The Paint Box is an Egyptian artefact dating from the New Kingdom, around the 19th-20th Dynasty.
This box is unusual since it is made of terracotta ceramic, not wood unlike most. Wood was a luxury in ancient Egypt due to a lack of native trees but it is also organic which is why there are now so few. Most palettes found contain only 5 or 6 pigment cakes which include black, red, white, green and blue – this artefact contains 7 with an extra black pigment and both a dark and light red.
Since the box has retained its pigment cakes, an obvious experiment would be to analyze the pigments to see what exactly they contain. They are made for the typical minerals widely available in ancient Egypt: charcoal for black, hematite for red, a mixture of calcium carbonate and hematite for the lighter red, calcium copper silicate for the fashionable Egyptian Blue, calcium carbonate for white, and yellow ochre for yellow. From this and by comparing the data to other sources, because whilst there are few, there have been other paint boxes with their pigment cakes intact, we could hypothesize on whether or not there was a shortage of a particular ochre or ore. If there is less of that particular pigment it could imply a higher demand for a colour, or a shortage labour or natural resources. Egyptian paintings were highly regulated in the ancient world but there was a constant demand from the priestly hierarchy and the pharaohs for new works for a variety of reasons from decorative to religious and symbolic meaning pigments were always highly sought after.
By looking at the ratio of, for example, calcium carbonate to hematite in the lighter red we can hypothesize on why there was a stronger ratio on one side versus another and whether this changed over time. If it did it could signify unwritten rules concerning the undertaking of art and how demand or resources changed over time.We could also branch out into questions such as looking at if one artist had a signature shade. If this is true we could match the paint box colour to a painting by matching the specific hues to see how much work one artist would have been commissioned. If the colours changed on one fresco even it could mean multiple artists were working on a painting at any one time by looking at the different ratios of components within the pigment.
By looking also at the depth of the palette and the layers of previous pigments we can determine which colours were used the most in this particular palette. Blue was the most esteemed colour in ancient Egypt since it represented the Nile, rebirth and fertility. If a pigment cake had many microscopic, or visible, layers it would imply how much it was used but also the chemical composition could answer an earlier question of whether natural resources fluctuated.
Another experiment we could do is analyse the main compartment which would have held brushes and water. An isotope test could reveal information in the residue on the ceramic, since ceramic is porous, to see where it would have been used. Remains of plant matter may also be retainable but also immunology and chemical analysis may discover whether they mixed the pigments with another matter such as wood gum or egg as an adhesive to the plaster. An experiment with different pigments mixed with natural adhesives or bases would be used to determine which on worked best and thus which one they may have used. The pigment would be mixed with the same amount of matter we want to test and is applied to a wall each under the same conditions to observe which were the most effective and thus which the Egyptian probably used.
After lots of use ceramic also be scratched by coarse brush hairs so an experiment involving different haired brushes could be useful to determine how the actual painting was carried out. Donkey hair, salvadorapersica tree, wood fiber, fine reeds, palm ribs and papyrus could all be tried too see whether they make marks or scratches similar to those in the main compartment. Often also the fibers were chewed or split to separate and fray them. The experiment would be conducted with each hair type without any altering at first and brushed 50 times on a square of untreated terracotta ceramic so it is accurate. Then each will be frayed appropriately for one minute and brushed 50 times to see which scratches match those of the box most closely. The brushes would also be wet and the terracotta ceramic square would be doused in water to mimic the conditions the compartment would have been under and the same amount of force will be applied to each square. The experiment would be a reliable indicator as to what was used to paint with but it could also give an insight into how the brush was held. If the experiment was repeated again to incorporate different forces exerted on the ceramic, and a certain force matched the scratches closely, this could be applied to how much natural pressure is exerted when a brush is held in a certain way.
Decorating the top is a genet, a relative of the mongoose whose natural habitat was tall grasses and shrubs. This is represented on the box by the heavily stylized papyrus thickets on the side. They are common in Morocco but rare in Egypt and the surrounding land so how the sculptor would have known about it is mystery. It is not particularly accurate so is either also heavily stylised or it was based off descriptions or word of mouth. This does, however, suggest how people would have travelled far in the ancient world, including through the Sahara since genets are also common and native to sub-Saharan Africa. The genet on top is very worn down so a test to see how long terracotta ceramic would take to erode after lots of handling and a wet environment could be useful to determine how long the box was in use for. If a piece of terracotta ceramic of the same size was placed in a jar of water for roughly 4 hours a day, if we imply this was a professional painter’s box so will be used a lot, then rubbed vigorously and how long it took to wear was recorded, we could fin out how much the box was used.
Some other pressing questions which we may never be able to answer would be whether or not upper-class women, since the upper class were the only ones who practiced painting for leisure, did any painting? Why is the box decorated if it was used by a commercial painter? Also, why the colours are arranged in that way specifically? Black was used for initial sketches, red for corrections but blue was the most used yet its not in the middle. If blue was needed as the most accessible and we assume the painter was right handed, the water compartment would be placed on the right with the paints on the left. This could be because they write from right to left so he would move from one to the other but why not make the blue the one furthest away (where the yellow is) if the painter was about to raise his brush to paint. Perhaps it was preference or maybe it was an official layout? Like most of the questions asked, we will never truly know but we can try to understand how they went about their daily lives.