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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.

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