Scientists Examined These Portraits Of Egyptian Mummies And Uncovered Their 2,000-Year-Old Secrets

Archaeologists working in Egypt uncovered a stunning collection of mummy portraits in 1899. Eerily familiar, the works are likenesses of the dead attached to their mummified remains, and they were created when the Romans held sway in Egypt some 2,000 years ago. The portraits had languished in storage ever since their discovery. But by 2015 scientists and conservators were re-evaluating these paintings – and they’ve made some startling findings.

These depictions, painted on wooden panels and also known as Fayum portraits, were faithful representations of people who had died. The panels were been added to the mummy with the bindings and placed just over the face of the deceased. The practice was used during the time when the Roman Empire included Egypt.

The Romans incorporated Egypt into their empire in 30 B.C. After defeating his enemy Mark Antony, Octavian, later the Emperor Augustus, seized Egypt from the pharaoh of the day, Cleopatra. She and Mark Antony had been lovers. What had been the Ptolemaic Kingdom now became a possession of Rome.

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And the Roman province of Egypt was a splendid possession indeed. When the Romans conquered it, the country already had a sophisticated economy and culture. Only Italy was wealthier, and Egypt became a key supplier of grain for the Romans. The Egyptian port and capital of Alexandria was second only to Rome itself in size and importance.

There are some 900 mummy portraits held in collections around the world. Many of these were discovered at the mass burial ground at Fayum, located around 60 miles southwest of Cairo. Thanks to Egypt’s high temperatures and lack of humidity, the depictions are often surprisingly well-preserved, with colors still vivid.

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The Roman tradition of mummy paintings in Egypt was preceded by an earlier Egyptian practice of cartonnage. This was a technique of painting on to the casket or coffin in which a mummy was placed. Layers of papyrus or linen were covered in plaster and a likeness was painted on to them, creating an effect rather like a death mask.

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But this tradition of mummy painting was a distinctly Roman introduction, although it may well have been influenced by previous Egyptian practices. Examples of mummy art were first discovered in the modern era by an Italian, Pietro della Valle, in 1615. He found mummy paintings at the Saqqara-Memphis archaeological site. He brought some back to Europe and they are now kept at the Albertinum Museum in Dresden, Germany.

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It was not until the early 1800s that more discoveries were made and began to find their way back into various European collections. The works’ final destinations included the British Museum in London and the Louvre in Paris. There then followed another hiatus in the discoveries of mummy portraits.

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Then in the late 19th century, serious archaeologists such as Brit Flinders Petrie turned their attention to mummy portraits. Petrie discovered 81 mummy portraits in a Roman necropolis at Hawara in 1887. Displayed in London, the works created a sensation, attracting sizeable crowds.

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A further archaeological expedition that ran from December 1899 to April 1900 at Tebtunis uncovered 11 more mummy portraits, as well as four panel painting fragments. And those are the 15 pieces that scientists have studied anew recently. The latest technology has uncovered new revelations about the ancient artifacts.

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The 15 pieces were discovered by two British archaeologists, Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt. The pair are best known for their discovery of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. These are a cache of documents from the third century B.C. through to the Roman-Egyptian period, found by the men in an ancient trash heap. The documents include everything from private letters to horoscopes.

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The two men found the paintings at a site called Tebtunis, today occupied by a modern town called Umm el-Breigat. This lies in Egypt’s Fayum region where so many mummy portraits had been previously uncovered from ancient Roman-Egyptian burials. These panels and mummy portraits are now held at the Hearst Museum at the University of California, Berkeley.

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And more than 100 years after the panels were discovered, they were for the first time undergoing a thorough scientific evaluation. The team of scientists and conservators conducting the work came from Northwestern University and the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology. Their aim was to learn about the techniques and materials used in creating the paintings.

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The team spent two years studying the artworks using non-invasive methods to avoid damaging these priceless objects. Investigation tools included the use of two types of x-ray technology, diffraction and fluorescence. And the resulting findings are fascinating both in terms of the painting techniques and the materials used.

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One particular finding had the researchers scratching their heads at first. It turned out that six of the 15 pieces had a background layer of blue pigment, something the conservators had not expected to see. Northwestern’s Marc Walton, research associate professor of materials science and engineering, explained the significance of the finding on the university’s website.

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“The discovery changes our understanding of how this particular pigment was used by artists in the second century A.D.. I suspect we will start to find unusual uses of this colorant in a lot of different works of art, such as wall paintings and sculpture,” said Walton, an expert on the use of blue pigment.

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Walton further explained that most painting from the Classical era used only red, yellow, black and white. “When you look at the Tebtunis portraits we studied, that’s all you see, those four colors,” Walton added. “But when we started doing our analysis, all of a sudden we started to see strange occurrences of this blue pigment, which luminesces.”

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And one of the Hearst Museum’s conservators, Jane L. Williams, explained why the artists might have used this blue pigment. “We see how these artists manipulated a small palette of pigments, including this unusual use of Egyptian blue, to create a much broader spectrum of hues,” Williams said.

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This research increased our knowledge about the painting techniques used in these panels. But it also highlighted the extraordinary international trading network that lay behind the artists’ work. “Our materials analysis provides a fresh and rich archaeological context for the Tebtunis portraits, reflecting the international perspective of these ancient Egyptians,” Walton said.

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“For example,” Walton continued, “we found that the iron-earth pigments most likely came from Keos in Greece, the red lead from Spain and the wood substrate on which the portraits are painted came from central Europe.” So these ancient artists had not only mastered sophisticated techniques to create subtle hues, they also sat at the end of a complex supply chain rivaling those we take for granted today.

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