The gilded mummy of Lady Isaious

During W.M. Flinders Petrie’s third season at Hawara, in 1911, his workers continued to unearth huge numbers of Graeco-Roman Period mummies. Most were undecorated and, according to Petrie, they were ‘heaved over by the dozen ever day’. The few mummies with gilded masks or strikingly life-like painted panel portraits were rarely identified by name. One particularly striking lady was labelled in Greek letters at the top of her gilded cartonnage mask. Initially interpreted as ‘Demetria, wife of Icaious’ this is more likely to be a patronymic: Isaious (or Isarous) daughter of Demetrios (Ἰσαι̣οῦς/Ἰσαρ̣οῦς Δημη[τρίου]).

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Lady Isaious dates to the First Century CE, and exemplifies multicultural expectations for eternity among the elite of the Faiyum area of the Graeco-Roman Period. The upper part of the mummy is covered by an elaborately modelled mask; the resulting impression is of the idealised appearance of a Roman lady of high status. The deceased holds a wreath, wears an elaborate coiffure of lightly waved hair and tight corkscrew curls, and has a full face reminiscent of some Ptolemaic ideals. The rich jewellery comprises necklaces set with semi-precious stones and snake bracelets of the sort that harnessed the serpent’s protective power from more ancient contexts. While an obvious signifier of wealth, the use of gold left alludes to the concept of divine flesh being made of gold – and the act of gilding as being a means of protection. Thus, by being provided with scintillating flesh for eternity, the deceased becomes divine in order to successfully reach the afterlife and become one with the immortal gods who dwell there.

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Elsewhere, the mummy is also provided with a rich armour of traditional Pharaonic iconography. On the back and underside of the cartonnage mask are traditional Egyptian motifs. On the outer, mainly red-pigmented shroud, hangs a broad (‘wesekh’) collar. Under this, the sky goddess Nut kneels on the hieroglyphic symbol for gold and extends her wings flanked by scenes of the gods Anubis and Thoth. Beneath, the jackal-headed Anubis appears again tending the mummy of the deceased on a bier – equipped with canopic jars that no one would have used in the Roman Period. Finally, a rather faded libation scene appears; in this and in the scenes that flank the sides of the body, the deceased lady is shown in entirely traditional Pharaonic mode and, far from being ‘blundered’ (in Petrie’s expression), the hieroglyphs in the captions to the scenes are almost all readable. This shows the range of possible representations and styles that might be used in a single funerary composition.

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On the underside of the cartonnage footcase – and thus eternally trampled – are depictions of bound enemies on the soles of the feet. That these are in fact the enemies of the deceased and not generic ‘prisoners’ is stated explicitly by captions in some examples – ‘your enemies under your sandals’ – an adaptation of a standard phrase that accompanies depicted interactions between gods and the Pharaoh in temples: ‘I (the deity) give to you all foreign lands under your sandals.’ In Graeco-Roman times, the trampled enemies may represent a more general metaphor of triumph over death and the resulting attainment of eternal peace. The fact that elements such as footcases appear on both the sculpted and painted-faced mummies points towards a common underlying expectation for the deceased. The traditional opposition in scholarly and popular terminology between ‘portrait’ (a revealing likeness) and a mask (a means of concealing or altering the identity) obscures this close connection. Neither need represent a mimetic portrait as we would understand it today.

Mary Shaw and H Spencer - Isaious

Mary Shaw and Harry Spencer reconstruct the mask of Isaious

When the mummy was discovered, the face of the gilded cartonnage mask was damaged. At Manchester Museum in the 1930s, Egyptologist Mary Shaw and Technician Harry Spencer undertook the ‘reconstruction’ of the mask of Isaious – perhaps with reference to other masks discovered at Hawara. Such ‘cosmetic’ procedures were very common in museums, although rarely acknowledged – improving on the damaged remnants of ancient objects. The desire to (re)create the face of an individual is best known from facial reconstructions based on skulls, but despite claims to scientific objectivity these faces may say more about the expectations of the modern maker than the ancient person.

Fig. 143 Isaious Hawara

Negative showing the mummy of Isaious shortly after excavation, Hawara, 1911

Lady Isaious is one of eight mummies and more than 100 other objects currently in the United States as part of Manchester Museum’s first international touring exhibition, ‘Golden Mummies of Egypt’. The show is at Buffalo Museum of Science for an extended period, and will later open at North Carolina Museum of Art. A book to accompany the exhibition – Golden Mummies of Egypt: Interpreting Identities from the Graeco-Roman Period (Manchester Museum/Nomad Exhibitions) – will be published later this Summer.

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