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Researchers are using new scientific methods to investigate how artists in Roman Egypt customized portraits for the dead


Monday, January 24, 2022

Egypt Portrait SpectrumMore than 1,000 mummy portraits, painted on wood panels or cloth shrouds between the first and third centuries A.D., are in museums today. In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, archaeologists unearthed scores of these portraits, primarily at cemeteries in and around the Fayum region of Lower Egypt. Excavators often removed the panels or shrouds from the mummies, discarded the bodies, and sold the portraits to institutions throughout Europe, the United Kingdom, and the United States. As a result, scholars have almost exclusively studied the portraits as works of art divorced from their archaeological and funerary contexts. They have focused their efforts on researching stylistic elements and establishing the identities and ethnicities of the deceased, whose names and biographies rarely survive. Few researchers have investigated how the paintings were made.


Nearly a decade ago, J. Paul Getty Museum antiquities conservator Marie Svoboda launched a project that would use materials science to study mummy portraits in collections around the world. “Because the panels are so well preserved, there is so much evidence of materials still present on them,” says Svoboda. “I’m interested in understanding the portraits in terms of ancient working practices.” To date, she has enlisted colleagues from 49 international institutions to collaborate on a project called APPEAR (Ancient Panel Paintings: Examination, Analysis, and Research).


Egypt MapSvoboda and her colleagues are examining panels using noninvasive techniques such as X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy and broadband spectral imaging, as well as sampling tiny pieces of wood, to identify the types of timber, binding agents, and pigments at the ancient artists’ disposal. Thus far, they have studied one-third of all known mummy portraits. For the first time, scientists can now compare visual elements of the paintings as well as the materials and techniques artists used to create them. “By looking at large numbers of portraits, we can learn something more than from a one-off study,” Svoboda says. Little is known from ancient texts about funerary portrait painters and their practices, and archaeologists have uncovered few traces of painting workshops. By studying what remains on the paintings’ surfaces—and what lies beneath—APPEAR researchers are learning where artists obtained their materials, investigating how economic considerations might have motivated the choices of patrons and painters, and even revealing hidden brushstrokes that offer a glimpse of how artists created their work. In the future, their research may provide insights into regional differences among the portraits and into how people chose to represent themselves in death.

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