Today the death mask of Tutankhamun is one of the most abiding images of Ancient Egypt. That perfect face staring calmly into the dusts of eternity. The gold is more valuable than just its craftsmanship, raw weight or even its historical importance. Its ‘symbolic’ meaning, to use an imperfect term, lies beyond articulation and yet is easily understood. It makes immortality tangible. It is the circle of life. It is the light of the sun and the hope of the deathless soul.
Signs and Wonders in the land of Egypt
Just a few decades before Carter’s discovery, WF Petrie the Racist and Egyptologist, saw gold death masks very differently. Digging in the Fayum region of Egypt, he came across a cache of mummies from the Greco-Roman period (dating c. 332 BCE – 641 CE). So many of these were buried with golden death masks, that he complained of ‘a plague of gilt mummies’.
Petrie’s use of the term ‘plague’ is telling. His excavation was funded by the Egyptian Exploration Fund (later Society), which was itself founded in 1882 by the indomitable Amelia Edwards. Later that year, Britain invaded Egypt which made the work of the Fund easier. Early on it sought patronage from wealthy British industrialists, many of whom were committed Christians interested in Egypt because of the land’s biblical vintage.
In return for funding, the masks were sent to various British towns. In large part due to this system, Manchester now houses an important collection of ancient Egyptian items, including the mummified remains of ancient Egyptians.
Egypt was also an important source for cotton which was the vital raw material processed in the great mills in Manchester and the other industrial centres in Lancashire. Conditions for factory workers were harsh, as detailed in books like Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England. Yet the industry was a cornerstone of the British economy. Manchester’s dependence on Egypt only grew following the American Civil War, when slave produced cotton was hard to come by. (Many cotton mill owners supported the Confederacy, as did their newspaper of choice, the Manchester Guardian, whilst the mill workers supported an embargo of cotton).
War, colonialism and exploitation are all closely linked.
In a new book, Golden Mummies of Egypt, written to support an exhibition of the same name, Dr Campbell Price (Curator of Egypt and Sudan) examines the mummies collected by Petrie and the Egyptian archaeologists who worked for him. It openly describes the inequalities which led to the collections.
The items were excavated in Hawara in the Fayum where Pharaoh Amenemhet III had built his mortuary temple. It was so big that it became known as the Labyrinth. Herodotus visited it. Its importance continued into the Roman period, when many authors and dignitaries visited the site. It was clearly a stop on the ancient tourist trail, along with the neighbouring crocodile temples.
Hawara was mentioned in many books by ancient authors; however, we know little of what the site looks like. The archaeological reconstruction of the site is complicated by reuse of buildings at later stages and the fact that disused buildings were used as a quarry in later times. Petrie is known as the father of modern Egyptology. He is credited with introducing important processes like mapping a site during the dig so that the exact locations of objects are known. In fact, he did not do this in Hawara.
People in the Greek and Roman period had a fascination for Egyptian culture and religion. Although many Roman authors sneered at the animal gods, Egyptian cults were popular outside of the Nile Valley. Within Egypt, animal gods continued to be revered. Religious practices in Egypt continued to develop during this period, inspired by earlier traditions and new fashions. This is also reflected in the mummies. Greek mummies tend to be in coffins, whereas Roman mummies have elaborate wrapping but no coffin.
It is possible that mummies were kept in rooms that could be visited by family members and possibly partake of ritual banquets.
The god Anubis was an important god in the mummification process. He is often depicted on sarcophagus of shrouds on the chest performing this action, which was understood to transfer the corpse into a god; an Osiris or Hathor. The Egyptian word ‘sah’ can mean mummy or statue.
Masks reflected this transformation. The gods were perfect and the masks depict young and beautiful people, in ways that might challenge modern sensibilities. Young women could be portrayed at an older age, suggesting sexuality.
In the Roman period, masks were produced in different styles and in different media. The famous ‘Fayum portraits’ which seem closest to a Western conception of realistic portraiture were used alongside more traditionally ‘Egyptian’ looking masks. This does not mean that the Fayum portraits were used by Greeks or Romans in the country. Indeed, a study shows that populations used the same styles. The other thing that we must bear in mind is that we do not really know how ‘realistic’ these portraits were.
Petrie took great pleasure in commenting on them. One male portrait was ‘scraggy’, a female was ‘sweet’. Of one he said ‘ a charming head of a girl with ingenuous sparkling expression, but very modern in appearance – such as one might meet in any drawing rooms these days’.
As much as we might laugh at Petrie’s comments, it reflects one of the very reasons these images are still popular and still resonate and that is the fact that many people feel they can ‘read’ the faces or identify with them. They transcend the 2,000 odd years.
This is a lucid book which fully examines the complexities of the topic without losing itself in detail. The beautiful photographs by Julia Thorne bring out the fine detail and the solidity of items.