Face Time with Ancient Egyptians

September 26, 2016
Mummy Portrait of a Woman with Earrings, Egyptian, Roman Imperial period, c. 130–140 CE. Encaustic on linden wood. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Gift of Dr. Denman W. Ross, 1923.60.

Elizabeth Molacek, the Frederick Randolph Grace Curatorial Fellow in Ancient Art, takes great pleasure in introducing visitors to the three mummy portraits from Roman-period Egypt on display in the Harvard Art Museums’ ancient Egyptian gallery. “Most visitors are surprised that the portraits look so naturalistic,” said Molacek. “They would expect to see this style in Renaissance painting or even modern painting, but not in portraits that date to between the first and fourth century CE.” Produced during Egypt’s period of Roman rule, the paintings were made on thin wooden panels and inserted into mummies’ wrappings. They offer powerful clues about the individuals they depicted. In some cases, the hairstyles, clothing, and jewelry in each portrait can even point to a specific period of creation. But the objects possibly contain many more secrets. Only a small number of the approximately 1,000 extant portraits have ever been the subject of rigorous technical study, according to the J. Paul Getty Trust. Now, curators and conservators around the world are addressing that shortcoming with a collaborative research initiative. The Getty-led project, known as APPEAR (Ancient Panel Paintings: Examination, Analysis and Research), intends to deepen scholarship about the portraits at more than 20 museums, including the Harvard Art Museums and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. As participating institutions research and analyze their own mummy portraits, they are compiling their findings in a shared online database.

Group Effort

The team at the Harvard Art Museums working on the project includes Katherine Eremin, the Patricia Cornwell Senior Conservation Scientist; Kate Smith, associate conservator of paintings; Georgina Rayner, the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Conservation Science; Elizabeth LaDuc, objects conservation fellow; and Molacek.

The researchers have employed a variety of methods to study the five portraits in the museums’ collection. (In addition to the three currently on view, there are two fragmentary works in the museums’ collection.) Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI), which involves photographing an object in raking light from dozens of angles to create a composite image, was one starting point. By revealing details such as tool marks and brushstrokes, the technique offers clues about how the portraits were created. “RTI is very helpful in exaggerating surface texture,” said Smith. “It sometimes allows you to see information you can’t see with the naked eye.”

Conservators and curators were aware that one portrait, Mummy Portrait of a Woman, was a tempera painting, which means the pigment’s binder is typically egg or animal glue, while the other four were encaustic, meaning the binder is wax. Using a piece of specialized equipment called MALDI, Rayner was able to verify that the likely binder used in Mummy Portrait of a Woman was animal glue.

Clues in Wood

Another focus of investigation has been the portraits’ wood supports. Conservators detected a layer of resin underneath the painting Mummy Portrait of a Woman with Earrings, indicating that the wood may have been reused, and thus may be older than the portrait itself. Rayner’s analysis with Fourier transform infrared spectrometry (FTIR) confirmed the presence of resin, and she hopes to identify the resin’s source in future work. Radiocarbon dating is planned to determine the wood’s age.

Fragments of a Mummy Portrait of a Man tells another story. Composed of various thin strips of wood, some with differing brushstrokes, the portrait was known to be a composite. X-ray images, as well as visible induced luminescence imaging, underscored that fact by helping the team distinguish some strips from others. For example, the researchers found that some pieces contained a pigment known as Egyptian blue (which glows under certain light conditions), while others did not—despite their similar appearances under normal light.

The patchwork panel wouldn’t have been created by the original artist(s), the team believes. Instead, individuals might have tried to compensate for or conceal damage that occurred after the object’s removal from the tomb and before it was offered for sale on the art market.

As far as determining the type of wood used in all five paintings, thus far only the wood in Mummy Portrait of a Bearded Man has been identified: Tilia sp., which is commonly known as lime or linden wood. (The British Museum’s Caroline Cartwright, an expert on wood used in mummy portraits, made this identification.) Tilia sp. is a fascinating finding, the team said, because it wouldn’t have been native to Egypt, and therefore would have been imported. Future research will examine the origins of the wood, as well as identify the other four paintings’ wood types and origins.

Promising Future

As the Harvard Art Museums team and other APPEAR participants continue to make discoveries and interpret results, it’s clear that this work may be only the starting point for a flood of new scholarship and critical attention devoted to these objects. Forthcoming research stands to shed more light on the portraits and their context in Roman-period Egypt in ways we can’t even imagine. “Once this new information is integrated with other forms of evidence, this kind of project can lead to so many new questions and re-evaluations of previously held assumptions,” said Molacek.

With a greater understanding of these objects, future visitors to the Harvard Art Museums’ ancient Egyptian gallery might soon encounter the mummy portraits from a different perspective: one of delight and fascination, rather than surprise. 

  • Mummy Portrait of a Woman, Egyptian, Roman Imperial period, c. 200 CE. Tempera on hardwood. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Gift of Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., 1939.111.
    of Mummy Portrait of a Woman, Egyptian, Roman Imperial period, c. 200 CE. Tempera on hardwood. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Gift of Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., 1939.111.