In 1887 the British Egyptologist, Flinders Petrie, was excavating at Hawara at the entrance to the Faiyum basin, around 80 km south of Cairo.
What he found there was extraordinary: over 80 mummies bearing a beautiful life-like portrait, painted onto a wooden panel and inserted into the mummy bandaged.
These portraits were a Roman innovation and are some of the world’s earliest portraits. Today they are known as the ‘Faiyum Portraits’ and nearly 1000 have been found from throughout Egypt.
Much of the Faiyum population at this time were descendants of Greek settlers who had adopted Egyptian religious beliefs but still saw themselves as proudly Greek. This is why we see Egyptian mummies bearing portraits of the deceased in the latest Greek-Roman fashion.
This young lad with the round, dark eyes, lived around A.D. 50., and is dressed for eternity in his finest white linen tunic and wearing a gold amulet case. He also has gilded lips, which is rare. It may symbolise the deceased’s transformation into an akh, or blessed spirit – a being of light.
What makes these portraits especially moving is the age of the faces looking back at us. Many of them are young – a sad reflection of the high mortality rates at the time.
This mummy was discovered by Petrie in 1911 and is now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Acc. No. 11.2892.