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The Mummy’s Secret

Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits From Ancient Egypt Paul Roberts and John Taylor.

an exhibition at the British Museum, March 14-July 20, 1997.. Catalog of the exhibition by Susan Walker and Morris Bierbrier, with
British Museum Press, 244 pp., £18.99

Portraits and Masks: Burial Customs in Roman Egypt

edited by Morris Bierbrier
British Museum Press, 176 pp., £40.00 (paper)


In May 1888 a passenger ship, the Thebes, brought William Flinders Petrie and his luggage from Alexandria to Liverpool. Both the man and the luggage were remarkable. Petrie was one of the first scientific archaeologists, but his science was placed firmly at the service of his religion. On the one hand, his first essay into Egyptology caused a mild shaking of heads among the British Israelites (believers that Britons were descended from the Lost Tribe) of his acquaintance, because he had conducted an accurate survey of the Gizeh pyramids, and undermined their belief that the Great Pyramid was perfect and therefore the work of God. On the other hand, his friend the Reverend A.H. Sayce recalls: “While Iwas with him Petrie discovered the actual brick-platform on which Nebuchadrezzar’s throne was erected during his invasion of Egypt, and of which the prophet Jeremiah has preserved the record. (xliii.10)”1

A great mortifier of the flesh, Petrie had lived, during his pyramid survey, in an ancient tomb, working at night, naked, guarded by a single (and no doubt quite hysterical) slave. By daylight, he shocked his female British visitors by not wearing socks. He pioneered a disgusting kind of field cuisine whose influence can still be detected in Egypt today (“Why hasn’t he died of ptomaine poisoning?” asked Lawrence of Arabia admiringly, as he scraped the green crust off the week-long-opened tinned kidneys). But Petrie was practical. When Amelia B. Edwards of the Egypt Exploration Fund conceived the idea that her subscribers might like to receive a genuine brick made without straw by an Israelite in bondage, and asked Petrie to send her a thousand such from Tell el Maskhuta, Petrie, for whom this would have been “trading in relics,” pointed out that one Egyptian brick was very much like another, and that they were frequently made without straw. Also, think of all the packing cases required….2

Since the beginning of 1888 Petrie had been working in the Fayum region in the north of Egypt, west of the Nile, and he had had great luck. The least of it was that he had found a papyrus manuscript of the Iliad, Book II. He had also found—in itself a modest object, but one to which great significance would be attached—the first framed painting to survive from antiquity. He had found the tomb of a painter and his paint-pots, which he was bringing home with him, along with the painter’s skull (he hoped to find out whether he was Egyptian or Greek). And most importantly he had found a large cache of mummy portraits. These were naturalistic Greek paintings in wax on wooden panels, dating from the Roman period—mainly from the second and third centuries AD—and most of them were in startlingly fresh condition. They had all originally been attached to mummies.

These mummy portraits, of which today about a thousand are known, were at that time extremely rare. Only twenty had found their way into museums or other collections, although the first had been discovered as long ago as 1615 by the Italian traveler Pietro della Valle.3 In the previous year, however, an Austrian dealer called Theodor Graf had managed to buy up another cache of portraits from the same period (although many of them were in tempera rather than wax, and therefore of less interest). Petrie knew of these, and he knew that they had already been offered in Paris and London for fantastic sums.4 Most probably he had not yet seen them. Nor would he have known that, at the time of his voyage home, a Munich newspaper was running a series of articles by the “poet-Egyptologist” Dr. Georg Ebers, in which the portraits were described, incorrectly, as belonging to the Ptolemaic period (which ended with the Roman takeover of Egypt in 30 BC). Petrie was aware—and despite his uprightness he was not immune to rivalrous feelings—that Henry Wallis of the South Kensington Museum (as the Victoria and Albert was then known)had gone to Egypt expressly to look for the kind of portrait he, Petrie, had stumbled upon by chance. During the course of his excavations in the Fayum, he had done his best to keep quiet about the nature of his finds.

But now there seems to have been a race on. Petrie’s private backers (with whom he would split his finds three ways) had already booked a gallery in the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, and Petrie had written ahead to his father asking him to prepare forty oak frames in which to display the best of the portraits. He had already acted to preserve these, in the field, by a technique of his own devising, involving an alarming-sounding portable brazier:

The wire-grating was filled with red-hot charcoal, and then the frail portrait was slid beneath it, a few drops of melted wax laid on it, and watched. In a few seconds the fresh wax began to spread, and then at once I ladled melted wax all over the surface; a second too long, and it began to fry and to blister; too sharp a tilt to drain it when it came out, and the new wax washed away the paint.5

Arriving in Liverpool at the beginning of June, he went straight to London, where he had two weeks to unpack his finds, set up the display, mount and frame the portraits himself, write the labels for these and all the numerous exhibits, write the catalog, and organize the pre-publicity. The show opened on June 18.

The Egyptian Hall was an imaginative building, dating from 1812, and supposedly designed in imitation of the temple at Dendereh. It was a strictly commercial venture, and had nothing originally to do with Egypt or Egyptology beyond the style of its façade, although it did house, in 1821, Belzoni’s exhibition of the sarcophagus of Seti I, with replicas of two chambers from his tomb. It was a place to show anything sensational: a huge painting, a freak, a model of the Battle of Waterloo—anything that would draw a crowd prepared to part with a shilling. In 1820 Géricault showed The Raft of the Medusa there, and it was supposedly seen by fifty thousand people. Géricault made between 17,000 and 20,000 francs out of the event, which sounds like a handy sum. In the same year, to the delight of Hazlitt and the dying Keats, Benjamin Robert Haydon showed his Christ’s Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem there; 31,000 visitors came, but Haydon’s creditors pounced on the proceeds. Among the freak shows seen at the Egyptian Hall were a family of Laplanders, the original Siamese Twins, and P.T. Barnum’s American midget General Tom Thumb. One of the later successes of the hall in 1896 was the first moving picture show to play in London before a paying audience.

Such was the setting for Petrie’s exhibition. The classical scholar Dominic Montserrat, who has generously allowed me to draw on his unpublished research, points out that throughout the period of the exhibition the Egyptian Hall was advertised on the front page of the Times as “England’s home of mystery and the arcana” offering “expositions of automata-mental telegraphy, so-called thought transference, and ventriloqual sketches.”6 And it is as well to remember this context when we think of the original viewing public and their enthusiastic response. Egyptology has always had its mystical undertow. The reviewer in the Illustrated London News did not call Petrie an archaeologist—he called him a traveler “gifted with all the instincts of an explorer.” And when he summed up the message of the mummy portraits it was in terms of thought transference: “‘Think not of the wan, sunken face within,’ the artist seems to say to us: ‘but remember your dear one as she lived, with the glow of life quivering on her cheek and the light of life beaming from her eye.”’ 7

The accompanying illustration shows a part of the exhibition as it was laid out, with coffin lids held half open by string, permitting a glimpse of the linen-wrapped mummies. (Many of the objects illustrated can be seen in the British Museum’s current show, Ancient Faces.) On the walls, in between complete standing mummy cases, hang the portraits which Petrie had detached from their often disintegrating mummies, mounted on the appropriate shade of cardboard, and framed. From the moment Petrie first found the portraits, he thought of them as works of art which should be seen in the context of the European tradition. As he wrote half-jocularly in his journal:

I have the notion—beside any special exhibition that we make of these—that it would be a grand joke to send in all the paintings that I bring home to the winter exhibition of Old Masters at Burlington House [i.e., the Royal Academy]. Most would go in readily for their art alone, apart from their history; and for technical interest Ishould think a dozen or more would be most welcome here.8

This early sense that what he had found came into the category of high art was soon elaborated. What he had found was the best evidence so far for what Greek painting had once been like:

Though only a sort of undertaker’s business, in a provincial town of Egypt, and belonging to the Roman age, when art had greatly declined, yet these paintings give us a better idea of what ancient painting was, and what a high state it must have reached in its prime, than anything yet known, excepting some of the Pompeian frescoes. Mannerism is evident in nearly all of these, and faults may be easily detected; yet there is a spirit, a sentiment, an expression about the better examples which can only be the relic of a magnificent school, whose traditions and skill were not then quite lost…. If such was Greek painting still, centuries after its zenith, by obscure commercial artists, and in a distant town of a foreign land, we may dimly credit what it may have been in its grandeur.

Petrie took a genuine pride in the fact that “the National Gallery now begins its history of paintings far before that of any other collection; the finest examples left, after the selection of the Bulak Museum [the forerunner of the Cairo Museum], being now at Trafalgar Square.”9

Today the National Gallery’s “history of paintings” begins in 1260 and ends in the year 1900. But for a while the Gallery not only began, in the foyer, with Fayum portraits. It continued with Byzantine icons. The story of ancient painting was thus linked to Gothic and Renaissance art. But by the 1930s this disposition was no longer convincing, and in 1936 the Fayum portraits were first lent, then more recently for the most part given, to the British Museum, along with the icons. Atypically Victorian sense of the connectedness of things—a sense of the present being rooted in the classical past—had lost its grip on the imagination.

  1. 1

    A.H. Sayce, Reminiscences (London: Macmillan, 1923). What Jeremiah says is: “Thus saith the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel; Behold, I will send and take Nebuchadrezzar the king of Babylon, my servant, and will set his throne upon these stones that I have hid; and he shall spread his royal pavilion over them.”

  2. 2

    See Margaret S. Drower, Flinders Petrie: A Life in Archaeology (1985; University of Wisconsin Press, second edition, 1995).

  3. 3

    See Euphrosyne Doxiadis, The Mysterious Fayum Portraits: Faces from Ancient Egypt, pp. 123-125, for della Valle’s account of his discovery.

  4. 4

    Petrie’s unpublished Journal, January 22-29, 1888. I am grateful to the Committee of Management of the Griffith Institute in Oxford for allowing me to read and quote from this document.

  5. 5

    W.M. Flinders Petrie, Ten Years’ Digging in Egypt: 1881-1891 (London: Religious Tract Society, 1892), p. 100.

  6. 6

    Dominic Montserrat, “Mummy Portraits: Their Ancient Use and Modern Abuse,” a lecture given to the British Museum Society, April 23, 1997.

  7. 7

    Illustrated London News, June 30, 1888, p. 718.

  8. 8

    Petrie’s Journal, February 5-12, 1888.

  9. 9

    Flinders Petrie, Ten Years’ Digging in Egypt, p. 99.

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