Guides to Fine Arts Like Painting, Designing, Architecture, Sculpture, Photography and More

By Marquita Heath

The Fayum in the north of Egypt is famous for fayum art, or more specifically the mummy portraits, of which there are approximately 900 in existence. Some can still be found upon the mummies from which they were found, although most were removed from the bodies.

This Fayum artwork was painted on wood or cartonnage panels, and wrapped within the bandages over the face of the mummy. The portraits were painted using the encaustic method (wax painting) or tempura although the former are in better condition.

These portraits were first discovered in the late 1880s by Finders Petrie, at the site of Hawara, where he was searching for the Middle Kingdom Labyrinth. Instead he discovered a cemetery, dating to the Roman Period, each body with one of these portraits. Others have since been discovered although they are still primarily from two sites, Hawara and Antinopolis, both in the Fayum.

The Fayum portraits date to the Roman period of Egyptian history, (first century BCE to third century AD), and draw more on Graeco-Roman artistic styles than Egyptian, although the mummies themselves, to which they were attached, were an Egyptian convention, demonstrating a juxtaposition of cultures.

The portraits show both sexes and include adults and children. It is possible to trace fashion trends by examining the clothes, jewellery and hairstyles of these portraits, and some of the accessories can be matched to similar discovered in the archaeological record. However these mummies only represent the very rich, as the quality of the portraits and the process of mummification was not cheap at this time.

Since 1997 scientific methods have been employed to discover more about the people behind the portraits. CT scans were made of the wrapped bodies, as a form of non-invasive research, whereas facial reconstructions were made of some of the skulls which had long been unwrapped. This research shows that the portraits are accurate representations of the bodies beneath, both in appearance as well as age and sex. These findings have been displayed in various museums and some of the reconstructions were finished with similar fashion accessories as the portraits.

It is clear, from the use of modern technology that these portraits are a snapshot into the lives of Roman Egypt, and in particular the multicultural society living in the Fayum. Further research can only improve this knowledge presenting a richer image of life 2000 years ago.

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