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Department of Egyptian Antiquities: Religious and funerary beliefs

Mummy Mask

© 2007 Musée du Louvre / Christian Décamps

Egyptian Antiquities
Religious and funerary beliefs

Author(s):
David Elisabeth

Ancient Egyptian men are generally thought of as having been clean-shaven, but beards and moustaches are quite frequently found on statues and mummy masks in collections the world over. They were more common towards the end of the Old Kingdom and the beginning of the Middle Kingdom. In the tombs of the Assiut cemetery, which date from the Middle Kingdom, several mummy masks have these features.

Development of the Mummy Mask

The mummy made its appearance in the Fourth Dynasty, when chemical treatments for the corpse were first developed. Old Kingdom mummies look like a big bale of fabric, and do not attempt to reproduce exactly the form of the human body. During the Fifth Dynasty came the first attempts at suggesting the appearance of the deceased: some mummies were covered in a thin coat of plaster with some degree of modeling, especially on the face. Those of the First Intermediate Period are also of the "bale" type, although masks of the "cartonnage" style (successive layers of linen held in place with plaster), with the facial features modeled and painted, began to make their appearance. One of these, from Sheikh Farag, has a beard and moustache.

Beard: True or False?

It is difficult to judge a mask's resemblance to the mummified face of its owner. The Assiut mummies were particularly badly preserved, and Emile Chassinat, responsible for the excavations, made no attempt to investigate the mummy at the time of its discovery. However, over one hundred kilometers from Assiut, the cemetery of Beni Hassan, which also dates from the Middle Kingdom and which yielded somewhat similar materials, also contained a body provided with a mask of the same kind. The mummy was that of a man, who did indeed have a beard and moustache. There are other examples of masks with beard and moustache, which also have the short false beard characteristic of Egyptian notables.

From the Mummy Mask to the Anthropomorphic Coffin

The masks of the early second millennium are all based on the same model: they cover the head and extend down the back and over the chest, like a cuirass. There are holes for the cords that attach the mask to the mummy, and its prolongation in the "cuirass" allowed the mask to be held in place by the last layers of bandages. The decoration, too, is fairly stereotyped. In general, a man has a wig with two sections that come down in front of each shoulder, and a headband on the forehead. At the crown of the head is a bunch of flowers, and a usekh collar adorns the chest. The ears may be absent, painted (as is the case here), or sculpted separately and fixed in place by tenons. It seems that the Egyptians called this kind of mask an "egg-shell." In the New Kingdom, the endeavor to render the aspect of the deceased would lead to the development of the anthropomorphic coffin.

Bibliography

Un siècle de fouilles françaises, 1880-1980, catalogue d'exposition, Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, Paris, 1981, p. 133

Technical description

  • Mummy Mask

    Middle Kingdom, early Twelfth Dynasty, circa 1950 BC

    Assiut, cemetery, Tomb No. 6

  • Cloth glued, plastered and painted

    H. 50.5 cm; W. 31 cm; D. 29 cm

  • Gift of the Egyptian Government, as part of the policy for dividing archaeological finds, 1903

    E 11995

  • Egyptian Antiquities

    Sully wing
    Ground floor
    The Book of the Dead
    Room 17

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