By Dr. Erin Peters
We often see paintings hung on walls today, so it may be hard to believe ancient Egyptians could walk on them! Many surfaces were painted in ancient Egyptian temples and tombs, even floors. We have a fragment of a painted floor from the Meru-Aten palace/temple at Akhetaten (modern Tell el-Amarna) in the Section of Anthropology’s storage. Amarna was the capital city of the pharaoh Akhenaten and his wife, Nefertiti, who famously changed Egyptian religion from polytheistic – worshiping many gods – to monotheistic – worshiping a single god. Akhenaten and Nefertiti’s single god was the Aten, the sun itself.
Nature was essential to all eras of Egyptian society, but the change to worshiping one natural element heightened this relationship in the Amarna Period. We see this in the art and architecture that survives, like our painted floor pavement. As you can see in the detail, the painting depicts red poppies, a common flower in ancient Egypt. The exquisite interlacing leaves and flowers, along with the visible brush-strokes of the ancient artisan, give the poppies a sense of naturalism characteristic of Akhenaten’s reign.
This naturalism contrasts with art and architecture produced before and after the Amarna Period, like the painting in the Dynasty 19 tomb of Sennedjem at Deir el-Medina. Half of Sennedjem’s tomb is recreated in our Walton Hall of Ancient Egypt. You may be familiar with the scene of Sennedjem and his wife adoring several gods in two rows within a shrine. The other half of the tomb shows Sennedjem and his wife in the Field of Reeds (what we think of as the Afterlife). The fields are surrounded by water and abundant trees and plants, including the mandrake, cornflower, and red poppy in the row at the bottom.
This detail shows rows of mandrakes, cornflowers, and poppies – all are painted in a more stylistic, or abstract way, than the poppies on our Amarna Period floor pavement.
While we see more naturalistic representations in the Amarna Period, floors were painted in all periods – so walking like an Egyptian could often mean walking on paintings!
Erin Peters is joint assistant curator of science and research at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Museum employees are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences working at the museum.