One unifying thing that people find enjoyable about history is learning about the people who have come before us. We want to feel connected to our ancestors, to understand how they dealt with the trials and tribulations of their times, how wars were started, palaces were built, empires spread – but also the stories of the ordinary person. What was it like to be a farmer in 15th-century India? How did your ancestors go from iron workers to fishermen? What was it like for a woman to give birth in prehistoric times? Images of people from the past are often one of the most evocative ways we can find that human connection that is able to span centuries and completely different worlds. And one fantastic source of images for our ancient ancestors are the Fayum Mummy Portraits.
The ancient Roman and Egyptian empires are well known throughout the world, and are always a popular source of research. Around the first century BC, the empires began to merge as Rome took over administration of Egypt, and from this time on cultural elements from both empires combined, adapted, and melded into something new. The burial of the dead is one place where this cultural shift was seen.
The practice of ancient Egyptians mummifying their dead is perhaps one of the most well-known aspects of the culture. Over time, Greek influence in Egypt increased, including in the region of Faiyum to the west of the Nile, and as the Romans took over there was even more of a melding pot of cultures and religions across Egypt. This inevitably had an impact on burial practices, and thus by the late first century BC the Fayum mummy portraits emerged. By this time, mummification had become much more widespread (it previously having been largely reserved for high-status and noble Egyptians) and so a large portion of the population now practiced it. Although ancient mummies had previously had forms of masks buried with them, the new Roman administration of the country introduced the idea of portrait painting.
Female Portrait Mask, 2nd century AD, Faiyum and Funeral portrait, man with beard, 2nd century AD, Faiyum
The ancient Romans found great importance in portraits of their families, and Roman nobles would display images of their ancestors in their homes. During funeral processions, professional mourners would wear wax masks symbolising deceased family members and this found a resonance with the Egyptians, particularly those in the Faiyum basin which had such a diverse population already. Thus, the Fayum mummy portraits were born.
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The portraits were painted on wooden boards and panels made from a variety of hardwoods such as oak, fig, cypress and citrus in a rectangular shape, although it appears most of the portraits were painted on lime wood. The artist would carefully draw the head or bust of the deceased person on the board and then paint over the top with coloured hot waxes and animal glue tempera (a fast-drying paint made from pigments and usually egg yolk). Sometimes a layer of plaster was placed on the wood before painting begun. This technique allowed for vivid colours that have survived in the millennia since. For some of the wealthier clients, gold leaf was applied to highlight jewellery and wreaths. The deceased was always depicted frontally.
Once completed, the portraits would be placed into the layers of cloth wrapping around the body facing outwards. Most of the portraits that survive show children and young adults, perhaps reflecting a low life expectancy at the time; modern scans of the mummies show that the portraits correspond to the age and sex of the mummy, meaning that they were painted to show the deceased at the time of their death. Whilst mummification had become more widespread across the social classes, not everyone could afford to employ the services of a death portrait painter due to the cost of the materials involved – for example, lime wood was not native to Egypt and had to be imported. As a result, the majority of those buried with a mummy portrait appear to have belonged to members of the civil service, religious dignitaries, and wealthier members of society.
Mummy portrait of a man from Fayum, 80-100 BC and Mummy portrait, Faiyum, unknown date.
Due to the ethnic makeup of the area, many of the mummy portraits are inscribed with Greek names, and some also state the profession or education level of the deceased. Over time, the popularity of the mummy portraits spread across Egypt, but in every place apart from Faiyum previous funerary habits continued to be more popular and prevalent than the mummy portraits. The practice of burial portraits ended by the second half of the third century AD, and whilst it is not quite clear why, it has been suggested it was a mixture of the decline of the Roman Empire leading to financial difficulties, a religious crisis mixed with the rise of Christianity, and a changing social hierarchy in the Roman Empire.
Over time, the mummy portraits were generally lost to history because of the nature of them being entombed or buried with bodies. Although occasional finds cropped up and were talked about – an Italian explorer to Saqqara-Memphis described mummy portraits back in 1615 – it was not until the Victorian explosion in interest in Ancient Egypt that major discoveries were made. During the 19th century, many wealthy westerners became interested in collecting items from antiquity, and it led to a boom in trade out of Egypt (and many other countries), as well as items being acquired through more unsavoury means. From the 1820s, reports increase of people purchasing mummy portraits, but across much of the next few decades finds were generally limited to only a handful of portraits.
It was only in 1887 that an excavation led by British archaeologist Flinders Petrie uncovered a significant group of portraits at Hawara in Faiyum. Here, a Roman necropolis was found which revealed 81 portrait mummies within the first year. Petrie returned across 1910-11 where another 70 were found. Petrie’s excavation remains one of the only examples of a proper scientifically conducted systematic excavation of these mummy portraits and thus provides us with invaluable information.
In total, around 900 mummy portraits are known to survive today, the majority of which were found at Faiyum and hence give them the name Fayum mummy portraits. You can view 76 digitised images of them at WikiArt. Unfortunately, many of the mummy portraits have lost all context of where and when they were found because of the hunger of foreign purchasers in the 19th and 20th centuries leading to underhand and unprofessional means of excavation and selling. This makes it very difficult for historians and archaeologists today to interpret the portraits both as a whole and at an individual level.
One of the Fayum mummy portraits discovered by Petrie in 1911 of unknown date, and Mummy Portrait of a Woman “Isidora”, Ankyronpolis, 100-110 AD.
Despite the problems associated with the excavation of these fascinating portraits, the Fayum mummy portraits remain, in my eyes, an invaluable piece of history. From tracing changing fashions, to learning the occupations and education levels of people who lived 2,000 years ago, to putting individual faces and expressions to people who would otherwise have faded into history, it is hard not to love them. The nature of the portraits mean you are captivated by the eyes of the deceased as they stare out at you across history. I think this makes them very special indeed.
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4 thoughts on “Seeing the Dead: The Fayum Mummy Portraits”
Their eyes are so hypnotic! It’s fascinating to be able to put faces to historical figures, they become so much more personable.
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They are so piercing aren’t they! I really do think it adds such a human touch to the past to see their faces
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