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Department of Egyptian Antiquities: Roman Egypt (30 BC - AD 392)

Tête de momie

© Musée du Louvre

Egyptian Antiquities
Roman Egypt (30 BC - AD 392)

Author(s):
Aubert Marie-France

This mummified head of a man with curly hair still bears a fragment of the linen in which it was wrapped; the face is coated with gold leaf. Mummification was thought to help the deceased attain eternal life. Because of its color, gold symbolized the sun for the Egyptians, who believed it to be "the flesh of the gods"; mummies were not gilded until the Roman period.

The head of a man with curly red hair

The hair on the skull is red, indicating that it was dyed with henna according to the Egyptian custom. It is arranged in rows of curls, a hairstyle worn by ephebes which was fashionable in Egypt during the reign of the philhellenic emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD). Gold leaf was applied to the wizened skin of the face, covering it like a mask. At the back of the head is a tiny remnant of the case in which the mummy was wrapped – a complex network of bandages and multiple layers of linen.

Preserving the corpse

The Egyptians believed that a human being consisted of a mortal body together with immortal principles: the "ka" (vital force), the "akh" (invisible power), the "ba" (the wandering soul, capable of material action), and other elements such as the name and the shadow. If the deceased were to be granted eternal life after death, the body needed to be preserved in its entirety to prevent these principles from dispersing; this is illustrated by the myth of Osiris. Access to the afterlife required embalming, whether rudimentary or sophisticated (depending on the client's means).
Embalming entailed a series of long and complex operations which consisted of emptying the corpse of anything likely to decompose and then drying, rinsing, and wrapping it. During each operation a priest would recite the appropriate ritual passages, reproducing the process according to which Osiris was resurrected. Once the job was complete and the deceased had become a mummy like Osiris, he was thought to recover his youth and live forever.

Selected materials

Samples taken from a Roman mummy have indicated the use of bitumen from the Dead Sea, coniferous pitch (these two substances explain why the mummies were black), animal and vegetable fats, and plant extracts. According to written sources from the Roman period, the deceased's personal wardrobe could be used to provide wrappings for the mummy, with relatives contributing homespun linen.
According to Pharaonic funerary tradition, only the effigies of the deceased, such as coffin and cartonnages, were covered in gold or made of gold (as in the case of Tutankhamen). During the Roman period, the mummy itself was accorded this treatment, which identified it with Osiris and Ra, the sun god. The practice of embalming dates back to the Fourth Dynasty (2620-2500 BC); it reached its peak at the end of the New Kingdom (circa 1000 BC) and was continued more or less consistently through the fourth century AD.

Bibliography

M.-F. Aubert, R. Cortopassi, catalogue de l'exposition Portraits de l'Egypte romaine, Paris, musée du Louvre, 5 octobre 1998-4 janvier 1999, Paris, 1998, n 9

Technical description

  • Tête de momie

    Époque romaine

  • Tête momifiée, toile de lin, feuille d'or

    H. : 17 cm. ; Pr. : 23 cm.

  • AF 12533

  • Egyptian Antiquities

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