Tag Archives: mummy portraits

Re-Framing Petrie: Of Skulls, Faces and Time

William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) took a particular interest in the human face. A significant number of important finds from three seasons of excavations he directed at the site of Hawara were exported to Britain and acquired by Manchester Museum. Many currently form part of our Golden Mummies of Egypt touring exhibition, which – along with an accompanying book – aims to highlight the long shadows cast by Petrie’s evaluations.

Of the discovery of the so-called ‘Faiyum portrait’ mummies at Hawara, Petrie remarked in his journal that it a was ‘a great point anthropologically to have skulls of persons whose living appearance as to colour and feature is preserved to us by the portraits’. He was keen to match the exposed skulls of mummies with their associated panel painting in the apparent hope of something like facial reconstruction, and he was ruthless in his quest. In February 1888, Petrie records removing a cracked wooden panel painting from the wrapped body of a woman: ‘her mummy was not in very good condition as to the wrappings, so I secured her skull … and abandoned the rest’.

Petrie assumed – like most commentators after him – that the panel paintings represented a mimetic likeness, depicting the deceased as they had been in the prime of life. These ‘portraits’ remain popular with museum visitors in part because of their humanity, but also because of their technique and the apparently timeless illusion created by which observers are reminded of people they know today.

Detail of Alma-Tadema’s ‘Love’s Jewelled Fetter’ (1895)

The chance find of what Petrie referred to as an ‘Oxford frame’ – a design that now appears rather twee but which was popular in Victorian England – led him to assume that ‘portraits’ may have once hung in domestic settings. Here was a very clear case of an interpretation of ancient material rooted in modern experience of objects, and of observing images. A visitor to Petrie’s 1888 Summer exhibition of finds from Hawara was the Dutch painter Laurence Alma-Tadema, whose 1895 painting ‘Love’s Jewelled Fetter’ imagines a panel painting in just such an ‘living’ context.

The painted-during-life theory would not, however, explain the significant number of children and young people who could not yet have been considered at the height of their powers or influence when they died. One panel painting in the Manchester collection – one of only around 100 still attached to the mummy – represents a young man with gilding added to laurels in his hair and between his lips, motifs of divinity. Recent re-examination of the CT scan of the mummy suggests that the individual within the wrapping – who indeed only seems to have reached his later teenage years, was markedly obese. This would rather seem to contradict the slim young man whose face is painted on the panel; idealisation depends of the ideals of the people responsible for effecting it.

Mummy of a young man, with gilding in laurel and between lips (Acc. no. 1768)

Petrie’s fascination with matching skulls with mummy masks is perhaps most eerily illustrated by the discovery of a skull and an associated painted plaster mummy mask during Egypt Exploration Fund excavations at Diospolis Parva (now both in the British Museum). A photo in EES archives show’s Petrie’s apparent experiments with photography to superimpose images of both skull and mask together, perhaps in attempt to ‘prove’ a match. Similar assumed affinities are the basis of much facial reconstruction today, a ‘science’ developed in part at Manchester Museum. Yet, for me, none are to be seriously believed, at least not from the perspective of Egyptian conceptions of the eternal image suitable for the afterlife.

Skull and mummy mask superimposed. Image: Egypt Exploration Society archive

Insofar as it is a matter of elite record at different periods, the ancient Egyptians conceptualised two types of time. Neheh-time – the cyclical movement of night and day, of seasons and years, and Djet-time – the linear stretch of time, the time of monuments, hieroglyphs, and mummies. Things that exist in the latter dimension are eternal and in emulation of the gods.  Pharaonic statuary and mummy masks were conceived to exist in Djet-time. The do not show people as they were, subject to the cycles of life we all face – but eternal beings able to exist into everlastingness, rubbing shoulders with immortal gods, permanently memorialised – a timelessness that may in part explain their popularity today.

Based on his writings, Petrie (and many others before and since) were not aware of this distinction. In his 1912 eugenicist book Revolutions of Civilization, published at the close of his third and final Hawara season, Petrie asserted that sculpture could be used as the basis for a comparison between civilizations, because ‘it is available over so long a period, in so many countries, and so readily presented to the mind, that it may be well to begin with that as a standard subject for comparison, and afterwards look at other activities’; for him, sculpture was ‘the definite test’. Such confidence in the readable ‘truth’ of ancient images was well-established for Petrie. He had previously been funded by the British Association for the Advancement of Science and prominent eugenicist Francis Galton to record the ‘Racial Types’ represented on Theban monuments, a project rooted in colonial anxieties about the ‘other’ and predicated on the assumption that such representations were crafted to reflect some sort of objective, observed reality – rather than the stylised, subjective, ‘hieroglyphic’ image-world of Pharaonic Egypt.

Cast from Petrie’s ‘Racial Type’ series, now in Manchester Museum

This representationalist approach was marshalled by Petrie to further his (somewhat confused) arguments about the advancement of civilisation through migrations of people – but warns of the need to prevent such ‘racial mixing’ in future. Petrie concludes Revolutions with: ‘Yet if the view becomes readily grasped, that the source of every civilisation has lain in race mixture, it may be that eugenics will, in some future civilisation, carefully segregate fine races, and prohibit continual mixture, until they have a distinct type, which will start a new civilisation when transplanted. The future progress of man may depend as much on isolation to establish a type, as of fusion of types when established.’

While the explicitly racist agenda inherent in this discussion is clearly repugnant, Petrie’s insistence in the veracity of Egyptian sculpture remains persistent in some assessments of Egyptian statuary, and particularly in the panel paintings from Graeco-Roman mummies. The need to tie images to the depiction of real people say much more about the cultural anxieties of modern commentators than it does the skill of ancient artisans.

Some of these issues are discussed more extensively in a new book, Golden Mummies of Egypt. Interpreting Identities from the Graeco-Roman Period (Manchester Museum and Nomad Exhibition, Glasgow, 2020) now available from the Manchester Museum shop.

Leave a comment

Filed under Egyptian mummies

Exhibition brochure for ‘Faces and Voices’ now available

The exhibition ‘Faces and Voices’ opens at the John Rylands Library at Deansgate on Thursday – and features 10 of our painted mummy portraits from Roman Egypt.

Exhibition Brochure.

Leave a comment

Filed under Egypt events

Curator’s Diary 10/7/12: Pagans, Christians and Muslims – Egypt in the First Millennium AD

The Egyptian god Bes dressed as a Roman soldier (Acc. no. 11244)

The Egyptian god Bes dressed as a Roman soldier (Acc. no. 11244) © Paul Cliff

I have just returned from the Annual Sackler Egyptology Colloquium at the British Museum, this year on the theme of Pagans, Christians and Muslims: Egypt in the First Millennium AD. Out of a total of around 16,000 objects, the Manchester Museum’s Egypt and Sudan collection contains approximately 1500 from this period. Along with most other museums, this material has in the past been over-shadowed by our more well-known Pharaonic material. The colloquium gave an insight into the vibrancy of Egyptian culture at this time – highlighting aspects of both significant change and of continuity. It was particularly informative to hear presentations about the archaeological context of some of our objects (from Late Antique sites such as Oxyrhynchus and Antinoopolis), and types of objects that feature in our collection, such as textiles and glass.

The colloquium also provided a chance to present an overview of our First Millennium AD collection to other curators. Along with colleagues Roberta Mazza and Frances Pritchard, it was an excellent opportunity to highlight the strength and diversity of collections held by the University of Manchester. Our collection of Roman mummy masks and portraits are relatively well-known. The role of collectors in Manchester (‘Cotton-opolis’), and the North West of England generally, in gathering post-pharaonic textiles was rightly emphasised.

Many objects of First Millennium AD date will be used in our new Ancient Worlds galleries to illustrate Roman, Christian and early Islamic life in Egypt and Sudan. In the meantime, our Roman mummy portraits will be part of an exhibition entitled Face and Voices, which opens at the John Rylands Library on 19th July.

1 Comment

Filed under Curator's Diary, Egypt events

Object biography #5: A double-sided painted mummy portrait (Acc. No. 5381)

Acc. no. 5381 © Paul Cliff

Acc. no. 5381 © Paul Cliff

This delicate wooden panel (41 x 32.5 cm) is one of 13 painted mummy portraits in the Manchester Museum. Such panel portraits were produced during the Roman Period (c. 55-220 AD) and are amongst the most evocative images to have come from Egypt. Most were painted using an encaustic method, in which pigment is mixed with hot wax and applied directly onto the surface of thin wooden panels. The panels were attached over the head of the mummy, held in place with bandages around each edge. Whether they were painted during life, and if they were displayed prior to being attached to the mummy, has caused much debate.

The practice of creating portraits developed out of the Pharaonic tradition of covering the head of the mummy with an idealised image of the deceased. Portrait painting had its roots in Roman traditions, and the portrait panels are the result of cross-fertilisation in the burial customs of Egypt’s multicultural society at this time. Painted portraits are attested at sites across Roman Egypt. Most are, however, associated with Hawara, a site in the Faiyum, from where the present example derives. The panels are often referred to as ‘Faiyum portraits’ because W.M. Flinders Petrie discovered over 700 examples in the region.

Acc. no. 5381 - reverse © Paul Cliff

Acc. no. 5381 – reverse © Paul Cliff

Unusually, this example bears an image on both sides. On one is painted the head and shoulders of a youthful man with a coiffure fashionable during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD), and a rougher (partially erased?) sketch on the reverse perhaps represents a more mature version of the same man. A further panel (Acc. No. 5380) was found broken and bound within the mummy’s wrappings. This may depict the same man, but his hairstyle makes it more likely this painting adtes to the reign of Trajan (98-117 AD). Here the anonymous subject is shown with a bare chest – indicating athletic vigour, and perhaps also associated with emergence from cultic initiation. It may be suggested that each depiction was intended to represent a different aspect of the deceased’s identity, which could potentially survive by being enclosed within the individual’s burial.

Acc. no. 5380. Found broken and wrapped within the bandages of the same mummy as 5381  © Paul Cliff

Acc. no. 5380. Found broken and wrapped within the bandages of the same mummy as 5381 © Paul Cliff

Interestingly, once Petrie’s Faiyum portraits arrived in London – in most cases detached from the mummies they once covered – they were exhibited not in the British Museum along with other antiquities, but in the National Portrait Gallery. So evocative were these painted panels that they were valued in the same way as more modern, Western art. There is even circumstantial evidence that this exhibition of the portraits was seen by Oscar Wilde, and that the striking depictions of several handsome young men inspired the novel ‘A Picture of Dorian Gray’.  

This illustrates rather well how Egyptian art – albeit from the Roman Period – can be divorced from its original context and reinterpreted in a new light. Between July and September, 10 of our painted portraits – including 5380 and 5381 – will be shown together for the first time at the John Rylands Library in Deansgate, along with contemporary papyri from the Rylands collection. The ‘Faces and Voices’ exhibition, curated by Dr. Roberta Mazza from the University’s Ancient History Department, will attempt to recontextualise these images in a unique way. We hope that both this exhibition and the permanent display of 12 of the portraits – including two still attached to mummies, as they were intended to be – will give us an opportunity to explore in greater depth the fascinating biographies of these objects.


Filed under Object biography

Curator’s Diary 7/5/12: CT-scanning the mummies (I)

Mummy 1767 is prepared for CT-scanning

Mummy 1767 is prepared for CT-scanning

Last week I followed in a proud Manchester Museum tradition when I accompanied four of our mummies to the Manchester University Children’s Hospital to be CT-scanned. The use of Computed Tomography (CT) has become an established method of non-invasive investigation of Egyptian human remains. The current work is part of a wider programme of investigation, using state-of-the-art methods, undertaken on the Museum’s Egyptian mummies by Prof. Rosalie David, former Egyptology curator at the Museum and authority on mummy studies, and Prof. Judith Adams, Professor of Diagnostic Radiology at the University of Manchester’s School of Medicine. It was thanks to Judith’s previous work with Rosalie – and continuing interest in mummies – that we were able to book our ‘patients’ in when the scanner was not otherwise in use.

Beneath the bandages: our first glimpse inside 1767

Beneath the bandages: our first glimpse inside 1767

On Wednesday evening we took the first two subjects in the study on the short journey from the Museum over to the hospital. These were the mummies of two Graeco-Roman gentlemen (Acc. nos. 1767 and 1768) which, because of their elaborate wrapping and in-situ portraits, made are ideal candidates for the procedure. Both mummies will feature in the new Ancient Worlds galleries and we were keen to discover something more about these unnamed men – their conditions in life and age at death. It is planned that the CT data will be given to a facial reconstruction specialist – another Manchester-pioneered technique – to compare the faces of the two men with their handsome (and idealised?) painted portraits.

Will the face behind the portrait mask of 1768 match its youthful good looks?

Will the face behind the portrait mask of 1768 match its youthful good looks?

The process of scanning the mummies, and the subsequent generation of a detailed cross-section image of them, was remarkably quick. A group of conservators and technicians from the Museum stood alongside nursing staff in absolute silence as the mummies’ bandages were digitally peeled away. The first mummy (1767) didn’t reveal any immediate surprises, though the scan of the second (1768) showed clearly that the body had been wrapped together with a wooden plank, or mummy board. Graeco-Roman mummy boards are often inscribed with religious texts naming the deceased. If the board is indeed inscribed, then the fine detail of the scan – around 0.6 of a millimetre – ought to make it possible to read the texts on it. This would enable the name to be restored to this otherwise anonymous individual, without the removal of a single bandage. Another interesting observation made at this initial stage was that the brains of both men do not appear to have been removed during mummification. This is characteristic of a focus on the outside appearance of the mummy in the Graeco-Roman period, rather than on internal preservation.

Further analysis will reveal more about the men and their mummification techniques, details of which I will post when they become available. The story of the investigation will feature in the Ancient Worlds galleries and on-line.

Next time: CT-scanning the mummy of Asru and a mummified crocodile – Stay tuned!


Filed under Curator's Diary, Egyptian mummies, Research projects