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

(Read the article on one page)

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 .)

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Top New Stories

The Pylos Combat Agate, an ancient object found in Pylos, Greece and created around 1450 BC.
The discovery of the Pylos Combat Agate in a Mycenaean shaft-grave tomb dating to 1500 BC may be one of the most significant archaeological and artistic finds in decades, perhaps in centuries. The level of artistic sophistication and detail are stunning -- the more so because the piece itself is so small and the level of detail is so incredibly high.

Myths & Legends

Human Origins

Sumerian creation myth
Sumer , or the ‘land of civilized kings’, flourished in Mesopotamia, now modern-day Iraq, around 4500 BC. Sumerians created an advanced civilization with its own system of elaborate language and...

Ancient Places

The public entrance to the Unicorn Cave.
Einhornhöhle, which may be translated as ‘Unicorn Cave’ in English, is a cave located in the Harz, a low mountain range in a highland area Northern Germany. It has been pointed out that the Unicorn Cave is the largest cave in the western Harz that is open to the public.

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article