Field Museum gives inside look into how researchers analyze millennia-old portrait

Researcher Marc Sebastian Walton said 2,000-year-old portrait helps tell a story of a period when Egypt was part of the Roman Empire that helped blend Roman, Greek and Egyptian culture into one.

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Marc Sebastian Walton of Northwestern University talks about their findings from a 2,000-year-old portrait that was part of the wrappings of an Egyptian mummy being researched at the Field Museum, Wednesday, July 28, 2021.

Marc Sebastian Walton of Northwestern University talks about their findings from a 2,000-year-old portrait that was part of the wrappings of an Egyptian mummy being researched at the Field Museum, Wednesday, July 28, 2021.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The Field Museum gave a glimpse into how scientists can analyze a 2,000-year-old portrait that can reveal ancient trade routes for painting materials and manufacturing techniques using state-of-the-art technology.

Researchers can examine the way paint reflects, absorbs and emits radiation at different wavelengths by using a special camera that can capture light in the ultraviolet and infrared ranges beyond what can be seen with the human eye.

The portrait examined Wednesday is thought to have been displayed in the 1893 World’s Fair and was later added to the Field’s collection. Researchers Giovanni Verri of the Art Institute of Chicago and Marc Sebastian Walton of Northwestern University are leading the effort to learn how it was made — and what it can tell us about the period.

Walton said the millennia-old portrait helps tell a story of a period when Egypt was part of the Roman Empire that helped blend Roman, Greek and Egyptian culture into one. This meant including a painted portrait of a deceased person on a slab of wood that was then incorporated into the mummy’s wrappings.

“When we are looking at this, it is in a fragmentary state, but by using all these analytical techniques, we can basically go back in time to realize what these might have looked like originally,” Walton said. “This is considered to be the beginnings of Western portraitures and would become very critically important when we are talking about the entire scope of the history of art. This is really where our painting practices began.”

Walton said the portrait they’ve been examining used to belong to “a whole intact mummy” and was placed above the face of a person who died — the entire body was then wrapped in linen. He said they believe the portrait originates from the 2nd century A.D. and was excavated out of Egypt.

A 2,000-year-old portrait that was part of the wrappings of an Egyptian mummy being researched at the Field Museum on Wednesday, July 28, 2021.

A 2,000-year-old portrait that was part of the wrappings of an Egyptian mummy being researched at the Field Museum on Wednesday, July 28, 2021.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The influences of Roman culture on the Egyptians are revealed in how the portrait is painted. It features a woman dressed in Roman garments and her hair is styled in a way not traditionally done in Egypt.

“It has some aspects of it that is about ancient Egyptian religion, but it was painted during the Roman period, and the deceased was wearing a Roman-style hair dress, jewelry that really spoke to the fashions of the time,” Walton said.

The team of researchers’ examination into the portraiture’s pigments is also a window into how countries were trading among each other during the period.

“The materials themselves speak to globalization of the Roman world in that they are not just coming from local deposits,” Walton said.

Verri said by also examining the kinds of pigment used to paint the portrait they can determine technological advances that are still being used today — like the pigment called “Egyptian blue.”

That pigment, which is featured in the portrait, is the “strongest infrared emitter known to man, so they created something that is technologically extraordinarily complex.”

The properties in Egyptian blue is still being used today, Verri said, to help detect counterfeit money, in fingerprinting, for lasers and medical applications.

Researcher Giovanni Verri of the Art Institute of Chicago shines a light on a 2,000-year-old portrait that was part of the wrappings of an Egyptian mummy being researched at the Field Museum to see the infrared rays on the camera, Wednesday, July 28, 2021.

Researcher Giovanni Verri of the Art Institute of Chicago shines a light on a 2,000-year-old portrait that was part of the wrappings of an Egyptian mummy being researched at the Field Museum to see the infrared rays on the camera Wednesday, July 28, 2021.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

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