Mummy portrait of bearded man, encaustic on wood, Royal Museum of Scotland. Excavated in Hawara, Egypt in 1911.

Fayum Mummy Portraits Expose Information About Precise Painting Techniques and Possible Neurological Disorders

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A group of researchers has uncovered telling clues about the underlying surface shapes and colors of 15 Fayum mummy portraits created during the Greco-Roman and Coptic periods in Egypt. Their research has exposed new evidence about how the portraits were painted.

Fayum mummy portraits were popular from the late 1st century BC to the middle of the 3rd century AD. The name of these portraits comes from the Faiyum Basin, Hawara in Egypt because they are most commonly found there. In the Roman Period this place was known as Antinoopolis. Nonetheless, the paintings can be found in many other locations as well

The portraits were painted on wooden boards and later attached to mummies. The most fascinating fact about these portraits is that they were painted during the lifetime of the people whose mummies they were to decorate. The impressive portraits still hold many secrets for researchers.

 Fayum mummy portraits of two women.

 Fayum mummy portraits of two women. (Left: Public Domain and Right: Public Domain )

According to Marc Walton, the senior scientist at the Northwestern University-Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts (NU-ACCESS), it is very likely that at least three of the fifteen researched portraits in the recent study came from the same workshop – and potentially even from the same hand.

Three mummy portraits which were probably made by the same artist. From the left: 'Portrait of a Boy,'; & 'Portrait of a Young Man,' and ;'Portrait of a Bearded Man.'

Three mummy portraits which were probably made by the same artist. From the left: 'Portrait of a Boy,'; & 'Portrait of a Young Man,' and ;'Portrait of a Bearded Man.' ( Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley )

The researchers told the International Business Times that the methods used were the first to adopt modern-day painting style. The portraits were excavated more than 100 years ago at the site of Tebtunis (now Umm el-Breigat) in the Fayum region of Egypt. The details of the nearly two-year investigation were presented on Sunday, February 14.

The research employed very sophisticated scientific tools to investigate details of the materials and methods used by the artists two thousand years ago. Walton told Phys.org:

“Our materials analysis provides a fresh and rich archaeological context for the Tebtunis portraits, reflecting the international perspective of these ancient Egyptians. For example, we found that the iron-earth pigments most likely came from Keos in Greece, the red lead from Spain and the wood substrate on which the portraits are painted came from central Europe. We also know the painters used Egyptian blue in an unusual way to broaden their spectrum of hues.”

The research examined the pigments used by the artists and the order the paints were applied to different regions of the portraits, as well as the sources of materials and the style of brushstrokes used. According to the TheStatesman.com, the details of the pigments and their distribution led the researchers to conclude that three of the paintings likely came from the same workshop and may have even been painted by the same artist. It is believed that this discovery will help art historians, conservators and scientists to understand how painting techniques evolved.

Previously, a study of Fayum mummy portraits revealed unexpected information about neurological issues in ancient times. In 2001, the Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery & Psychiatry published the results of an analysis by O. Appenzeller, J. M. Stevens, R. Kruszynski, and S. Walker. In their article “ Neurology in ancient faces ” (PDF) they examined 200 mummy portraits painted in color at the beginning of the first millennium. They used clinical paleoneurology in their study, a method which is very rarely used in research connected with ancient forensic archaeology.

The recognition of neurological diseases in ancient people was made possible by scrutinizing the Fayum mummy portraits. The researchers measured thirty-two skulls excavated in Hawara with portraits suggesting the possibility of a neurological disease.

By analyzing of the specific way white paint was applied in the eyes of the portraits it was discovered that some of the people probably had focal epilepsy, hemiplegic migraine, and autonomic nervous system dysfunction. The examination of the mummies confirmed that two people had progressive facial hemiatrophy (Parry-Romberg syndrome), three had deviations of the visual axes (tropia) and one had oval pupils (corectopia).

Deviation of visual axes of the eyes (tropia) and corectopia in mummy portraits. A woman in a blue tunic on the left to show, in this accomplished portrait, the lifelike quality of the eyes. Esotropia and slight exophthalmus-left (upper right) in an elderly woman.

Deviation of visual axes of the eyes (tropia) and corectopia in mummy portraits. A woman in a blue tunic on the left to show, in this accomplished portrait, the lifelike quality of the eyes. Esotropia and slight exophthalmus-left (upper right) in an elderly woman. Esotropia-left and bilateral oval pupils (corectopia) in a middle aged woman (middle right). Exotropia-right (lower right) in a portrait of a boy. ( O Appenzeller et al .)

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