Earring Unearthed In Bulgaria Matches Those In Multiple Mummy Portraits

April 4, 2024

Fashion in the period of classical antiquity seems to have followed trends that extended much further than we ever imagined. In this case, extending from the ladies of Roman Egypt all the way to the women of ancient Bulgaria. An ancient earring discovered by archaeologists in Bulgaria matches the jewelry painted on more than one Roman Egyptian mummy portrait. Archaeologists excavating at Bulgaria’s ancient Roman colony of Deultum located near the modern town of Debelt, close to the Black Sea coast, have discovered a single earring, made of gold, that almost “perfectly” matches the earrings depicted in the Fayum mummy portraits of Roman Egypt.

Earring Unearthed In Bulgaria Matches Those In Multiple Mummy Portraits

The Connection Between Ancient Bulgaria And Roman Egypt

Mummy portraits, or specifically Fayum mummy portraits (also Faiyum), are naturalistic painted portraits of deceased people’s faces that appear on wooden boards attached to the exterior of upper-class mummy coffins buried in Egypt between the 1st century BC and the 3rd century AD. These ghostly ancient art works represent one of the most highly regarded forms of art in the Classical World. The majority of these paintings have been found at the edge of the Fayum Oasis, southwest of Cairo, at the Hawara archaeological site, as well as at the Roman city of Antinoopolis, dating from the time of Emperor Hadrian (ruled 117 – 138 AD).

The ancient Roman colony of Deultum (or Develtos) was built in the 1st century AD near a previously existing Thracian settlement, in southeastern Bulgaria. Deultum was famously controlled by Roman military veterans of the Legio VIII Augusta (Augustus’ Eighth Legion), who were based near the modern Mandra Water Reservoir, which in ancient times had port connecting it to the Black Sea.

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Earring Unearthed In Bulgaria Matches Those In Multiple Mummy PortraitsEarring Unearthed In Bulgaria Matches Those In Multiple Mummy Portraits

Two examples of Fayum mummy portraits showing the same kind of earring as the earring found at Deultum in Bulgaria. (Left: Public Domain; Right: Public Domain)

How The Earring Suggests Regional Fashion Trends

The ancient earring found in Belgium was discovered by archaeologists excavating in the Deultum Archaeological Preserve. They began digging on October 1, 2020, and the earring was discovered two days later. According to Krasimira Kostova, head of the Deultum Archaeological Preserve, the gold earring was found jammed in between tiles in one of the rooms in the ruins of the thermae (public baths) of Deultum, beneath an embankment. An article in Archaeology in Bulgaria states it is “exactly the same as earrings of women depicted in some of the Fayum [Fayum] mummy portraits,” and based on this strong visual similarity the earring has been dated to the 2nd century AD.

Earring Unearthed In Bulgaria Matches Those In Multiple Mummy Portraits

Two other Fayum mummy portraits showing the exact same earrings as the one found by archaeologists in Bulgaria.  (Left: Public Domain; Right: Public Domain)

Professor Kostova say these kind of gold earrings are “extremely sophisticated.” She described them as featuring a top part filled with white glass that has a slightly yellowish color. Below the top part is a filigree holder with three pendants, each ending with a white glass ball. The three white glass balls are coated in an ancient patina surface, making them look like pearls. And in one of those rare occasions when an archeological discovery matches with an ancient art, the archaeologist says the earring is “exactly the same” as those depicted on a noble woman in one of the Fayum [Fayum] mummy portraits.

Kostova told Archaeology in Bulgaria that she believes the ancient earring had perhaps been dropped during the panic created by “a major earthquake” that destroyed the hot springs (thermae) of Deultum in 357 – 358 AD. However, while this earthquake hypothesis is a possibility, it is speculative at this point.

The archaeologist explained that the gold earring was probably “lost as it fell between the tiles, and when the thermae were destroyed by the earthquake, it remained there.” It was then buried when the site was later leveled with embankments. Whether the earthquake origin story turns out to be an archaeological fact or myth is yet to be determined. What this earring does indicate, according to Kostova, is that female inhabitants of the Roman colony of Deultum were in sync with the current fashion trends of the Roman Empire.

Once the gold earring has been fully studied, and after a complete comparison has been made with every aspect of the painted earrings in the Fayum mummy portraits, it will eventually be displayed in the Deultum Archaeological Preserve museum.

Top image: The earring found in Bulgaria (right) compared with the earrings in a Fayum mummy portrait.            Source: Left: Public Domain; Right: Archaeology in Bulgaria

By Ashley Cowie