Bahariya – Valley of the Golden Mummies

“This is clearly seen on mummies of the period and the extent of ancient Egyptian motifs found on them.”

The best-preserved mummies found in Bawiti, including a female with gold-plated breasts, have been transferred to a museum nearby. More fragile specimens have been left in place and archaeologists plan to cover them with glass cages.

Not much is known about Bahriya oasis before a town developed there in the sixth century B.C. Its population grew under Greek rule, and Alexander the Great built a temple there after he entered Egypt in 332 B.C., but the town’s heyday was in Roman times.

The Bahariya mummies are a remarkable record of life and religion in an affluent community that was one of the premier wine-producing regions of antiquity, the cemetery complex is also an archive documenting the development and combination of cultures.

Here is the weft of history, the melding of funerary and religious tradition over the centuries. The inhabitants of the area are thought to have begun burying their dead at the oasis site soon after the founding of Bahariya following the arrival of Alexander the Great in 332-331 BC, and did so into the 2nd century AD. Roman rule of Egypt started shortly before the birth of Christ.

Grapes and dates grown in the region were exported to the Nile Valley and then to Rome and to Athens, and while this produced considerable wealth for local notables, there is evidence of democratisation in the tombs. Some of the most magnificent mummies, buried with pottery, amulets, ornaments and other artefacts, lie beside the simplest, linen-bound corpses.

In addition to providing clues to the social structure of the time, the mummies may also go some way towards revealing the demographics, while analysis of bones and teeth may explain what these people ate and how they died.Yet perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the find is the evidence of the artistic development in the gilded masks and scenes painted on the mummy cases, in a strange early echo of naturalistic portraiture.

The Romanised Egyptians seem to have adapted the funerary techniques of their Pharaonic predecessors in crucial ways: not only were the bodies of the dead to be preserved for the afterlife, their semi-realistic images were also painted to last. Pharaonic death masks were Everyman and Everywoman. Many found under the sands of Bahariya are distinct individuals.

These are by no means the first gilded Greco-Roman death masks from the period – British archaeologist William Flinders Petrie began studying them in 1888 – but they are some of the most beautiful and the most numerous preserved in a single site.

“The mask served as a substitute for the head of the deceased, endowing the individual with the attributes of deities and assisting his or her passage to the afterlife,” accor- ding to Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt, a recent book published by the British Museum.

The confluence of techniques is evident in the red-haired woman who caught the archaeologist’s eye when he first entered the tomb. “While her hairstyle was clearly Roman, reminiscent of terracotta statues of the period,” Dr Hawass wrote in the American magazine Archaeology, “the iconography of her mask, painted with deities that protected the deceased and eased her passage into the afterlife, was pure Egyptian.”

Yet while incorporating Egyptian symbolism, the mask-painters of Bahariya seem to have been intentionally painting people with individual characters, pasts and, given the afterlife, futures. The images are personalised, sometimes in touching ways. One female mummy is depicted with elaborate make-up, her large eyes accentuated by eyeliner, leading to speculation that she may have been unmarried in life and was beautified in death to enable her to find a groom in the afterlife.

The mummy masks of Bahariya provide a fascinating parallel to portraits found tucked into the linen shrouds of mummified corpses of another community from the same period. Painted on thin panels of wood or cloth, these depicted, with astonishing realism, a people of Greek origin believed to be descendants of Alexander the Great’s mercenaries, who lived in Egypt between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD.

One of the earliest forms of portraiture discovered so far, this art flourished briefly and mysteriously before vanishing, just as inexplicably, with the onset of Christianity.

Scans of the mummies’ skulls in these cases have revealed how accurate these portrait painters were, prompting the belief that their images were painted at the time of death, to be carried in a funeral procession and kept with the mummified body as a lasting memorial. These portraits are incredibly modern and naturalistic, produced with confident brush strokes using wax and natural pigments such as those found in egg yolk.

Similar, less sophisticated techniques may have been used to paint the masks in the Bahariya tombs, by modelling the images directly on the faces of the dead or dying. It is still not certain how these faces were produced: perhaps in some cases the painter knew the deceased, fashioning the masks and painting from memory, or perhaps both masks and portraits were painted before death.

The directness and expressiveness of the images in both cases seems to provide a link between ancient and modern portraiture, somehow vaulting across the idealised human representations of the intervening centuries.

No one has looked on these faces for at least 1,800 years, for the Bahariya Oasis cemetery is also unique in its pristine state.

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