See gorgeous ancient Egyptian ‘mummy portraits’ from nearly 2 millennia ago

These ancient ‘mummy portraits’ provide a window into ancient Egyptian life and culture.

This portrait, painted between A.D. 150 and 200 on wood, shows a young woman with brown doe eyes, a slender nose and thick eyebrows.This portrait, painted between A.D. 150 and 200 on wood, shows a young woman with brown doe eyes, a slender nose and thick eyebrows. (Image credit: Photo (C) Musée du Louvre, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Georges Poncet)

In the early first millennium, many mummies in Egypt were affixed with lifelike portraits showcasing the deceased’s once-vivid eyes, styled hair and elaborate jewelry. Over the past few centuries, archaeologists have unearthed more than 1,000 of these mummy paintings, largely from the city of Fayum, earning them the name “Fayum portraits.”

These well-preserved, mesmerizing portraits still captivate, prompting Allard Pierson, a museum in Amsterdam, to feature nearly 40 Fayum portraits in its exhibit “Face to Face: The People Behind Mummy Portraits,” which opened Oct. 6 and runs through Feb. 25, 2024.

The portraits, created during Egypt’s Roman period (30 B.C. to A.D. 395), often depict individuals with European heritage, who moved to the area following Alexander the Great’s rule, the subsequent Ptolemaic dynasty (305 to 30 B.C.) led by one of his generals and the Roman period, when the empire made Egypt into a province.

The portraits were often painted on wooden panels with the two upper corners cut off so they could be easily inserted into the mummy bandages, over the face of the mummified body, Ben van den Bercken, curator of the Collection Ancient Egypt and Sudan at Allard Pierson, told Live Science.

Below are 12 of the portraits, each revealing hints about the deceased and their culture.

1.  Portrait of Ammonius

 (Image credit: Photo (C) Musée du Louvre, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Georges Poncet)

In the restored “Portrait of ‘Ammonius,'” painted on linen sometime between A.D. 225 and 250, a young man holds a chalice in one hand and a flower bouquet in the other. The artist gave Ammonius several distinctive features, including large lips, prominent ears, eye bags and strangely curved fingers, according to the book “Mummy Portraits in the J. Paul Getty Museum” (Oxford University Press, 1982).

2. Pearl earrings

 (Image credit: Photo (C) Musée du Louvre, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Georges Poncet)

This portrait, painted between A.D. 150 and 200 on wood, shows a young woman with brown doe eyes, a slender nose and thick eyebrows. Pearls, like the ones she wears, are one of the “most ubiquitous” types of earrings in the Fayum portraits, van den Bercken said. Jewelry and hairstyles can help researchers date the portraits, he noted. For instance, women’s hairdos could “be very elaborate” and often reflected fashions and trends from Rome itself, “mainly [from] the empress,” he said.

However, it’s always a question how long it took the fashions of Rome to reach Egypt. In some cases, “something fashionable in Egypt might have already gone out of fashion in Rome itself,” van den Bercken said.

3. Bearded man

 (Image credit: Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden)

In this portrait, painted on wood sometime between A.D. 175 and 225, we see a curly-haired, bearded man clad in white. The man’s beard may mimic the facial hair of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (reign 161 to 180), who also sported a beard.

4. Elegant jewelry

 (Image credit: Allard Pierson, Amsterdam)

This portrait, painted on wood sometime between A.D. 175 and 200, shows a dark-haired woman wearing a matching necklace and earrings. However, as in other Fayum portraits, it’s unclear if it portrays the deceased when they were younger or around the time of death.

In some cases, the portraits were fairly accurate, according to a 2020 study in the journal PLOS One. A team took a CT (computed tomography) scan of a young boy’s mummy from Roman Egypt, digitally reconstructed his face and then compared the reconstruction with his portrait. According to an analysis, the portrait made the child look younger than his 3 or 4 years but was otherwise spot-on.

5. Vivid eyes

 (Image credit: Paris, Musée du Louvre, Département des Antiquités égyptiennes)

This male portrait, painted circa A.D. 250 on limewood, was purchased in the early 1800s by Henry Salt, the British vice-consul in Egypt, making it one of the earliest Fayum portraits recovered in the modern age, according to “Mummy Portraits in the J. Paul Getty Museum.”

The earliest record of a Fayum portrait being collected dates to 1615, when a group of the paintings was brought from Saqqara, Egypt, to Europe by the Roman nobleman Pietro della Valle.

6. Girl with gold wreath

 (Image credit: Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen, Mannheim)

In this portrait, painted on wood between A.D. 120 and 130, we see a young girl wearing a pearl necklace and a golden wreath in her hair. “This wreath is an indication that she ‘overcame’ death,” van den Bercken said.

7. Man with gold wreath

 (Image credit: Egyptian Collection of the HCCH of Heidelberg University)

Women weren’t the only ones painted with gold wreaths. In this portrait, painted on wood sometime between A.D. 150 and 200, we see a bearded man sporting his own gold laurels.

8. Realistic portraiture

 (Image credit: Museum August Kestner, Hannover)

This portrait, painted circa A.D. 150, shows a man clothed in white and wearing a gold wreath. The Fayum portraits’ compelling images inspired artists painting icons in the late Byzantine Empire, as well as artists in the late 19th and 20th centuries, according to Allard Pierson. Today, this style is seen as one of the earliest known examples of realistic painted portraiture.

9. Curly-haired man

 (Image credit: Allard Pierson Museum, Amsterdam)

This man’s beard helped researchers date his portrait to the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Like others with portraits, the man painted here may have had European roots. Many Greeks and Romans lived in Egypt, first during the Ptolemaic dynasty, which started when one of Alexander the Great’s generals took over the region, and later when Rome made Egypt into a province following the death of Cleopatra VII.

10. Eyes and eyelashes

 (Image credit: Allard Pierson, Amsterdam)

This portrait, painted on wood between A.D. 300 and 400, shows a woman wearing pearl earrings. “A lot of detail has been put in the composition of eyes and eyelashes,” van den Bercken said. A few clues hint that the deceased were upper-middle class or elite, including that many wore ornate jewelry in these portraits. In addition, individuals or their families had to pay an artist for the portrait. “They were not easy to make, not cheap to make resource-wise,” van den Bercken said. “The people who ordered them must have had some financial means to do this.”

11. Fancy necklace

 (Image credit: UCL Petrie Museum of Egyptian and Sudanese, Archaeology, University College London)

This woman’s portrait was painted sometime between A.D. 160 and 190. The majority of known Fayum portraits were found in the 1800s, but in 2022, archaeologists announced that they had discovered more at a cemetery in the ancient city of Philadelphia in Egypt.

12. Bright-eyed woman

This portrait, painted on wood between A.D. 170 and 200, was found in Egypt in the 1880s, according to “Mummy Portraits in the J. Paul Getty Museum.” The woman wears pearl earrings, a necklace, a hot-pink tunic and black clavi, or vertical strips of ornamentation. Her curly hair is drawn into a bun.