AT FACE VALUE
Archaeology|January/February 2022
Researchers are using new scientific methods to investigate how artists in Roman Egypt customized portraits for the dead
Benjamin Leonard

More than 1,000 mummy portraits, painted on wood panels or cloth shrouds between the first and third centuries a.d., are in museums today. In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, archaeologists unearthed scores of these portraits, primarily at cemeteries in and around the Fayum region of Lower Egypt. Excavators often removed the panels or shrouds from the mummies, discarded the bodies, and sold the portraits to institutions throughout Europe, the United Kingdom, and the United States. As a result, scholars have almost exclusively studied the portraits as works of art divorced from their archaeological and funerary contexts. They have focused their efforts on researching stylistic elements and establishing the identities and ethnicities of the deceased, whose names and biographies rarely survive. Few researchers have investigated how the paintings were made.

Nearly a decade ago, J. Paul Getty Museum antiquities conservator Marie Svoboda launched a project that would use materials science to study mummy portraits in collections around the world. “Because the panels are so well preserved, there is so much evidence of materials still present on them,” says Svoboda. “I’m interested in understanding the portraits in terms of ancient working practices.” To date, she has enlisted colleagues from 49 international institutions to collaborate on a project called APPEAR (Ancient Panel Paintings: Examination, Analysis, and Research).

A painting of a woman on lime wood is one of the mummy portraits being studied by researchers using special camera filters under different light wavelengths (left to right: visible, ultraviolet, and infrared) to identify pigments and binding agents.

Svoboda and her colleagues are examining panels using noninvasive techniques such as X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy and broadband spectral imaging, as well as sampling tiny pieces of wood, to identify the types of timber, binding agents, and pigments at the ancient artists’ disposal. Thus far, they have studied one-third of all known mummy portraits. For the first time, scientists can now compare visual elements of the paintings as well as the materials and techniques artists used to create them. “By looking at large numbers of portraits, we can learn something more than from a one-off study,” Svoboda says. Little is known from ancient texts about funerary portrait painters and their practices, and archaeologists have uncovered few traces of painting workshops. By studying what remains on the paintings’ surfaces—and what lies beneath—APPEAR researchers are learning where artists obtained their materials, investigating how economic considerations might have motivated the choices of patrons and painters, and even revealing hidden brushstrokes that offer a glimpse of how artists created their work. In the future, their research may provide insights into regional differences among the portraits and into how people chose to represent themselves in death.

Beginning as early as the mid-third millennium b.c., Egyptians practiced artificial mummification as a way to preserve the bodies of deceased pharaohs and other wealthy individuals and convey them to the afterlife. In addition to being wrapped in cloth, bodies were often encased in elaborately decorated coffins featuring stylized masks. Over the millennia, these funerary traditions persisted, even as an increasingly cosmopolitan Egypt came under the control of foreign powers.

The Ptolemies, a dynasty of Macedonian royals who ruled Egypt from 304 to 30 b.c., when the Romans conquered it, opened new areas of the fertile Fayum for cultivation. As a result, many Greek settlers, who were granted land by the Ptolemies, flocked to the region. “A lot of immigrants came from all over the Greek East, including parts of Asia Minor, Cyprus, and other zones where Ptolemaic influence was strong,” says archaeologist Jennifer Gates-Foster of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Under the Romans, Fayum towns continued to prosper by supplying grain that fed the city of Rome.

After centuries of intermarriage, GrecoEgyptians made up a sizable portion of the Fayum’s population. “The Romans recognized the Fayum as a place that had this older connection to Greek identity,” Gates-Foster says. They established a new citizenship category for people who could demonstrate a certain amount of Greek ancestry, which afforded them favorable tax status and other civic rights.

These changes in Fayum society are reflected in Roman period mummy portraits. “RomanoEgyptian mummy portraits represent a melting pot of cultures,” says Svoboda, noting that they blend the traditional Egyptian practice of mummification with Mediterranean stylistic elements.

In contrast to the more stylized mummy masks of Egypt’s pharaonic period, which remained in vogue in more conservative Upper Egypt, Lower Egyptian portraits from the Roman period are more naturalistic, seemingly individualized depictions of the dead. The linen wrappings containing the body were often painted as well. And while many elite members of Fayum communities chose to have portraits included on their mummies, others opted for different types of burial depending on their personal wishes and financial means. “This is not a form of burial that would have been available to everyone,” Gates-Foster says. “It would certainly have been expensive and required a kind of cultural knowledge and access to craftspeople.”

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