Hawara mummies created a sensation when they were discovered, and in 1997 visitors to the British Museum found the first major exhibition of the mummy portraits from the Fayum very disquieting. Some burst into tears, some had to leave, unable to bear the clear bright gaze of the living dead.
The portraits were made in the first centuries AD, at the cultural crossroads: their subjects were Roman citizens, of Greek ethnic origin – their ancestors probably Macedonian soldiers paid off in land – living in the Fayum,one of the most fertile regions of the northern Egypt.
They were embalmed according to the ancient techniques perfected for the pharaohs, but painted not as the stiff formal Egyptian mummy mask, but as living, breathing human beings. Some are paintedin the latest fashions of the Roman empire, but shown on their shrouds being led into the presence of the Egyptian gods of the dead.
There are children, youths with the first down of beards, beautiful young women, strong tanned men in the prime of life, and a few haggard faces with the dragging lines of mortal illness. A few Hawara mummies bear the Greek valediction to the dead: Farewell. Be happy!
A few are named, in Greek, including ‘Hermione the school teacher’, a slender, ele-gant pale woman. Flinders Petrie, the archaeologist who found many of them, described her as a ‘studious and meek school mistress without a trace of show or ornament’. In fact she rather resembled his young wife, Hilda. He sent Hermione to Girton, the women’s college at Cambridge, to set a good example.
Most gaze just past the shoulder of the viewer, as if into eternity. There is nothing comparable in portraiture until the Renaissance, over a thousand years later. The subjects must have been wealthy, because work of such quality would have been very expensive, but nothing is known of the artists, although several works by the same hand have been identified. It is not known whether the portraits were commissioned in life — plausible of subjects in middle age suffering from a long illness, but hard to imagine of the sudden death of children — or how the artists produced such a striking impression of the subjects in life if they were only called to the deathbed.
For art historians they provide an agonizing window into an entirely lost heritage, classical Greek painting, known from documentary references and scraps of colour on sculpture. The most striking were painted in encaustic, where the pigment was thickened with wax, and sometimes modelled with a tool, to give a three-dimensional effect. They were carefully shaped to be bound over the head of the mummy, which itself was stuffed and bound to give a lifelike shape. The effect is remarkable.
After the third century they stop. There are no more portraits, and no such sophisticated embalming. Remarkably they seem to have lost any power either as religious objects or works of art. Flinders Petrie found them tumbled in heaps, or piled into pits, thrown aside for later burials. Mummy portraits had occasionally been acquired by collectors since the Renaissance, and have since been found over a wide region. They remain associated with the Fayum because it was the source of the two major groups, both from cemeteries originally excavated by local people.
In 1887 an Austrian businessman, Theodor Graf, came upon portraits being dug up from a cemetery at er-Rubayat, and bought as many as they could uncover. He didn’t bother with the mummies, or any details of where and how they were found. He exhibited and sold them across Europe and America. The following year Flinders Petrie found a major Roman cemetery at Hawara, and kept careful records. He worked there for two seasons, and returned in 1911. He was able to preserve several mummies intact, took only the portraits from some too rotted to move, and kept the heads of other Hawara mummies. Nobody who has seen them doubted that they were portraits, but there was debate as to whether they represented the subjects at an idealized time of life, or at the time of death. The mummy of the sobre Hermione has been X-rayed and CAT-scanned, and a computer image made of her head and face; it closely matches the portrait.
Before the exhibition, first seen at the British Museum, there was one of those coincidences which strikes sparks in the history of archaeology. Paul Roberts, a curator from the museum, gave a lecture explaining that the skulls Petrie collected had long since been separated from the portraits, and lost. A postgraduate archaeology student in the audience, Meredith Thompson, said ‘No’, on the contrary, she had several on her desk. When they were reunited it was possible to call in a team which specializes in recreating ancient faces. Among the skulls Richard Neave and John Prag have worked on was one from a tomb in Vergina in northern Greece: the result matched the portraits, and the accounts of his being blinded in one eye in battle, of Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great.
They modelled two heads from the skulls from Hawara mummies, without seeing the masks, and the results answered the question vividly. The match, of a sparky young woman nicknamed ‘Fatima’, and a swarthy young man, was uncanny, though the 2,000-year-old painted portraits, on balance, have more life than the modelled heads.