Many of the most vivid portraits from the ancient world are not of emperors, but rather of local elites that lived in Roman Egypt. The dry climate of the province helped to preserve stunning portraits of men, women and children that now occupy museums across the world. But how did they get there?

In 1888, a cache of portraits was found in the Fayum region of Egypt. Prior to 1887, only of few of these precious mummy portraits were known to the modern world and most survived on painted linen shrouds. The excavations undertaken in 1888 and then again in 1911 by a British archaeologist named Flinders Petrie for the Egypt Exploration Fund (based in London and founded in 1882) at the site of Hawara turned up a number of painted mummy portraits with striking features and piercing eyes. Petrie was fascinated by the ancient eyes staring back at him, and the rest of the world would be too.

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Mummy with Cartonnage and Portrait, 50 - 100 CE, Wax tempera and gilding on a wooden panel; linen and encaustic. Now at the Getty Museum.

Petrie is often praised for his systematic archaeological approach and use of documentation while working in Egypt; an approach that would inform the professionalization of the field. The influence of his wife, Hilda Petrie, is less known but was also quite valuable to the dig. The Fund that the Petries worked for had strong ties to the British Museum through its curators and was formulated at the beginning of the British occupation of Egypt (1882-1956).

Petrie noted that only a small number of mummies contained such portraits, but that these pieces of wood and linen had vivid colors painted on them that transmitted portraits of regular people from the ancient world. Petrie and an Austrian businessman named Theodor Graf (1840-1903), who bought many of the portraits taken from the cemeteries at er-Rubayat and elsewhere, together introduced this unique type of portraiture to the rest of western Europe--albeit with the aid of colonialism and loose antiquity acquisition policies. 

The Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

The Pitt Rivers Collection notes of this acquisition record: "On 7 August 1889, General Pitt Rivers purchased from the Reverend Greville John Chester (1830-1892) for £6 a frame containing "portions of mummy portraits from the Fayoum Egypt."

The sale and then display of the portraits within museums predominantly in Europe at that time were part of the "Egyptomania" that gripped the continent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A number of the portraits were immediately placed within the British Museum by Petrie. Egyptomania would spread to the U.S., particularly with the discovery of King Tutankhamen's tomb in 1922 by British archaeologist Howard Carter. The traveling King Tutankhamen exhibit would later bring in thousands of visitors as it travelled across the globe. 

In terms of their creation, many of these portraits transmit a specific type of painting method called encaustic. This is an ancient technique now partially lost to us. It mixed pigments with hot wax, which was then often applied to wood. Encaustic painters worked to make commissioned portraits and practiced the technique particularly between the first and fourth centuries CE. This was when the Roman influence in Egypt was becoming more apparent; however these portraits show a striking blend of the two cultures. 

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Head view of a mummy with cartonnage and portrait now at the Getty Museum. The mummy is a man named Herakleides and dates to the late first century CE.

Some of the most vivid portraits are now housed at the Getty Museum in California. An open-access digital book on the Getty's mummy portraits was re-released online as part of the Getty Open Content program. The book details much of the history of these portraits in the 19th century and recounts the clamor by various museums and private collectors to acquire them.

As art historian David Thompson writes, "These extraordinary Egyptian images produced from Julio-Claudian times through the age of Constantine (the first four centuries A.D.), seem often to have been commissioned while the subject was still alive and displayed in the home. At death, the portrait was inserted into the deceased's mummy wrappings." Many of the portraits are idealized renderings of the deceased prior to their time of death and may not always be an accurate recreation of the subject, but hey, why not use a little ancient photoshop if you have the means?

Interest in the ancient encaustic method inspired American artists such as Jasper Johns to try his hand at it. In 1954 he made his famous work "Flag" which used encaustic methods on fabric and plywood. As the Metropolitan Museum of Art noted in a show on their own collection of mummy portraits, "Mummy portrait panels consisted of a variety of woods — indigenous (sycamore), imported (cedar, pine, fir, cypress, oak), and possibly imported, but also growing in Egypt at the time (lime, fig, and yew). Some portraits are painted on linen stiffened by glue." Johns' painting now sits in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, but originally had an ancient inspiration.

Johns noted about the piece: "One night I dreamed I painted a large American flag, and the next morning I got up and I went out and bought the materials to begin it. And I did. I worked on that painting a long time. It's a very rotten painting—physically rotten—because I began it in house enamel paint, which you paint furniture with, and it wouldn't dry quickly enough. Then I had in my head this idea of something I had read or heard about: wax encaustic. " Johns had seen a number of mummy portraits and wanted to try the method himself--but with a modern twist.

The display of mummy portraits in North America and Europe is extensiveCollectively, there are around 1,000 ancient portraits generally from the Fayum region of Roman Egypt. Yet it is often overlooked exactly how they were found, the colonial history of their acquisition by western museums and the impact these portraits have had on the way we see the people of the ancient world. They are haunting works of art, no doubt, but also demonstrate the diversity, color and cultural fusions of the ancient Mediterranean in a way that is unparalleled. 


Sarah E. Bond is an Assistant Professor of Classics at the University of Iowa. For more on ancient and medieval history, follow her @SarahEBond.