Week 1–The Ancient Contexts

Alana Surowiec
I am currently a freshman (Class of 2019) interested in History and/or Biology with a minor in Italian. I worked at an archaeological dig-site in my hometown studying an Iroquois encampment. There I was required to use deductive reasoning to help children at that site understand the lives of the Iroquois based on artifacts they uncovered. I am very excited to get to work with these two Roman Egyptian mummy portraits because piecing together the past through knowledge presented by the artifacts intrigues me.

“In short, the specific manner in which Egyptian and Hellenic art interacted as a means of funerary commemoration can be seen not simply as a passive reception of dominant (Greek and Roman) visual forms but as an active and considered response to the multiple cultural factors that shaped selfhood in that time and place.”

                                   – Christina Riggs, “Facing the Dead: Recent Research on the Funerary Art of Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt”. In the American Journal of Archaeology. Vol. 106, No.1 (Jan.2002): 85-101.


Dr. Betsy Bryan talks with the class.

This week we began amassing knowledge of the history behind the Roman Egyptian Mummy portraits. The beginning of any good research project entails a good amount of confusion, so Professor Balachandran led our class discussion by asking what surprised us. Some of these questions included: Why are there so many portraits and why did they die out? Why do tombs contain some people with portraits and others without? What is their value and how did people choose in which ways to fuse the Hellenistic and Egyptian cultures together?

We began a discussion on why these portraits are so valuable, and why they are making such resurgence in the scholarly community. These paintings are extremely important because they are virtually the only ones on wood that survive from antiquity. Moreover, they are naturalistic, individual portraits that give us direct access to how ancient Roman Egyptians portrayed themselves. Like editing a selfie that will be on the Internet forever, people in Roman Egypt fashioned these portraits in order to have a version of themselves live on.

We were visited by Dr. Betsy Bryan, Alexander Badawy Chair of Egyptian Art and Archaeology in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins who discussed the funerary art of Ancient Egypt. Through her engaging lecture we learned about the changes and continuities in the different styles of funerary art, which was heavily influenced by the cultural, social and economic structures of the time.  Dr. Bryan began in the New Kingdom period, and described how around 1400 BCE anthropomorphic coffins with upper head coverings became popular in within the Egyptian court and among the wealthy upper class. These coffins portrayed the owners as idealized, rather generic deities with the same gold for skin and lapis lazuli for hair that they believed their gods possessed. It was not until 1300 BCE that coffins began gaining aspects of everyday fashions for the times. By 1000 BCE the faces were still stylized, but the complexity of the coffins had grown. Coffins had been nested (i.e., coffins rested within coffins) since 1300 BCE, but now they included detailed religious imagery throughout the coffin. In 600 BCE coffins began to be displayed in the home before a person’s death to indicate that person’s wealth and status. Additionally at this time mummy masks began popular; these masks would have been molded to a human face. In 305 BCE, the Ptolemaic period began and the diversity of funerary only grew under Greek rule of Egypt. By the era of Roman rule of Egypt all of these influences converged into a diverse array of funerary arts. The mummy portraits we are studying began at this time and show a clear progression of Egyptian funerary art infused with new Roman influences.

Creating our master list of questions.

Creating our master list of questions.

After Dr. Bryan’s lecture we were all filled with new ideas and we brought out the two portraits again for new inquiries. Together as a class of we came up with some research questions to keep in mind, such as: What types of pigments did they use? What is the significance of the facial hair? What can we tell from the hairstyles and clothing? Can we date these? Are there preparatory drawings underneath the painted images? Where in Egypt were these two gentlemen from? Are these encaustic or tempera paintings? Would someone have sat for these portraits? Just to name a few!

Next class we will dive into the more technical aspects of research for the portraits with these new questions as our guide.

10 Responses to Week 1–The Ancient Contexts

  1. Dr. Bryan was so helpful! She really was a great introduction to the history of ancient Egypt. I really loved how she walked us through chronologically; I feel that I now have a better understanding of the historical context in which we should be looking at our portraits with. Great article!

  2. Awesome article Alana! Like Hannah was saying I think Dr. Bryan did a nice job of giving us some more of the aesthetic developments in respect to Egypt’s progression, but I would like to learn more about historically, what was going on in Roman Egypt and the time right before and after. I’m curious to know more about any uprisings or economic depressions or diseases just because I think it might help explain why the practice of portraiture arose and eventually faded out.

  3. It was really fascinating the differences between New Kingdom Egypt funerary decorations and Roman Egypt funerary traditions. It makes me question the changes in religion that surrounded this artistic shift

  4. Like Sarah has mentioned, I was very impressed to find out that economy actually played a big role on the change of funerary practices, such as from individual coffins to reused coffins and individual or family tombs to communal burials. I wonder if economic factor also contributed to the decision between mummy masks and portraits. Good work Alana!

  5. Dr. Bryan gave a very good overview of the time period before and leading up to the developing of the mummy portraits. Looking back on the questions that we brought up in this first class, I can see how much knowledge we have amassed about our two portraits at this point. It is amazing to see how far we have come and how many of the questions brought up in this blog post we can already answer.

  6. It was so interesting to learn about the shift from idealized to more naturalistic portrayal of Egyptians during their funeral rites. I wonder what caused this shift.

  7. Looking back on Dr. Bryan’s visit, she was an incredible resource that provided us with a historical overview from which we could grow and build upon as researchers. It would be great to have her back in to show her some of our new findings!

  8. Dr. Bryan’s overview of the time period was very helpful. It was interesting to see how much funerary practices changed over time and how closely these changes were linked with economic changes. I was especially interested in learning about how individuals may have belonged to associations in order to help with funerary costs.

  9. Dr. Bryan’s presentation was really an eye-opener to the world of Ancient Egyptian funerary traditions, especially around the time period our portraits’ gentlemen hail from. It was really interesting that, even with our rudimentary knowledge at the time, we were able to put social traditions and contextual information together to infer from the shifting funerary traditions in the Roman Egyptian society that Dr. Bryan showed us, such as the standing coffins later on and the inscriptions. Love the introductory quote as well, great article Alana!

  10. Dr.Bryan’s presentation was a really magnificent introduction into the world of Egyptian funerary practices. I am really humbled to have the opportunity to be introduced in this fashion.

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