at the time, with one of them, the bean goose, being from northern Spain, Greece and Turkey, and the other, the red-breasted goose, being from the Aegean coast of Greece and Turkey.
Tiradritti also said that the colours used in the painting, beige and mauve, were not used in Ancient Egypt. I do not fully understand what he said about the cracks in the painting, but I believe it was mostly speculation not backed up by evidence, including his comments about the Geese of Meidum being overpainted on another painting.
Tiradritti said that Vassalli was an artist and a curator at the Bulaq Museum in Cairo at the time and he wondered why Vassalli had not published the discovery. He said he thought Vassalli might have been looking for funding or been under pressure to find objects for the museum.
I think Tiradritti has ignored many things here and has made some shameful comments in doing so. Many scholars who have made discoveries in Egypt never published their work, and I cannot believe that a curator in a museum would produce a fake and put it in the museum simply out of fun. Where were his curatorial colleagues? Where were the people who worked with him at the tomb? How could he have deceived all these people? We should also bear in mind that Egyptologist Auguste Mariette was in charge at the time, and he would have never allowed a fake to enter the Egyptian Museum.
Major ancient Egyptian artworks were discovered at the same time, including the beautiful statues of Rahotep and Nofret, as well as the Sheikh Al-Balad statue. If the painting were fake, its colours would be faded after almost 145 years, but this did not happen, which on the other hand proves that the Meidum geese is the work of Ancient Egypt. The fact is that major authorities like Grebaut, Schafer, Maspero, Rhone and Mariette all authenticated the painting.
Such geese were not known in Ancient Egypt, Tiradritti said. However, he should have looked at the scenes of catching the birds recently found from Sahure’s causeway, and other recently found tombs in Saqqara by the Polish mission. These are the same kind of geese depicted in the same style shown in the Meidum painting. It is as if the artist had imitated the Meidum Geese in his work. We also have scenes from tombs in Abusir and the Saqqara Necropolis that show some 32 kinds of geese.
Tiradritti says the two types of geese shown in the Meidum painting came from Turkey or Greece or other countries, but he does not take the issue of migration into account. He should have looked at the geese in the tomb of Mry-If-Benif, which dates to the 5th Dynasty. This tomb was found by a Polish expedition, and it contains paintings showing images of geese that suggest the Meidum Geese are authentic.
Beige and brown colours are also found in the tombs of Ka-aper and Fetetky in the Abusir Necropolis and also in a tomb that I myself found at Saqqara. Tiradritti should also have read “the Colours of Hetepi” in Abusir: Secrets of the Desert and the Pyramids (Praha 2006, p. 264).
The Meidum Geese painting follows the spirit of the ancient Egyptian artists and also the symmetrical style that they used. Had Vassalli faked the painting, we would not see this spirit so clearly.
And why would Vassalli have faked the painting anyway? Had there been another original underneath, surely he would have stated this and explained the situation.
The painting of the Meidum Geese was found on the northern wall of the tomb-chapel and this is the usual location of hunting scenes in ancient Egyptian tombs. It must be said that there have been many Egyptologists who have made major discoveries and never published their work. The Ancient Egyptians painted many different species of birds in the scenes of catching birds and if Vassalli had the intention to fake a painting he would have chosen a common species and not a rare species!
All of them had their own character, including the Meidum Geese. In this painting, we can see that the artist was free to express his vision but that he also followed the canons of ancient Egyptian art.
I believe that Tiradritti is wrong and that he has made a mistake in announcing his fragile theory. One of these days someone will say that the Great Pyramid of Khufu itself is a fake!