By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
A mummy, a vampire, and Frankenstein’s Monster walk into a bar… and order a classic Hollywood horror trope. Throughout the years, mummies have been cinematic vehicles for fear, leading to a widely held belief that Egyptian mummies were inherently spooky themselves. Immediately, we picture stiffly postured, white, tattered linen dressed bodies coming out of coffins. Pop culture has not been kind to the bulk of this ancient Egyptian practice.
Once we remove the veil of modern entertainment, however, we are left with a complex corpus of material.
The Mummy’s History
Egyptian mummies were first naturally preserved in pit grave burials, due to the desert sand dehydrating the bodies. Intentional mummification started in the 2nd Dynasty (2800 BCE) and continued through the Greek and Roman periods. Bodies were embalmed as a ritual act and dehydrated for preservation, a process that took roughly 40 days in all. After, the mummy was wrapped in linen cloths and placed in a coffin, with a mask or rough sculpture placed over the face.
The tomb of a high-status person would be filled with valuable materials and representations of wealth, which the deceased could take to the afterlife. Coffins and tombs could be very personalized, even bearing the shape of the body itself. Different time periods added various eccentricities, such as specific amulets, tools of embalming, and methods of dehydrating.
The Fayum Mummy Portraits
In Roman Egypt, the ‘mask’ element of the mummy was represented through hyper-realistic and beautiful paintings on planks of wood. These portraits were once attached to the mummies for use in the afterlife, representing a physical and spiritual function.
About 900 of these ‘mummy portraits’ are known at present and have been found across Egypt. Due to the hot dry Egyptian climate, the paintings are very well preserved; often maintaining their brilliant colors, untouched by time’s cruel hand. Most mummy portraits have been discovered in the necropoleis of Faiyum Basin and the Hadrianic Roman city of Antinoopolis. As such, “Faiyum Portraits” is generally used as a stylistic, rather than a geographic, description.
The portraits date to the Imperial Roman era, from the late 1st century BC or the early 1st century AD onwards, and stylistically are not in continuity with other Egyptian works. Instead, the mummy paintings appear to follow the northern shores of the Mediterranean, where such material is less likely to have survived, due to climatic conditions there. Evidence from frescoes, mosaics and other media suggests that the mummy portraits broadly fit within the prevailing Graeco-Roman traditions then dominant around the Mediterranean.
Fayum Mummy Portraits’ Techniques and Materials
The Fayum Mummy Portraits were painted onto flat, hardwood panels and were set into the fabric wrapping of the body.Two types of techniques were used to paint the portraits. The first, wax painting, produced striking colors, large brush-strokes, and sharp contrast. The second technique, tempera paintings, revealed more muted colors with a greater use of tone gradation. Overall, the images produced were incredibly lifelike, with shading, tone, and lighting all used to create realistic (even if idealized) images of human faces.
Fayum Mummy Portraits: People Behind the Masks
Generally, the portraits represent youthful people of considerable wealth or status. C.A.T. scans reveal a correspondence of age and sex between mummy and image, which suggests that the skew of age may be due to the low life expectancy of the time, rather than a custom of depicting a certain age. Portraits include men in military garb, such as a sword belt, and women with gold leaf crowns and intricate hairstyles and jewelry. DNA analysis suggests that the deceased were native Egyptians who had adopted the Roman style of portraiture for their burials, indicating a high level of emulation and integration of Roman culture- a phenomenon more prevalent in the military and upper classes.
Fayum Mummy Portraits’ Issues
While the preservation of these portraits is incredible, questions still linger regarding their importance, use, and creation. Things like who painted them, with what materials and from where, and were they painted during the subject’s life or after, all permeate recent scholarship. Some portraits have been traced, based on their likeness and style, to potentially one workshop, possibly executed by the same painter.
Some of the wood used for the planks has been identified as foreign to Egypt, which would have required the consumer to import the materials from Northern Europe. Red pigments have been traced to southern Spain, and the presence of gold leaf demonstrates not only exceptional wealth, but a highly skilled artistic hand. Still, though, there is much more to be learned.
All of this research helps deepen our understanding of life in Egypt under Roman rule. The Fayum Mummy Portraits offer us an invaluable and striking window to the faces of the time. You probably won’t catch them represented in the next installment of ‘The Mummy,” but they really do humanize the 2000 year difference between us and them.