Ancient faces: the Fayum mummy portraits of Egypt

Fayum mummy portraitsThe pyramids, Tutankhamen’s gold, the massive temples of Luxor and Karnak. . .the civilization of ancient Egypt has left us an incredible legacy, yet of all of these impressive monuments and treasures none has a more personal effect on the viewer than the Fayum mummy portraits.

During the Graeco-Roman period, after Egypt had fallen first to Alexander the Great and then to the Romans, the old traditions continued. Temples were still built, priests still wrote in hieroglyphics, and the wealthy were still mummified in order to guarantee their place in the afterlife.

The new rulers of Egypt took on some local customs. They often chose to be mummified in the Egyptian fashion, but added the touch of putting a portrait of the deceased over the wrappings covering the face. Painted on thin slats of wood, they were part of a trend called panel painting, considered by Classical writers to be one of the highest forms of art.

Panel paintings were hung in houses and public buildings all over the Greek and Roman world. Two thousand years of damp, mold, and fire destroyed all of them except those buried in the preserving sands of Egypt, so these mummy portraits give us a look at what would otherwise be a lost art. Panel painting was hugely popular in its day and later influenced the Coptic and Byzantine icons of the Middle Ages.

Looking at a mummy portrait brings you face to face with a real person from the past, like this image of a priest courtesy user Eloquence via Wikimedia Commons. Painted around 140-160 AD, it’s realistic enough that we’d know him if he passed us on the street. The portraits vary in quality, but each gives us an individualistic look at a man or woman or child, often with fascinating details like jewelry or hairstyles.

%Gallery-126247%Mummy portraits appeared around the first century BC and continued in fashion for about 300 years. Many were found in the Fayum, an oasis west of modern Cairo that was a popular place to be buried, but examples have been found all over Egypt.

The Museo Arqueológico Nacional in Madrid has a display of 13 of the best mummy portraits showing until July 24. Most of the museum has been closed for more than two years for refurbishment so it’s nice that something is going on there. There’s also the exhibit Tesoros del Museo Arqueológico Nacional, a “greatest hits” collection like the British Museum did while it was remodeling.

If you aren’t going to Madrid this summer (don’t–the autumn or spring are better with fewer tourists and milder weather) there are plenty of other places to see mummy portraits. In London, The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology and the British Museum have two of the largest collections in the world, although many of the best examples from the British Museum are in Madrid at the moment. In New York there’s the Met, in Edinburgh the National Museum of Scotland, in Paris the Louvre, in Vienna the Kunsthistorisches Museum, and in Amsterdam the Allard Pierson Museum. And of course there’s the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo!

Exploring ancient Rome in Mérida, Spain

Spain, Roman, theatre, Merida
It’s Christmas. What do you get an avid traveler who used to be an archaeologist?
For my wife the answer is obvious–a trip to a Roman city!

So here we are in Mérida, capital of the province of Extremadura in Spain, not far from the Portuguese border. In Roman times it was called Emerita Augusta and was capital of the province of Lusitania. This province took up most of the western Iberian peninsula, including most of what is now Portugal. The city was founded in 25 BC as a home for retired legionnaires on an important bridge linking the western part of the Iberian peninsula with the rest of the Empire. Putting a bunch of tough old veterans in such an important spot was no accident. The city boasts numerous well-preserved buildings and together they’re now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It’s a five-hour ride from Madrid on a comfortable train. Almudena and I brought along my five-year-old son Julián to give him a bit of classical education. (No cute kid photos, sorry. Too many freaks on the Internet)

Our first stop was Mérida’s greatest hits–an amphitheater for gladiator fights and one of the best preserved Roman theaters in the Roman world.

Both of these buildings were among the first to go up in the new city. Since the Romans were building a provincial capital from scratch, they wanted it to have all the amenities. The theater was a center for Roman social and cultural life and this one, when it was finished in 15 BC, was built on a grand scale with seats for 6,000 people. One interesting aspect of this theater is that it underwent a major improvement between the years 333 and 335 AD. This was after the Empire had converted to Christianity, and the early Christians denounced the theaters as immoral. The popular plays making fun of the church probably didn’t help their attitude. As I discussed in my post on the death of paganism, the conversion from paganism to Christianity was neither rapid nor straightforward. At this early stage it was still unthinkable to found a new city without a theater. The backdrop even has statues of pagan deities such as Serapis and Ceres. Although they’re from an earlier building stage than the Christian-era improvements, the fact that they weren’t removed is significant.

%Gallery-112089%Julián didn’t care about that, though. He was far more interested in the dark tunnels leading under the seats in a long, spooky semicircle around the theater. At first his fear of dark, unfamiliar places fought with his natural curiosity, but with Dad accompanying him he decided to chance it. It turned out there was no danger other than a rather large puddle we both stumbled into.

On stage he got a lesson in acoustics. The shape of the seats magnifies sounds. Voices carry further, and a snap of the fingers sounds like a pistol shot.

Next door was the amphitheater, where gladiators fought it out for the entertainment of the masses. Built in 8 BC, it seated 15,000, more than twice the amount as the theater. This was a city for veteran legionnaires, after all! Julián didn’t know what gladiators were so I explained it to him and soon throngs of ghostly Romans were cheering as Sean the Barbarian fought the Emperor Julián. He wanted to be a ninja and was disappointed to learn that there weren’t any in ancient Rome.

These two places are enough to make the trip worthwhile, but there are more than a dozen other ancient Roman buildings in Mérida as well. The best way to sum up the experience of walking through these remains was what I overheard some Italian tourists: “Bellissimo!
If the Italians are impressed, you know it’s good.

This is the first in a new series: Exploring Extremadura, Spain’s historic southwest

Coming up next: More Roman heritage from Mérida!