Rediscovered Roman-Era Mummy Sheds Light on Ancient Egyptian Artistic Practices

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A recent study used fiber optics reflectance spectroscopy (FORS), X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectroscopy, and Raman spectroscopy to characterize a painted shroud wrapped around a female Egyptian mummy.

Spectroscopic techniques, such as fiber optics reflectance spectroscopy (FORS), X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectroscopy, and Raman spectroscopy, can help elucidate new artistic techniques of ancient Egypt, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Cultural Heritage (1).

Recent advancements in analytical techniques have benefitted historians and archaeologists. Through the use of these analytical techniques, including nondestructive spectroscopic techniques and chromatographic techniques like gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC–MS), archaeologists have been able to learn more about the materials used for preparing mummies (2). In this study, Anna Piccirillo from the Centro per la Conservazione ed il Restauro dei Beni Culturali “La Venaria Reale” in Torino, Italy, and the rest of her team studied a rare painted shroud wrapped around a female Egyptian mummy, dating back to the Roman period (1st–2nd century C.E.), using several spectroscopic techniques to discover new insights into the artistic techniques of ancient Egypt (1). This mummy, identified as MCABo EG 1974, was rediscovered in the Museo Civico Archeologico of Bologna's warehouses as part of the Bologna Mummy Project (BOmp), an interdisciplinary initiative by the Museo Civico Archeologico and the Institute for Mummy Studies of Eurac Research in Bolzano, Italy.

Ancient Egyptian mummy | Image Credit: © Jaroslav Moravcik - stock.adobe.com

Ancient Egyptian mummy | Image Credit: © Jaroslav Moravcik - stock.adobe.com

The research team employed a variety of analytical techniques to study the shroud and mummy. Computed tomography (CT) scans revealed variations in radio-densities in some flesh tones and red decorations, suggesting the use of different materials (1). Visible photography and multiband imaging provided a detailed overview of the materials' distribution on the shroud's surface.

Then, the research team used FORS, XRF spectroscopy, and Raman spectroscopy to analyze the color palette of the shroud. The palette included mineral pigments and plant-derived dyes such as red lead, red ocher, madder, an unknown yellow dye, Egyptian blue and green, and a carbon-based black. The researchers also employed additional techniques, such as optical microscopy (OM), scanning electron microscopy with energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (SEM–EDS), and high-performance liquid chromatography coupled with diode-array detection and mass spectrometry (HPLC-DAD and HPLC–MS), to further detail the composition of these pigments (1).

To enhance pigment identification, the researchers used their MOLBA equipment to conduct macro-XRF (MA-XRF) and combined X-ray diffraction (XRD) spot analysis. Transmission Fourier-transform infrared (FT-IR) spectroscopy with GC–MS was employed to identify the paint binders and other organic substances involved in embalming and ritual practices (1). These included animal fat, plant lipid, Pinaceae resin, gum, and beeswax, indicating sophisticated preservation techniques (1).

The researchers also studied the soil residues collected from the inner folds of the shroud, with the hope of figuring out the origins of them. Through XRD analysis, the research team determined that they came from Upper Egypt; based on the historical timeline, they theorized that the most likely origin was West Thebes (1).

The study conducted by this team in Italy not only enriches our understanding of Roman-Egyptian artistic practices, but it also emphasizes the value of interdisciplinary research in uncovering historical truths. Anna Piccirillo and her team’s work demonstrated the use of many analytical techniques and their utility in cultural heritage preservation projects.

The rediscovery and analysis of the MCABo EG 1974 mummy offer a rare glimpse into the craftsmanship and cultural practices of ancient Egypt, underscoring the historical significance of such finds and the need for continued preservation efforts (1).

References

(1) Piccirillo, A.; Buscaglia, P.; Caliri, C.; et al. Unraveling the Mummy's Shroud: A Multi-Analytical Study of a Rare Painted Textile from Roman Egypt. J. Cult. Herit. 2024, 68, 107–121. DOI: 10.1016/j.culher.2024.05.006

(2) Lucejko, J.; Connan, J.; Orsini, S.; et al. Chemical Analyses of Egyptian Mummification Balms and Organic Residues from Storage Jars Dated from the Old Kingdom to the Copto-Byzantine Period. J. Arch. Sci. 2017, 85, 1–12. DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2017.06.015

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