Mummy Portraits: New Perspectives


Cantor Arts Center, Fayum Mummy Portrait of a Young Man (JLS.22226)

Last week, conservation scientists from around the world gathered to share new perspectives on mummy portraits. They gathered under the auspices of the APPEAR Project (Ancient Panel Paintings: Examination, Analysis and Research) to improve our understanding of mummy portraits through scientific research and international collaboration. As the name suggests, the portraits were attached to mummies in ancient Egypt, though most have been separated from their burial contexts and sold to collectors like Jane Stanford. They have long been praised for their lifelike appearance but according to the APPEAR Project website, “only a handful have undergone full and rigorous technical investigation exploring how they were made.” Renewed interest in the paintings has paved the way for new methods of study. Conservation scientists now freely share their insights through the APPEAR Project, “which promotes comparison between the artifacts and helps develop a broader understanding of the production, materials and workshop and artistic practices that created ancient panel paintings.”


Cantor Arts Center, Fayum Mummy Portrait of a Woman (JLS.22225)

Wood analysis is the best example of this renewed international interest in mummy portraits. Caroline Cartwright, a senior researcher at the British Museum and certified ‘wood anatomist,’ has tested hundreds of cross-sections from mummy portraits sent by participating institutions, including two from the Cantor. Last week, Cartwright presented her findings at the APPEAR conference to reveal just how widely ancient woods can differ in quality, species and place of origin.

Objects conservator Samantha Li with Fayum Mummy Portrait of a Woman

Other methods are proudly non-invasive and non-destructive. Researchers at the Cantor Art + Science Learning Lab, including classical archaeologist Gabrielle Thiboutot, lab director Susan Roberts-Manganelli, lab intern Reilly Clark and objects conservator Samantha Li have conducted a wide array of multispectral imaging techniques that do not harm the portraits. Such techniques can be shared widely and compared with hundreds of other examples and ultimately contribute to a better understanding of how certain portraits are made and how they relate to one another.

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