The British Museum
- Ancient Egypt
- The tomb-chapel of Nebamun
- Paintings from the Tomb-chapel of Nebamun
- A bottle and a toy: Objects from daily life
- Hunefer, Book of the Dead
- The Rosetta Stone
- History uncovered in conserving the Rosetta Stone
- Egyptian mummy portraits
- Ancient Egyptian coffin prepared for the Book of the Dead exhibition at the British Museum
- Ancient Egyptian coffin mask conserved for the Book of the Dead exhibition at the British Museum
- An ancient Egyptian scribal palette in the Book of the Dead exhibition at the British Museum
- Ancient Egyptian baboon deity conserved for the Book of the Dead exhibition at the British Museum
- Ancient Egyptian papyrus in the Book of the Dead Exhibition
- Ancient Egyptian coffin panel prepared for the Book of the Dead exhibition at the British Museum
- Gebelein Man: virtual autopsy, exploring a natural mummy from early Egypt
A portrait shows what an individual would have looked like. Ancient Egyptian art did not make much use of portraits, relying on an inscription containing the name and titles of an individual for identification. It was, however, important in Roman art. Portraits were placed in tombs as a memorial of family members.
This type of portrait appeared in Egypt in the first century C.E., and remained popular for around 200 years. Egyptian mummy portraits were placed on the outside of the cartonnage coffin over the head of the individual or were carefully wrapped into the mummy bandages. They were painted on a wooden board at a roughly lifelike scale. It is possible to date some mummies on the basis of the hairstyles, jewelry and clothes worn in the portrait, and to identify members of a family by their physical similarities.
The accuracy of these portraits has often been questioned. Techniques employed by doctors to plan delicate facial surgery have been used to compare the actual appearance of several mummies with their portraits. This has proved that the portrait did indeed show the person as they appeared during life. However, there was some element of artistic license: for example, the mummy of Artimedorus appeared to be much more heavily built than he seemed in his portrait.
Mummy portrait of a man
Most mummy portraits that have survived have unfortunately become separated from the mummies to which they were attached. Because of this we rarely know the identities of the subjects.
The subject of this portrait, painted in encaustic on limewood, appears to be a man in his fifties or sixties of strikingly Roman appearance. He is dressed in a tunic with a violet stripe, or clavus, and a thick folded mantle. The hair is brushed forward and cropped in the style of court portraits of the Trajanic period (98-117 C.E.). Pink has been used to highlight his nose and lips, and dark brown to indicate shading and the contours of the face. The portrait gives the impression of age, authority and austerity. These characteristics were very important in Rome, and are here represented in a very Roman manner.
Mummy portrait of a woman
This portrait is painted in encaustic on limewood. The woman is dressed in a mauve tunic, and a mantle of a darker shade. She wears gold ball earrings and a gold necklace with a pendant crescent and circular terminals. The hair is plaited into a bun at the back of the crown, with snail curls around the brow and at the sides of the head. Her hairstyle, costume and jewelry indicate that she died some time during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero (54-68 C.E.). It has been said that the athletic quality of this portrait is more appropriate to that of a man.
S. Walker and M. Bierbrier, Ancient faces: Mummy portrait of a man(London, The British Museum Press, 1997).
© Trustees of the British Museum
Want to join the conversation?
- In the last paragraph we read that " She wears gold ball earrings and a gold necklace with a pendant crescent and circular terminals."
What is it about the crescent that is such a powerful image to the people of the middle eastern region? We know that the crescent also plays a prominent role later in the arts of the Islamic world.(15 votes)
- That is a very good question! The Woman of the Apocalypse in the book of Revelations stands on a crescent, and some images of the Virgin Mary show her standing on one, so that is yet another use of the crescent by people of that region.
I wonder if it is partly related to female power? Because in that region, where the sun is harsh, the light of the moon would feel gentler -- ? I think the crescent has been associated with goddess religions. And the moon would be depicted as a crescent because the roundness of the full moon would look very much like the solar disk.
I'm speculating here; maybe I will come across something that addresses this very interesting question.(15 votes)
- Generalizations cannot really be made by looking at only 2 mummy portraits, but was there any symbolic / social importance of connected eyebrows?(3 votes)
- why is there not a picture of king tutankaman(1 vote)
- ?? These mummy portraits date to the 1st and 2nd centuries C.E. while Tutankhamun lived ca. 1341 - ca. 1323 BCE.(7 votes)
- how do they know her name and when the portrait was painted(3 votes)
- Archaeologists discover these thing about ancient Egypt, so they have all the data about the mummies and people who were mummified.(1 vote)
- Were these portraits of their faces altered to look more roman, because some of those faces look more roman than egyptian.(2 votes)
- Not sure of your question. "Roman" is not an ethnic or racial descriptor. These portraits were produced in Egypt during the Roman period. They reflect the pluralistic culture and ethnicities of the Roman empire while maintaining traditional Egyptian funereal practices.(2 votes)
- are all these people mummys now(1 vote)
- Which people? The mummies to whom these portraits belong?
If so, then yes, all those mummies are mummies.(1 vote)
- Can you please define cartonnage?(1 vote)
- the material of which many Egyptian mummy cases are made consisting of linen or papyrus glued together in many thicknesses and usually coated with stucco(1 vote)
- how do they know here name and
were do they get the pictures at
where did they find them
how do they survive that long(1 vote)