Interpreting the colors in Egyptian Tomb Paintings.

A Pair of Breads from Theban Tomb TT3

These paintings from a tomb in what is now Luxor, Egypt, were painted to help the man for whom the tomb was built survive in the afterlife. These paintings were understood to stand in for real breads. What we do not know is how closely the paintings keep to actual practice. Was any artistic license allowed to the painter. Given that the images were also understood to be breads that offered sustenance in the afterlife, perhaps one question might be, “How far from actual practice was the artist able to push the crust pattern?”

We know from surviving breads that the white color does signify white as we can see a white coating on many breads that survived in tombs. Surviving breads also show very clear poke marks in patterns similar to the patterns of the black dots seen in these paintings, so we know the black dots stand in for small holes.

My experiments suggest the breads were brushed with a white paste, such as wheat starch. I interpret the central oval as an expansion joint from a vertical slash with a knife in a leavened loaf — like in French breads. I interpret the brown lines outlining where the holes were punched into the dough as being just that — something added by the painter, but not found in actual breads.

What interests me about these two breads, and the reason I am illustrating this post with this image, rather than another, is the placement of the white. If these two loaves accurately reflect actual loaves, then, when and how was the white put down?

These paintings offer us a challenge. If these paintings reflect actual practice, then how were they made? At what stage was the color put down?

We know from surviving breads that they often had patterns of dots so the black dots signify holes. Brown signifies space on the crust that is not painted white. I interpret the central oval as a knife slash cut into the loaf when it is formed, but not yet risen.

If the bread had been painted white all over, then the inside of that slash would be brown, which is how it is depicted in other tombs. On the right-hand loaf one sees that it is partly brown. It is possible that these two images are anomalies, breads painted by an artist taking some artistic liberties. But, if we are lucky, trying to recreate these two breads will lead to a technical understanding of how real breads with these patterns were made.

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