News Archive 2009-2018

Rare and Vivid 2,000-year-old Mummy Mask at Bowdoin Art Museum Archives

The portrait of the young boy, on dry and cracked wood, is roughly 2,000 years old. Yet the boy’s large brown eyes still appear vivid and lifelike under his gilded laurel. His pupils shine and his expression is serene.

Bowdoin College Museum of Art will display this mask, which once adorned a mummy, in a new show, AEGYPTUS Egypt in the Greco-Roman World. The exhibition explores Egypt in the time of the Greeks and Romans.

The Museum bought the mask at an auction in 2015, after a German family that had long owned it decided to sell the piece. Since then, Associate Professor of Classics Jim Higginbotham and his students have been attempting to discover more about the portrait. Higginbotham is also the Museum’s ancient collections associate curator.

While Higginbotham and his students do not yet know the identity of the boy, they do know the mask was painted in the second century CE in the Fayum region of Egypt. Fayum was a rich agricultural area where many well-off Greek and Macedonian immigrants lived. When the Romans conquered Egypt, the area become a cultural melting pot. “There was a population that embraced many styles we would consider Greco-Roman, but they also lived in a cultural environment that was Egypt,” Higginbotham said.

So the portrait of the boy, who appears to be on the cusp of adulthood and about to embrace the responsibilities of citizenship, was painted in a Greco-Roman style. It was also meant for a mummy, which was part of Egypt’s a millennia-old tradition of preparing corpses for the afterlife.

Higginbotham said it was not uncommon for elites throughout the Roman empire to commission self-portraits made from wax-based paints on wooden panels — even when they weren’t destined to be interred with a mummy. Yet, fewer than 1,000 of these types of portraits are known to exist today.

“The chances of survival in archaeology leads us to finding these only in Egypt [with its arid climate] because the climate in other parts of the world didn’t preserve these works,” Higginbotham said.

Egypt was an important part of the Roman state until the sixth century CE. In the AEGYPTUS: Egypt in the Greco-Roman World exhibition, artifacts from Egypt will be displayed alongside works from the Greco-Roman tradition to highlight the connections between these cultures and debt owed ancient Egypt.