Taz Shah
Hi, I’m Taz! I’m a freshman here at Johns Hopkins (Class of 2019), and currently a Neuroscience major in Pre-Med. Egyptology and archaeology have always been secret passions of mine, and I can’t wait to share our discoveries with you all.

Videoconferencing with Marie Svoboda, Associate Conservator in the Department of Antiquities Conservation at The J. Paul Getty Museum

To further our class’s research on the two intriguing mummy panel paintings in our possession, this week, our class delved into learning about the technical aspects of research on “Portrait of A Man” (ECM 2149) and “Portrait of A Young Man” (ECM 2150).

Our class had the opportunity to videoconference with Marie Svoboda, Associate Conservator of Antiquities Conservation at the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the guiding force behind the “Ancient Panel Paintings: Examination, Analysis and Research” (APPEAR) Project. Svoboda spoke to the class on her study of the “Herakleides” mummy, dated to the 1st century CE. The mummy’s name, which was inscribed on its feet, was identified using infrared light examination. Using CT scanning technology, it was discovered that the mummy was laid prone on a wooden board and was actually wrapped with a mummified ibis. An image of an ibis (symbolic of the Egyptian God Thoth) is found on the mummy wrappings directly above the mummified ibis, and the wrappings themselves are painted with red lead. The mummy portrait itself was executed in tempera, not encaustic. These details were initially thought to be unique, as no other mummies were known to have similar markings. However, by collaborating with other museum institutions, Svoboda and her colleagues found six mummies with similar characteristics from the 1st-2nd century CE, which show similar iconography, preparation of the mummies,with a red pigment on the wrappings. This group is now referred to as the “red shroud mummies”. The red pigment found on Herakleides was identified as lead stannate, a red lead imported from Rio Tinto, Spain, famous as a site of silver extraction. This kind of research emphasized for Svoboda the importance of inter-institutional collaboration in the technical study of mummies, which now finds its form in the APPEAR project.

It is our class’s ultimate objective to gather as much technical knowledge of our two mummy portraits (ECM 2149 and ECM 2150) and upload it to APPEAR database at the end of the semester. After the illuminating lecture by Svoboda, the class discussed the ways that paint could be applied on wooden boards, or “panels”. The thin wood had to smooth, able to bend over the face of the mummy, and capable of being painted. There are many variations in how the panels were prepared, but in each case, the wood was likely sealed with a layer of gum or glue, and perhaps followed by a “ground layer” such as calcium sulfate mixed with glue to even out the surface. Paint layers were applied in either the tempera technique (pigments mixed with gum or glues), or encaustic (pigments mixed with beeswax), or sometimes both! Our class was surprised to find out that varnishes over the finished painting were not actually traditionally used by the original artists, but were often used in treatments during the excavation of these objects, or during more modern restorations.

The normal light image of the portrait alongside its X-ray.  The ellipse marks the area where a wreath may have been painted in the underdrawing.

The normal light image of the portrait alongside its X-ray. The ellipse marks the area where a wreath may have been painted in the underdrawing.

To finish this week’s seminar, we had the opportunity to view x-rays of the two mummy portraits, and the class attempted to derive as much information from the photographs as possible. The x-rays were incredibly useful in seeing potential underdrawings and comparing brushstroke and artistic techniques. It was noted that the “Portrait of A Man” had slightly shorter and more extensive brushstrokes in the facial features, which created a greater amount of depth. This aspect is exemplified in the eyes, which seem much more three-dimensional than those of the “Portrait of A Young Man”. It should also be noted that in “The Portrait of A Young Man” (left), there appears to be evidence of a laurel wreath painted in the hair that is not visible in the finished portrait. Is this indicative of his status as someone of elite status who trained in a Gymnasium?

Next week, we plan to take a closer look at the people of the Fayum themselves and relate this knowledge to the two men in our ever-mysterious Roman-Egyptian mummy panel paintings.

10 Responses to Week 2–APPEAR

  1. Looking at the X-ray images was a great way to see our portraits in a new light. I found that our portraits are more mysterious than they seemed. I think that we should look at the portraits under the microscope to really see what is going on! Good job on the article!

  2. Now the tricky (or I guess just interesting part) is comparing our X-rays to the other multispectral images we have collected. The presence of the lead white in the denser sections of the X-rays makes it easier to look at brush strokes and corresponds with some interesting things that are going on with the young man’s toga and clavi.

  3. I am so excited to enter information into the APPEAR database. It is great that the work we will be doing is going to be alongside great scholars at leading museums across the world.

  4. I feel you Tess! And at the same time I feel a little nervous–what if we make mistakes. But that should be how researches go. When we were looking at the portraits, I was really surprised to see large amount of poisonous pigments, especially lead white, present in the portrait. Probably one of the reason why Roman Egyptians had relatively short lifespan.

  5. When we first looked at the X-ray images, I was a bit confused as to what we were seeing. Now, looking at the images and comparing them to the images generated by multispectral imaging and the original portrait, I am much more clear on what is actually going on in the portrait. It is amazing to be able to see the individual brushstrokes that created something that would have a lasting impact on the world.

  6. This was a great article! Personally I remember being very surprised at the inclusion of the bird in the mummy wrappings until Marie Svoboda explained that it was part of their religious beliefs. Connecting this situation to greater contexts, various religion seem reasonable to those who participate but often surprising to those who don’t. Overall though I find this fascinating and Svoboda’s work to be very important to making connections like these birds within the mummy wrappings and I’m so excited to be participating in her APPEAR project!

  7. The X-ray images were very helpful which makes me even more excited for the reflectance transformation imaging that we are doing this week.

  8. When first introduced to the APPEAR project and all of its prestigous contributors, I was concerned as to how we as a class would be able to contribute information and compete at the same level as the others. However, looking at all of the guest speakers we have had and the incredible technology made available to us, I feel we will be able to provide quality information to the database.

  9. I am really excited to be working on the APPEAR project. It’s incredible that we are working alongside so many amazing institutions! It was also really cool to look at the x-ray images. I didn’t realize that an x-ray could reveal so much information about a painting. Great article Taz!

  10. Now that our project is coming to an end, it is a bit exciting to see how much we have learned! I believe our contribution to the APPEAR database is really precious. It still did not dawn upon me how many different institutions will be accessing and utilizing our findings.

Show More Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *