New imaging technique solves century’s-old mysteries surrounding mummy paintings

Using advanced scientific tools, researchers have been able to determine the materials and methods used to paint the lifelike mummy portraits created by Roman-Egyptian artists more than 2,000 years ago.

According to a report presented on Sunday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Washington, DC, the scientists discovered the pigments utilized by the artists, how the paints were applied, sources of artistic materials and the kind of brushstrokes used.


The portraits are very lifelike paintings of particular mummies. Each portrait would have been integrated into the mummy wrappings and placed right over the person’s face. They were excavated more than 100 years ago, and the set of paintings studied is now located at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.
Valuable insight

Information on the pigments and their use led the scientists to decide that three of the paintings likely came from the same artist studio and may have been painted by the same artist.

This understanding will help researchers, conservators and art historians better understand how painting tactics evolved in the Byzantine Empire and beyond, according to a statement.

“Our materials analysis provides a fresh and rich archaeological context for the Tebtunis portraits, reflecting the international perspective of these ancient Egyptians,” said study author Marc Walton, a scientist at the Northwestern University-Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts. “For example, we found that the iron-earth pigments most likely came from Keos in Greece, the red lead from Spain and the wood substrate on which the portraits are painted came from central Europe. We also know the painters used Egyptian blue in an unusual way to broaden their spectrum of hues.”

No paintings were harmed in the performing of this research

Working together with the museum’s art conservators, the study team used non-destructive and non-invasive means to extract data on the paintings’ underlying surface shapes and color. Cameras took pictures of the portraits at several angles of illumination to look at underlying shapes in the paintings. Using an imaging algorithm, the study team was able to analyze brush and tool marks.

For color information, visible hyperspectral imaging information was gathered between the ultraviolet through the near-infrared range. Areas on the paintings were examined to dictionaries of reflectance spectra of pigments utilized in the Roman period and analyzed computer algorithms. The team also used micro-samples of paint to assess the pigments used on the painting.

“Our goal is to use objects themselves as evidence for their production,” Walton said. “In our interrogation, we have used a number of cutting-edge analytical tools developed here at Northwestern to uncover new and intriguing clues about how to identify the hand of an individual artist.”

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