WASHINGTON — Scientists are getting a clearer picture of how ancient Egyptians painted lifelike portraits that were buried with mummies of the depicted individuals. These paintings sharply departed from Egyptians’ previous, simpler artworks and were among the first examples of modern Western portraits, archaeologist and materials scientist Marc Walton reported February 14 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The “mummy portraits” date to more than 2,000 years ago, when the Roman Empire controlled Egypt.
Three such portraits of Roman-era Egyptians, found more than a century ago at a site called Tebtunis, were created by the same artist, said Walton, of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. Identities of the boy and two men in the portraits are unknown. Separate computerized analyses of colors and shapes in the stylistically similar paintings revealed that brushstrokes of the same width were used to apply the same pigment mixes to different parts of each portrait. All three portraits, for instance, included a purple shoulder sash that the artist painted with a blend of indigo and a red pigment derived from the madder plant.
Many pigments in the portraits probably came from Greece, Walton said. Ancient Greeks’ naturalistic painting style influenced the Egyptians’ switch to portrait painting, he suggested. But the paintings also suggest even more distant influences: Walton’s team traced red lead used in Egyptian pigments to Spain and wood on which the portraits were painted to Central Europe. Egyptians traded over long distances by 3,400 years ago (SN: 1/24/15, p. 8).
Walton plans to study 12 more Egyptian mummy portraits, as well as paintings of women in pink garb and ones of military gods that have also been found in Egyptian tombs.