New Clues to Ancient Roman Art Discovered in Egyptian Mummy Portraits

Roman-era Egyptian mummy portraits uncovered Tebtunis, Egypt, are thought to all be created by the same artist due to their similar style and creation method. Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley

Researchers are using advanced technology to investigate the origins of mummy portraits that date back more than 2,000 years to when ancient Rome ruled Egypt. The arresting images and the intense, lifelike gazes of the Fayum mummy portraits, named for where they were discovered, have been a source of intrigue since the beginning of the 20th century, especially since they're more reminiscent of Renaissance-era styles rather than Byzantine painting.

The lifelike Fayum mummy portraits bridge stylized Byzantine and early modernist Renaissance styles.
Werner Forham/Getty Images

Excavated between December 1899 and April 1900, the paintings date back to the first and second centuries C.E., and are believed to have been kept in the home and then added to a mummy upon their subject's death. British archaeologists uncovered the first of the portraits in the ancient Roman site Tebtunis, located in what's today Umm el-Breigat in the Fayum region of Egypt.

An interdisciplinary team from Northwestern University lead by professor Marc Walton have spent two years studying the construction of 15 of the portraits, housed at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. Nearly 1,000 Fayum mummy portraits have been discovered, and are held by museums across the world.

Euphrosine Doxiadis, an artist and author of the book "The Mysterious Fayum Portraits," said in 2013: "The greats of the Renaissance and post-Renaissance, such as Titian and Rembrandt, had great predecessors in the ancient world."

Using non-destructive imaging analysis and scanning electron microscopy, the researchers were able to examine different layers of paint to see what elements in the portraits were painted first, and to compare pigments in the paint to different ones known to be used during the Roman era. They were even able to identify how brushstrokes were made using photometric stereo tools.

"Our materials analysis provides a fresh and rich archaeological context for the Tebtunis portraits, reflecting the international perspective of these ancient Egyptians," said Walton, who presented his findings at this February's American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting.

By examining what paintings shared styles and painting processes, the research team was able to identify multiple paintings that came from specific, individual artists. This knowledge will help develop an understanding of how painting techniques evolved; the research, part of a collaborative global study project called Ancient Panel Paintings: Examination, Analysis and Research (APPEAR), is ongoing. Check out this video created by the research team: