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The Hidden Stories Behind Their Eyes: Unearthing the Secrets of Fayum Mummy Portraits

The Hidden Stories Behind Their Eyes: Unearthing the Secrets of Fayum Mummy Portraits

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The famous Fayum mummy portraits of people who lived in Egypt during the Greco-Roman period contain many secrets and were very important for the dead buried with them. These magnificent portraits were prepared to help people in their afterlife.

The phrase “Fayum mummy portraits” is a modern name given to the realistic portraits dated back to the Coptic Period or the Greco-Roman Period of Egypt, to be more precise between the 1st century BC - 1st century AD. Many examples of these paintings come from the area of the Fayum Basin, Hawara.

Fanciful but inauthentic depiction of some mummies with portraits being found in Saqqara.

Fanciful but inauthentic depiction of some mummies with portraits being found in Saqqara. ( Public Domain )

The style of the paintings is related to local Coptic iconography, which was continued in the Byzantine period as well. The portraits were made on wooden boards or cartonages with the use of tempera or encaustic paintings.  Researchers say that the paintings were usually created before the person’s death, although in some cases it had to be done in a hurry with a dead model.

Many of the earliest known paintings were discovered in 1887 by a famous British researcher - William Flinders Petrie.  Petrie was searching for the entrance to the pyramid of pharaoh Amenemhat III (c. 1855 – 1808 BC). Instead of the structure, he found a huge Roman cemetery.

When the archaeologist started to clean the mummies, he discovered the portraits of people who passed away many centuries earlier. Petrie was overwhelmed. He said: “One was a beautifully drawn head of a girl, in soft gray tints, entirely classical in its style and mode. Another was a young married woman about 25; of a sweet but dignified expression, with beautiful features and a fine complexion. She wears pearl earrings and a gold necklace.”

3rd century mummy portrait of a young woman.

3rd century mummy portrait of a young woman. ( Public Domain )

The People in the Portraits

The number of mummies found with these detailed portraits is impressive. About 900 well-preserved mummies with beautiful and very high quality paintings to their likeness have been found to date. They are parts of museum collections around the world. The analysis of the portraits, and the mummies under them, have allowed researchers to recover several stories about normal people who lived many centuries ago.

During the history of ancient Egypt, the methods and mummification practices changed a few times. Due to the changes in artistic styles and society’s preferences, the methods of preparing people for their eternal afterlife changed too. In the last period of ancient Egypt, there were many people who no longer used traditional burial goods. In place of coffins, which looked similarly to each other, they started to create paintings. The mummification process itself was no longer perfect, but the sands of the desert preserved the necropolis in relatively good shape.

Most of the people who posed for these portraits wanted a glamourous look for their afterlife. They were generally a part of society’s upper class. The details shown by the painters allowed researchers to discover much about clothing, hairstyle, and jewelry fashions in those times. Moreover, the researchers suppose that the burial traditions of this society were a mixture of the Egyptian visions about afterlife with later beliefs. It seems that these kind of burials ended with the rise of Christianity.

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

Mummy portrait of a bearded man, encaustic on wood, Royal Museum of Scotland. Excavated in Hawara, Egypt in 1911. ( Public Domain )

Many of the faces found in Fayum portraits are thought to look more like Greeks than Egyptians. It is known that the Fayum population exploded during the Ptolemaic Period (332 – 30 BC) by the settling of numerous Greek veteran soldiers there. However, this information comes from the Romans, who categorized native people of Egypt as “Egyptians,” and other people as “Greeks.”

Neurological Diseases of Fayum’s People

The portraits from the Fayum necropolis still fascinate researchers. For example, a scientific project led by O. Appenzeller, J. M. Stevens, R. Kruszynski, and S. Walker proved that the portraits can bring much more information to light. They examined 200 color mummy portraits. The researchers used clinical paleoneurology, a method which is very rarely used in research connected with ancient forensic archaeology. With this method, they were able to find out which of the mummified people suffered from neurological diseases.

The ancient artists were so talented that they were able to show the diseases using white paint in the eyes of the people they portrayed. The recognition of neurological diseases 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 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. Esotropia-left and bilateral oval pupils (corectopia) in a middle aged woman (middle right). Exotropia-right (lower right) in a portrait of a boy.

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 .)

Beautiful Faces from the Past

The faces of men, women, and children continue to look with their painted eyes at people around the world. Some of them seem like they want to share something with modern societies. They almost look as if they were messengers from ancient times. Some of them hold favorite items in their hands or present expensive necklaces around their necks. In fact, some of these items were also discovered amongst the bandages.

The Fayum portraits were the last mummy paintings that served as a ticket to the afterlife for the ancient Egyptians. These people believed that they would have the faces on their portraits in their eternal life, but the paintings also became an impressive source for modern researchers about the ancients’ lives and deaths.

Portrait of a man holding a plant, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon.

Portrait of a man holding a plant, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon. ( Public Domain )

Top Image: Detail of a Fayum portrait at the Museo Arqueológico Nacional in Madrid, Spain. Source: CC BY NC SA 2.0

By Natalia Klimczak

References:

Paul Johnson, Cywilizacja Starożytnego Egiptu, 1997.
Lorna Oakes, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Pyramids, Temples & Tombs of Ancient Egypt, 2006.
Kazimierz Michałowski, Nie tylko piramidy, 1966.
Neurology in ancient faces by O. Appenzeller, J.M. Stevens, R. Kruszynski, S. Walker, available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1737287/pdf/v070p00524.pdf

Comments

As an artist I was very surprised to read claims of medical conditions!! THese portraits are stylized portraits. They are extraordinarily realiostic- representational art has made no progress since, they are fantastic, but if you look at a Gainsborough Reynolds, Velasquez or da Vinci portrait you are not being presented with a photograph. Eyes are of paramount importance in relationships and the convention of bi black-lined eyes is a convention, as is reshaping them, just a bit to make them appear more soulful, more attractive IMHO.

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