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Discovering Strange Birds in Ancient Paintings | Chris Stimpson | Wondros Podcast EP 213

Originally aired on July 12, 2023

In this episode of Wondros, Jesse and Priscilla with Dr. Christopher Stimpson, a zoologist and archaeozoologist, about his research on ancient Egyptian bird paintings found in a room called “The Green Room” in the ruins of the city of Amarna.

The Green Room is located in the northern palace ruins in Amarna, the capital city built by Pharaoh Akhenaten in the 14th century BCE. It was named by early 20th century excavators for the green painted walls that were found there. Stimpson became interested in studying the bird paintings after corresponding with archaeologist Barry Kemp about excavated bird bones from the Amarna site. Stimpson noticed that there didn’t seem to be any definitive identifications made previously of the bird species depicted in the Green Room paintings.

Using his background in ornithology, Stimpson analyzed the paintings in detail and made identifications of the species portrayed based on distinctive characteristics that were represented. The majority of the identifiable birds appear to be rock pigeons, which prefer cliff habitats rather than the marshes depicted in the paintings. Other species identified include a pied kingfisher, a redback shrike, and a white wagtail.

The prominence of rock pigeons in the paintings is interesting because there is limited archaeological evidence of rock pigeons being widely consumed as food sources at Amarna during the period these paintings were made. However, there is some pictorial evidence that rock pigeons may have been offered as votive offerings to the deity Aten, who was promoted by Akhenaten. Stimpson speculates that the inclusion of rock pigeons in the marsh scenes may be more symbolic, representing wild nature and the surrounding desert cliffs rather than the actual habitat preferences of the birds.

The redback shrike and white wagtail identified in the paintings are migratory species that would have appeared seasonally in the area when the Nile floodwaters receded. This flooding event deposited nutrient rich black silt ideal for agriculture along the Nile banks. Stimpson theorizes that the distinctive markings depicted on these migratory bird species may represent a temporal element, intentionally highlighting this important seasonal period for sowing crops.

Stimpson is careful to emphasize that his interpretations of the bird species and symbolic meaning of their depictions is not definitive. He aimed to make reasonable cases for species identification based on artistic characteristics and considers his perspective an ornithological one meant to complement standard Egyptological analysis.

There is still quite limited context available for interpreting the purpose and overall significance of the Green Room within the palace complex. The room itself likely belonged to royal residents of the palace, potentially being used as living quarters or studio space. But the wall paintings may have been created purely for decorative purposes, with no elaborate symbolic meaning intended.

Stimpson has an interdisciplinary academic background that combines interests in zoology, paleontology, and archaeology. This enables him to utilize methods from all these fields to study ancient human-animal relationships and gain perspective on long-term ecological changes over millennia. His PhD research involved extensive excavation and analysis of bat populations and environmental changes in large cave sites in Borneo spanning 50,000 years. This work allowed Stimpson to reconstruct bat population changes and contextualize the impacts of modern human activities like deforestation and agriculture in Borneo within a deeper time scale.

In general, Stimpson believes that studying the deep past and ancient evidence of human and animal life satisfies human curiosity and helps situate current global environmental and social issues within a much longer framework of hundreds of thousands of years of planetary history. He advocates maintaining an attitude of open curiosity about past ecosystems and life on Earth, even when it may not have immediate applicability to modern research goals or conservation efforts.

Bullet point summary:

What ancient bird paintings were found in the Egyptian ruins at Amarna?

  • Paintings found in “The Green Room” depict species like rock pigeons, a kingfisher, shrike and wagtail

Why did the rock pigeons painted in The Green Room raise questions?

  • Rock pigeons prefer cliff habitats yet were painted in marsh scenes

  • Limited archaeological evidence of pigeons being consumed for food at Amarna

How did Stimpson approach analyzing the bird paintings?

  • Used an ornithological perspective to identify species from artistic characteristics

  • Aimed to complement standard Egyptological analysis

What theory does Stimpson have about symbols on some birds?

  • Markings on migratory birds may represent seasonality and the Nile flood

Why is context limited for interpreting The Green Room paintings?

  • Purpose of the room itself remains unclear

  • Paintings may have been purely decorative

How does Stimpson’s background inform his perspectives?

  • Combining zoology, paleontology and archaeology provides long-term view

  • Studies past ecosystems and human-animal relationships

What is Stimpson’s view on the value of studying the deep past?

  • Satisfies human curiosity and contextualizes modern issues

  • Maintaining curiosity about the world is important