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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.