Thursday, March 17, 2011


Lorelei H. Corcoran, Marie Svoboda, Herakleides: A Portrait Mummy from Roman Egypt. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011. Pp. 112. ISBN 9781606060360. $25.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Jane Draycott, University of Nottingham (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Herakleides: a Portrait Mummy from Roman Egypt not only provides the results of a series of scientific analyses, but also those of a comprehensive classical, Egyptological and art historical, study undertaken on the Herakleides portrait mummy. Consequently, it serves as an extremely informative and useful case study with regard to funerary practice in Egypt during the Roman period.

The Herakleides portrait mummy was first acquired by the J. Paul Getty Museum in 1991, and was subject to a full study by the Museum's Antiquities Conservation Department in 2003, before finally being exhibited for the first time at the Getty Villa in 2006. The questions raised by the study were numerous and comprehensive: whether the portrait attached to the mummy represented the mummified individual; the precise state of preservation of the body inside the wrappings; whether there were any inclusions such as jewels or amulets within the wrappings; what materials had been used in the mummification and subsequent adornment process; and whether a precise date could be attached to the mummy and the portrait respectively. Additionally, in 2006 the Herakleides portrait mummy was included as part of the "Getty Red-Shroud Study Group", a project which aimed to determine whether similar materials were used to manufacture nine red-shroud mummies. It would appear, based on the information presented here, that both studies were resounding successes, and have added immeasurably to our knowledge not only of mummy portraits, but also of portrait mummies, beliefs about the afterlife, funerary practice and the mechanics of the mummification process in Egypt during the Roman period.

The introduction offers an overview of the provenance of the Herakleides portrait mummy and some background detail on the other artefacts from Roman Egypt contained in the J. Paul Getty Museum. There is also a brief history of mummification, and a summary of the Getty Museum's recent forays into research in this field, namely the red-shroud study and the 2006 symposium 'Exploring Romano-Egyptian Mummies'.

The remainder of the book takes a systematic approach to the Herakleides portrait mummy and examines different aspects of it in a series of short sections. The first section, 'Mummy Portraits and Portrait Mummies', offers a potted history of the public and academic fascination with mummy portraits and portrait mummies from their first appearance in Europe in the seventeenth century, as well as explanations of the different types of portraits and mummies produced over time, all of which is relevant to the subsequent discussion of the Herakleides portrait mummy in its historical, cultural and religious context in section seven.

The second section, 'Description of the Mummy of Herakleides', offers an extremely detailed description of the mummy shroud, incorporating discussion of the motifs and text painted onto the shroud and revealing for the first time that, in addition to the name of the deceased, the name of his father or, more likely, his mother is painted onto the shroud too: 'Herakleides, son of Therm[os]' or, more likely, 'Herakleides, son of [the lady] Thermou[this] / Thermou[tharion]' (p. 29). This text was written in a literary hand with orthography typical of Greek writing in Egypt during the first century AD. Corcoran and Svoboda suggest that the text's positioning on the feet of the mummy indicates that it was intended to be read by Herakleides, perhaps to remind him of his name in the afterlife. They also note that the similarities between the iconography of this mummy shroud and other examples excavated from el-Hibeh by Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt in 1903 indicate that the Herakleides portrait mummy could have originated from the same cemetery.

The third section, 'The Portrait of Herakleides', turns its attention to the mummy portrait. As in the previous section, a detailed description is provided, both of the portrait itself and of additional features such as the gilding around the portrait and the addition of a gilt crown. Comparisons are drawn between this particular crown and examples on other mummy portraits and suggestions are made as to their possible religious significance such as involvement in the cults of Sarapis and Isis. This is followed by a discussion of portrait technology, encompassing encaustic and tempera techniques, how accurate such portraits might have been, the extent to which portraits can be accurately dated according to style, and the materials out of which they were made. Analyses revealed the Herakleides mummy portrait was executed in wax-tempera (tempera containing beeswax) on imported lime wood.

The fourth section, 'Physical Properties Analyses', details the scientific techniques used on the Herakleides portrait mummy materials, namely the red, white, blue, green and black pigments used to colour the shroud, the gold leaf used on the portrait and the shroud, and the resins and textiles of the mummy. Analyses reveal that the red lead pigment used to colour the shroud originated from the Roman silver-mining site of Rio Tinto in southwest Spain, while the blue pigment was vergaut—a combination of indigo and orpiment—the earliest use of which was previously thought to have been on the illuminated manuscript of the ninth century AD Book of Kells. The resin was found to contain conifer resin, beeswax and cedar oil, while the textiles consisted of a range of different linen weaves.

The fifth section, 'Imaging Herakleides', details the imaging techniques used on the mummy to enable the examination of the interior without any destruction. Each technique used is briefly explained for the benefit of readers without a scientific background. It is this section that provides the majority of the new information about the Herakleides portrait mummy: examination of the images of Herakleides' bones and teeth revealed that he was aged around twenty when he died, corresponding with the youthful man depicted in the mummy portrait; he was around 5ft 6in tall, above average height for an individual in this period; there was a packet containing five small objects—perhaps amulets—included in his wrappings; and, most intriguing of all, a mummified ibis was placed on his stomach, directly below the spot where an ibis motif was painted onto the outer layer of the shroud. The Herakleides portrait mummy was thus revealed to be the first human mummy found to contain a mummified animal within its wrappings. Corcoran and Svoboda note that the ibis was sacred to Thoth, the god of wisdom, writing and scholarship, and suggest that Herakleides was a devotee or perhaps even a priest or a scribe.

The sixth section, 'Dating the Mummy of Herakleides', briefly gives the results of the radiocarbon dating of wax, resin and linen from the mummy wrappings as AD 5-127, consistent with the writing on the shroud but not necessarily consistent with the mid-second-century AD date suggested for the portrait mummy and other, similarly decorated red-shroud mummies. However, Corcoran and Svoboda offer a plausible explanation for this discrepancy—that the textiles used for the wrappings were retained or reused.

The seventh section, 'Herakleides and Romano-Egyptian Mummies', is the lengthiest, integrating the results from the study of the Herakleides portrait mummy with the results of the Red-Shroud Study in an attempt to place the former into an historical, cultural and religious context. Throughout this section emphasis is placed upon the maintenance of tradition and continuity with Pharaonic practice, particularly in the iconography of the red-shroud portrait mummies and the variety of ways in which the specific elements chosen can be read and interpreted, but also in the practice of colouring the shrouds entirely in red pigment, and the use of gilding.

An appendix contributed by Marc Walton, based on a previously published article, details the findings from analysis of the red lead pigment taken from the Herakleides portrait mummyand from six other red-shroud mummies.1 The strong compositional similarities between the seven samples indicated that they all originated from Rio Tinto in southwest Spain, leading Walton to suggest that the seven red-shroud mummies may have been prepared in the same workshop.

Considering its comparatively low price, Herakleides: a Portrait Mummy from Roman Egypt is a publication of extremely high quality. The book is beautifully illustrated, including a map of Egypt, a timeline, high quality colour photographs and line drawings of the Herakleides portrait mummy and a range of other specimens, the results of numerous scientific imaging techniques, and well laid out charts and tables. In their conclusion, Corcoran and Svoboda state '[we] are from two different professional worlds but have combined [our] expertise to produce a study that melds empirical evidence obtained through the latest scientific analytical methods with a reconstruction of the past made possible through art/historical interpretation' (p. 93). They have certainly succeeded in this excellent case study which will be of use to both art and ancient historians, and scientists alike. It is suitable for interested amateurs, undergraduates, postgraduates and academics. Let us hope that in the future, other portrait mummies and mummy portraits are subjected to similar levels of scrutiny and that the further research identified as necessary by Corcoran and Svoboda—the identification of the location of specific workshops for the production of portrait mummies and mummy portraits, and the phenomenon of including mummified birds and animals in the wrappings of mummified humans—is undertaken.


1.   Marc S. Warren and Karen Trentelman (2009) 'Roman-Egyptian Red Lead Pigment: a Subsidiary Commodity of Spanish Silver Mining and Refinement' Archaeometry 51.5: 845-60.

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