Modern tech unravels mysteries of Egyptian mummy portraits

A new exhibit explores the science of ancient funeral paintings

Hibbard mummy

MUMMY MYSTERY  The Hibbard mummy, now on display at Northwestern University, holds the body of a girl estimated to be 5 years old at death. Recent analyses might help reveal a cause of death.

Courtesy Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, IL

Everybody’s a critic. Even back in second century Egypt.

While digging in Tebtunis in northern Egypt in the winter of 1899–1900, British archaeologists stumbled upon portraits of affluent Greco-Egyptians placed over the faces of mummies. One grave contained an ink and chalk sketch, a bit larger than a standard sheet of printer paper, of a woman from around the years A.D. 140 to 160. The sketch includes directions from an unidentified source to the artist to paint the “eyes softer.”

That ancient critique is now the name of a temporary exhibit at Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art in Evanston, Ill. “Paint the Eyes Softer: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt” features the sketch, along with six more intact or nearly intact Egyptian funeral portraits, one still attached to its mummy. All were discovered more than a century ago but recently examined using modern scientific tools.

The relics from this time period don’t resemble your granddad’s King Tut. Egyptians applied a new approach to mummies during the Roman-dominated era from the first through third centuries A.D. These mummies featured portraits of the deceased held in place by the linens wrapping the dead. Such paintings served as a prelude to other panel paintings in the ancient world, including Christian icons.

Excavators separated the portraits from the mummies, which were supposed to have been together for eternity, says Essi Rönkkö, Block’s curatorial associate for special projects. Five of the portraits, on loan along with other materials from the University of California, Berkeley, are highlighted in one of the exhibit’s showcases: two men, a boy and two women. These lifelike paintings of well-dressed people in Roman attire stare back at you through the mists of time. The soulful (soft?) eyes draw you in and make you wonder who these people were and what their lives were like.

The exhibit uses a series of labels, some with photographs, to trace the discovery of the portraits and explain Egyptian funerary techniques. Two mummy masks from the mid-third century B.C. to the mid-second century A.D. are also on display. The masks present an idealized image of the deceased in repose, ready for the afterlife.

Funerary portraits discovered from ancient Egypt (one at left) covered the faces of mummies. A sketch (right) on the back of another portrait has instructions in Greek to paint the “eyes softer.” BOTH: Courtesy of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology and the Regents of the University of California

Northwestern students and researchers last fall applied modern analytical tools from archaeology, medicine and molecular biology to the portraits. The studies reveal that two types of wood were used in the portraits. Most panels were made from sycamore fig — a material native to Africa, including Egypt. A thin panel on one portrait was made from limewood found only in Central Europe. Ingredients for pigments were also imported, from Spain and Greece. The sources point to complex and far-reaching trade patterns.

A computerized analysis of brushstrokes and paints suggests the male portraits came from the same workshop. All three wore a purple shoulder sash created with a blend of indigo and a red pigment extracted from the madder plant (SN: 3/5/16, p. 17).

Tucked away in a corner is another exhibit highlight: an intact mummy with a still-attached portrait of a girl, estimated to be 5 years old at the time she died. Low lighting protects the mummy and, along with solemn music, provides a respectful tone. Known as the Hibbard mummy, the girl’s body was found in Hawara, not far from Tebtunis.

The new research reveals that salts were harming the underlying linen as embedded soil reacted to changes in temperature and humidity. CT scanning reveals no blunt force trauma or other cause of death. The mummy was the first ever to be brought to the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, where it was exposed to synchrotron radiation from the lab’s Advanced Photon Source. High-energy X-ray beams could offer new information about the mummy.

The exhibit points out the unknowns and unknowables. Were the paintings idealized or realistic? Were they displayed before or only after the person died?

And finally, what do the instructions for “softer” eyes mean? “It could be shorthand for a specific style or linguistic meaning we no longer have access to,” Rönkkö says. “Perhaps it serves as a metaphor for the many aspects about these objects that — even with the latest technology at our fingertips — remain a mystery.

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