Week 10–Faces of the Fayum

Sarah Crum
I’m a freshman at Johns Hopkins (Class of 2019) and am currently undecided in terms my major. I love Archeology and look at this project as a rare and amazing opportunity to connect with the physical remnants of history! Beyond Archeology I love reading, writing, music, food, and my labradoodle Sandy.
At the Walters Art Museum with Dr. Glenn Alan Gates (second from right) and Greg Bailey (far right)

At the Walters Art Museum with Dr. Glenn Alan Gates (second from right) and Greg Bailey (far right)

This week, the class ventured to The Walters Art Museum where we met with conservation scientist Dr. Glenn Alan Gates and objects conservator Greg Bailey.  Through a presentation given by Dr. Gates, our class learned a little more about the history surrounding mummy portraits, some common trends discovered through examining the portraits, and the research on the five portraits in The Walters’ collection. Both The Walters’ team and our class will contribute the research done on these mummy portraits to the APPEAR project, so our meeting was a good way to discuss similarities in our findings and possible areas of study for the future.

Through the presentation, we learned that within the approximately 1,000 known mummy portraits, the portraits are diverse not only in terms of their contemporary context (only about 100 portraits are still attached to a mummy), but also in the material used to construct these works of art (while most portraits are painted on wood, some exist on shrouds). Some paintings, though stylistically similar, have no association with funerary art. In examining what is similar about the two portraits we are researching and the portraits at the Walters, we learned that both groups have portraits with Egyptian blue mixed with lead white in backgrounds that appear gray in normal light. In our own search for Egyptian blue, we had been a bit puzzled that the blue flecks we see in the purple stripes on the tunics that did not luminesce in visible light as expected.  Is this evidence of the use of indigo in these areas instead of Egyptian blue? For now it appears this phenomenon will remain a mystery, but Gates suggested, at the very least, we put a camera to the microscope and document it.  We also found that madder lake (or possibly kermes) seems to be present on portraits in both collections, and is sometimes used as a highlight under the eyes of the faces.  Gates mentioned that that researchers at the UCLA/Getty Conservation Training program have actually developed specific camera filters that allow the possibility of differentiating between a plant based red (madder lake) and an insect red (kermes), which might tell us which material is actually present here.

Again, something that was beneficial about this meeting was what we learned to go back and look for in our own portraits. This list is extensive and includes things found on the Walters’ portraits that, if found in our portraits as well, could indicate a larger trend. Gates suggested we look for small bubbles in our areas with lead white; we had already seen some bubbling in these areas, which Gates surmised could be explained by the fatty acid content in the beeswax reacting with the carbonates in lead white, releasing carbon dioxide and producing lead soaps.  Additionally, we hope to take a closer look at the back of our portraits as Gates mentioned that we might be able to see score marks from where the wood was originally cut. On the subject of wood, although our wood has not been analyzed, Gates suspects it is linden wood because of our portrait’s thinness, which characteristically tends to cleave well into thin sheets. After we mentioned that Portrait of a Young Man shows some resin (possibly left behind from the original mummy wrappings) on the back, Gates suggested we look for particles of sand caught in the resin as researchers in Catholic University in Belgium are trying to match the sand granules they found in resin to a specific area in the Fayum. He also reminded us to look for possibly two types of black are used in the portraits (bone black and carbon black)—something that we had already noticed in the hair of our two portraits; according to him, we should go back and look at our XRF analyses and search for evidence of phosphorous especially in the areas associated with bone black.

Portrait of a Bearded Man (Walters Art Museum 32.6).  The purple particle was removed from the purple stripe on the far right side of this man's tunic.  Image courtesy of the Walters Art Museum.

Portrait of a Bearded Man (Walters Art Museum 32.6). The purple particle was removed from the purple stripe on the far right side of this man’s tunic. Image courtesy of the Walters Art Museum.

In expanding on his own research, Gates described his work with x-ray fluorescence analyses of the Walters’ portraits.  He found that there appeared to be some specific correlations between chemical elements. One such correlation, was that whenever chromium was present, so too was aluminum, but also iron, sulfur and phosphorous.  Further research that involved Transmission Electron Microscopy work at Boise State University with Dr. Darryl Butt showed that a single purple particle extracted from the stripe of one of the paintings might suggest connections how lake pigments (like madder or kermes) were actually manufactured for use on these portraits.  All that from a single particle less than a hair’s width in cross-section!  We wrapped up our session by looking at two of The Walters’ portraits, the Mummy Portrait of a Woman from Fayum, Egypt and the Mummy Portrait of a Woman. Overall, it was a very exciting and educational week!

8 Responses to Week 10–Faces of the Fayum

  1. It’s really impressive to see how thin the lime wood panel could be and how well much it bends around the mummy, but at the same time how delicate it could be. I can’t imagine how our Portrait of a Man could survive in such relatively good condition. I am very interested in what element we can find in the purple clavus on the Portrait of the Man. In addition, it’s always nice to find out that other portraits share the same characteristics, for example, the bubbly lead white paint. It’s almost the end but I still hope we can find something extraordinary!

  2. I really enjoyed looking at the other portraits at the Walters. It was nice to get a different perspective since we have spent all of our time focusing on our two portraits of the men. It was interesting to see the similarities and differences between all four portraits! Great article Sarah!

  3. Good article Sarah and thanks again to the Walters Art Museum for hosting us! It was really great to get to see two more mummy portraits to compare with. These portraits were surprisingly different from our own. One was in a much more significant state of deterioration which made me feel lucky that ours our in such good condition. Dr. Gates and Mr. Bailey were very informative of both the history behind mummy portraits and their current research. We have documented the areas of blue found on the toga of the Portrait of a Man whether these are Egyptian blue or indigo is still not fully confirmed but I hope that in the future it can be. We haven’t found any bubbly white pigment on the Portrait of a Man but another scan of our RTI images sound help us look for any evidence of this reaction more efficiently.

  4. This was a really interesting article! I like that we had a chance to look at the Walters’ mummy portraits that were out of the galleries. Seeing the similarities within them makes me realize how widespread this technique was within the Fayum. It also makes me wonder how our portraits were preserved so well.

  5. I thought going to the Walters was so interesting. It would have been even more informative if we could have seen the mummy portraits that we on display. I also thought that the necklace that the woman in the portrait was wearing and I wonder if that method of decoration is specific to a certain region or group of artists.

  6. Great post Sarah! The possibility that the bubbling we saw on the Young Man’s website was, in fact, lead soap bubbling in between layers is incredibly intriguing, and I wonder (if we were to do invasive/destructive sampling) if we could see whether the unique texture was actually a textile print or just lead soap bubbling.

  7. Great post! The Walters was a great experience and I feel that our work was confirmed by seeing the things that have been done there. I was particularly interested int he necklace one of the women were wearing in the portrait. I wonder how common that was to have?

  8. Seeing the other portraits only confirmed how much more is left to discover about these portraits. The new information about Chromium in areas of purple pigment is incredible. Hopefully with so many institutions and museums focusing on these portraits as a result of the APPEAR project, more information will be brought to light about these mysterious paintings. The experience at the Walters was definitely beneficial.

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