Past Perfect: Unearthing the Fayum Paintings
British archaeologist William Flinders Petrie, father of modern Egyptology, makes an extraordinary discovery.
Although he never received a formal education, William Matthews Flinders Petrie (1853–1942) was well schooled by his father, a civil engineer who fostered his son’s interest in chemistry and ancient Egypt. In 1881 Petrie traveled to Egypt to study the Great Pyramid at Giza. There he was fascinated by ancient monuments and appalled by the destructive methods used to excavate them. In 1883 he took a job as excavator for the London-based Egypt Exploration Fund, established by the popular romantic novelist Amelia Edwards. Petrie was a meticulous archaeologist whose compilation of ceramic typologies and development of stratigraphic techniques revolutionized the field. (He was also known for his eccentricities, such as working in pink underwear and sleeping in abandoned tombs.) During his 42-year career in Egypt, Petrie revealed aspects of almost the entire sweep of ancient Egyptian history—including First Dynasty (2920–2770 B.C.) tombs, the capital of Pharaoh Akhenaten (1350–1334 B.C.) at Amarna, and the sixth-century B.C. Greek settlement of Naukratis. In the following excerpt, Petrie describes one of his first great finds (1888): a group of beautiful Roman-period mummy portraits from Hawara in the Fayum oasis, about 35 miles southwest of Cairo.
The cemetery of Hawara was a great resource for discoveries, and it proved to be one of the richest fields that I have found, although it was entirely an unexpected prize … On digging in it I soon saw that it was all Roman, the remains of brick tomb-chambers; and I was going to give it up as not worth working, when one day a mummy was found, with a painted portrait on a wooden panel placed over its face. This was a beautifully drawn head of a girl, in soft grey tints, entirely classical in its style and mode, without any Egyptian influence. More men were put on to this region, and in two days another portrait-mummy was found; in two days more a third, and then for nine days not one; an anxious waiting, suddenly rewarded by finding three. Generally three or four were found every week, and I have even rejoiced over five in one day. Altogether sixty were found in clearing this cemetery, some much decayed and worthless, others as fresh as the day they were painted.
Not only were these portraits found thus on the mummies, but also the various stages of decoration that led up to the portrait. First the old-fashioned stucco cartonnage coverings, purely Egyptian, of the Ptolemies. Next, the same made more solidly, and with distinct individual differences, in fact, modelled masks of the deceased persons. Then arms modelled in one with the bust, the rest of the body being covered with a canvas wrapper painted with mythological scenes, all purely Egyptian. Probably under Hadrian the first portraits are found, painted on a canvas wrapper, but of Greek work. Soon the canvas was abandoned, and a wooden panel used instead; and then the regular series of panel portraits extends until the decline in the third century. All this custom of decorating the mummies arose from them being kept above ground for many years in rooms, probably connected with the house. Various signs of this usage can be seen on the mummies, and in the careless way in which they were at last buried, after such elaborate decoration.
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, and expression about the better examples which can only be the relic of a magnificent school, whose traditions and skill were not then quite lost. A few indeed of these heads are of such power and subtlety that they may stand beside the works of any age without being degraded …
The technical methods of these paintings have been much discussed. Certainly the colours were mixed with melted wax as a medium, and it seems most likely that both the brush and hard point were used. The backing is a very thin cedar panel, on which a coat of lead colour priming was laid, followed by a flesh-coloured ground where the face was to come. The drapery is freely marked in with bold brushfuls of 040colour, while the flesh is carefully and smoothly laid on with zigzag strokes. In some portraits the boldness of the work is almost like some modern romanticists’; at a foot distance the surface is nearly incomprehensible, at six or eight feet it produces a perfect effect.
Several of these pictures when found were in a perilous state; the film of wax paint was scaled loose from the panel, and they could never be even tilted up on edge without perishing. After finding several in this tender state, and pondering on their preservation, I ventured to try the same process as for the stucco coffin. The wire-grating was filled with red-hot charcoal, and then the frail portrait was slid in 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. But with care and management it was possible to preserve even the most rotten paintings with fresh wax; and afterwards I extended this waxing to all substances that were perishable, woodwork and leather, as well as stucco and paint.
This custom, however, of preserving the mummies above ground, adorned with portraits, gave way about the time of Constantine, or perhaps a little earlier, and immediate burial was adopted. Probably this was partly due to the progress of Christianity.
From Ten Years’ Digging in Egypt, 1881–1891 (London: The Religious Tract Society, 1893).
Although he never received a formal education, William Matthews Flinders Petrie (1853–1942) was well schooled by his father, a civil engineer who fostered his son’s interest in chemistry and ancient Egypt. In 1881 Petrie traveled to Egypt to study the Great Pyramid at Giza. There he was fascinated by ancient monuments and appalled by the destructive methods used to excavate them. In 1883 he took a job as excavator for the London-based Egypt Exploration Fund, established by the popular romantic novelist Amelia Edwards. Petrie was a meticulous archaeologist whose compilation of ceramic typologies and development of stratigraphic techniques revolutionized […]