Ancient Egyptian Murals Show Lifelike Doves, Kingfishers, and Other Birds

Archaeologists analyzed some gorgeously detailed paintings from an Amarna palace.

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(Left to right): A presumed rock pigeon, shrike, wagtail, rock pigeon, kingfisher, and another rock pigeon.
(Left to right): A presumed rock pigeon, shrike, wagtail, rock pigeon, kingfisher, and another rock pigeon.
Photo: Stimpson et al., Antiquity 2022

Researchers examined the wall paintings from a palace at Amarna, an Ancient Egyptian capital, and managed to identify some of the animals in the artworks.

Technically, the research team looked at 20th-century recreations of the wall paintings, which are from the Green Room of Amarna’s North Palace. The paintings depict a range of bird species, which until now were not taxonomically identified. The team’s research is published in the journal Antiquity.

The wall paintings were discovered at Amarna in the 1920s, and Nina de Garis Davies produced facsimiles of them (she and her husband, Norman, created many copies of Egyptian art.) Amarna is perhaps most famously known as the capital of Akhenaten, Tutankhamun’s father, who broke with tradition by forsaking the old gods for one deity, the sun god Aten. Tutankhamun later reversed this breach in protocol.

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The ancient city of Amarna.
The ancient city of Amarna.
Image: Wikimedia Commons

According to the study authors, the Green Room paintings are “some of the most skillfully rendered and naturalistic images of birds known from Dynastic Egypt.” Indeed, the likenesses depicted in the facsimile paintings are unlike most Ancient Egyptian artworks you’ve probably seen.

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The animal renderings are exceptionally lifelike—so much so that the researchers identified specific species that presumably lived in the region some 3,300 years ago. The pied kingfisher (Ceryle rudis), the rock pigeon (Columba livia), and palm doves (Streptopelia senegalensis) were all identifiable. Another bird may have been a reddish turtle dove or a shrike.

The rock pigeons were depicted amidst papyrus, though (per their name) the animals are not traditionally associated with wetland habitats. The researchers consider the possibility that the animals may have lived in more varied habitats than previously believed—though, they note, it may just be a “fanciful” depiction of the birds.

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Rock pigeons in the facsimile paintings.
Rock pigeons in the facsimile paintings.
Image: Stimpson et al., Antiquity 2022

Unfortunately, the original paintings no longer exist. An attempt to preserve the panels on which they’re painted “discolored and darkened” the work, the researchers wrote.

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“The only way to have preserved them would have been to rebury the rooms in sand,” co-author Barry Kemp, an Egyptologist at the University of Cambridge told Live Science. “The archaeologists chose not to do this, fearing that local people would have damaged them, a fear that was probably exaggerated.”

Some fragments of the originals are today held in Cairo and London, among other cities. But for research purposes, the facsimiles are the best representations scientists have for birdwatching in the distant past.

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