Today we have a special treat: a painting of six geese from the mastaba tomb of Nefermaat at Meidum. Nefermaat was the eldest son of the first wife of the pharaoh Sneferu (who founded the fourth dynasty– the greatest dynasty of Egypt’s Old Kingdom). As the pharaoh’s oldest son, Nefermaat acted as vizier of Egypt, the prophet of the goddess Bastet, and the bearer of the royal seal. Nefermaat’s own son Hemiunu was the architect of the great pyramids of Egypt!
This extremely beautiful painting was crafted somewhere between 2600 and 2550 BC by an unknown artist or team of artists who carved out the shapes of the geese in a wall and then filled in the hollow outlines with colored paste. For four and a half thousand years, the group of geese has kept its lifelike vibrancy. Discovered by the great French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette in 1871, the masterpiece is now in the Cairo museum. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a reproduction of the painting and their website explains the original context of the piece:
The geese were depicted below a scene showing men trapping birds in a clap net and offering them to the tomb’s owner. While it is not uncommon to find scenes of fowling in the marshes in Old Kingdom tombs, this example is one of the earliest and is notable for the extraordinary quality of the painting. The artist took great care in rendering the colors and textures of the birds’ feathers and even included serrated bills on the two geese bending to graze.
The geese in the painting are commonly known as Egyptian geese (Alopochen aegyptiacus) which are members of the Tadorninae–the shelduck-sheldgoose subfamily (which means they are not exactly geese, taxonomically speaking). Egyptian Geese are 63–73 cm long (25-29 inches) and they range through most of sub-Saharan Africa and up the Nile valley. Domesticated by the ancient Egyptians in the depths of antiquity, the birds were also kept by the Greeks and Romans. There are feral populations in England and the United States (where Egyptophiles keep the fowl as ornamental birds!).