Art experts have always marveled at the exquisite encaustic (melted wax mixed with paint) portraits which were used as face plates on mummy cases at Antinoopolis and the nearby Fayoum Oasis.
At Antinoopolis, wealthy people even sheathed their mummies in gold leaf, turning their dead loved ones into virtual golden statues, according to FRENCH EXPERTS.
But no one knew how accurate the portraits on those elaborate mummies were.
Now experts using advanced forensic science have proved that the paintings were true-to-life portraits of the deceased when they had been alive.
“It was pretty exciting,” said Bob Brier, an Egyptologist at Long Island University and lead author of a new study published in the German Egyptological journal ZÄS Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde (Journal for Egyptian Language and Studies).
“We didn’t know what we were going to find,” Brier said.
Brier and colleagues used a CT scanner to produce physical models of the mummies’ skulls. Then a crime artist, who only knew the mummy’s age and gender, used the models to recreate the mummies’ faces. The painstaking process took seven days per mummy.
“We were dying to see what it looked like,” Brier said.
The team then compared the faces to painted portraits entombed with the bandaged bodies.
Two of the four match-ups were strikingly similar.
“It is believed that they were almost certainly painted during the lifetimes of the individuals and clearly were not idealized images,” Brier said of the portraits.
But one face didn’t match the portrait at all, leading the researchers to believe the ancient embalmers might have wrapped the mummy with the wrong portrait.
“It is possible that during the mummification procedure, when several bodies were being mummified at the same time, a mismatch occurred,” Brier said.
The fourth mummy’s nose looked more refined in the portrait than in the researchers’ prediction, but his “other facial features and proportions were so consistent between the reconstruction and portrait that no mix-up was indicated here,” Brier said.
The study sheds light on the purpose of the portraits, which represented a shift from symbolic art to realistic art after the Romans conquered Egypt in 30 B.C.
“This study convinced us that some of these portraits were dead-on,” Brier said, adding that some portraits were likely styled to be more flattering to the deceased.
Brier would like to extend the study to include more mummies. But while there are more than 1,000 mummy portraits, less than 100 are still attached to the people they depict, he said.
“The difficulty is finding portraits that are still bound to the mummy,” he said. “Many portraits were taken off the mummies and sold during the 19th century and early part of the 20th century.”