Globalization theories are a great help in interpreting the material culture represented by the Fayum portraits of first and second century Egypt. Rome integrated the cultures of the people it conquered into its own culture. This was a successful praxis for this world dominating civilization (Elsner 1998). In Fayum we see a meeting of Greek, Egyptian and Roman material culture. There is a convergence of objects, styles and material properties each with their own significance and function. Globalization differs from acculturation in that it is not a replacement of a dominated culture by a dominant one. Rather it is a new inclusive culture container, where components of multiple cultures coexist harmoniously. In Fayum, we can see how the Roman praxis of globalization created an exceptional body of art that is so powerful that it feels timely and relevant to us 2000 years after its creation (Pitts 2014).
The process of globalization vs acculturation can be clearly seen in the Fayum mummy portraits. These portraits are astounding in their modern naturalism which seems quite at odds with conventional Egyptian death masks presenting traditional, stylized and rigid form. The Fayum mummy portraits have the vitality of stroke, color and directness that can be seen in Van Gogh, Matisse or even Kahlo. Though they were created roughly 2000 years ago, we glance at them and are drawn to them as kindred spirits of our own place and time. A connection is formed that nullifies the intervening millennia.
Two thousand years ago, when these portraits were made, Egypt was controlled by the Roman Empire. Trade and intercultural communications around the Mediterranean had been extant for over a thousand years. Humans then were much as humans now, adopting ideas, methods, philosophies and processes from other cultures which they found to be beneficial.
Much of the Mediterranean area was infused with Greek philosophy, religion, culture and art. The Romans eagerly accepted and integrated Greek sculptural methods into their own. Artfully displaying a respect for the beauty and strength of the human body, their sculptural representation was more formalized than natural. More often than not, realistic sculptural art forms were more monumental than personal or sensitive.
The pre first century Egyptian representation of humans are well known to be heavily stylized and formal. But the first century Fayum mummy portraits in Roman Egypt are a synergy of Egyptian, Greek and Roman cultures that is far superior to any one of these alone (Elsner 1998).
What is Roman about these portraits? The clothing, hair styles, jewelry and dress are Roman. What is Egyptian about these portraits? The mummification including the death mask is part of a multi millennial Egyptian tradition that was far reaching and integrated itself with Greek and Roman religious beliefs. In terms of globalization, Egyptian beliefs about death and the afterlife had been widely accepted throughout the Mediterranean region. The Egyptian Book of the Dead told the story of pharaoh’s association with the god Osiris. Isis became the wife of Osiris and belief in her spread throughout the Mediterranean. Romans facilitated such globalization by a policy of incorporating other cultures rather than eradicating them.
According to Brown, these extraordinary Fayum mummy portraits may have been of members of a group called “the 6485”. The oldest portrait was painted on linen and dated at 55 to 70 AD. It was discovered in 1911 when an archeological excavation of the Roman cemetery at Hawara was conducted south west of Cairo. The person responsible for this dig was Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie, a famous British Egyptologist noted for using statistical analysis in archeological research.
This oldest Fayum mummy was that of a young woman who lived during the time of Roman emperor Nero. Because her skin was fair, it might be assumed that she belonged to the upper class. There were cosmetics on her face to enhance her appearance. Her jewelry included gold ball earrings of the type popular in Pompeii and a gold necklace graced her neck. Her hair was adorned with a red band decorated with pearls. She wore a purple shawl around her shoulders.
Most of the Fayum mummy portraits depict young people. But the youth of the portrait might not be supported by scientific analysis of the body. In the case of a Fayum mummy of a 40-year-old woman at the Louvre, in Paris, the appearance is one of a young woman. This is in accordance with the cultural belief that one possesses eternal youth as an Osiris.
It is thought that the people in the portraits were the direct descendants of the original settlers in Fayum, who were Greek soldiers who fought for the Ptolemies in a Roman province of Egypt. In return for their service, they were given land and followed an Egyptian way of life. They considered themselves Romans and that is why the women dressed in Roman fashion and the men wore clavi; white red striped tunics (Brown 2011). These Romans were living in Egypt as loyal citizens but there were not many native Romans living among them. The dominant culture was still Egyptian and this was respected by Rome. The juxtaposition of classic Egyptian burial with Roman dress represents the mutual respect and compatibility of both these cultures in a globalized coexistence.
We are very fortunate for this sum that is far greater than its parts. The poignant and honest faces that have been preserved in the Fayum mummies peer at us across 2 millennia saying we are you. Our hopes, aspirations and willingness to globalize our cultures is a powerful koine for any time and place.
- Brown, Mark. 2011. Egyptian mummy portraits go on display at Ashmolean museum. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2011/oct/19/ancient-egyptian-mummy-portraits-ashmolean-museum
- Elsner, J. 1998. Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph: The Art of the Roman Empire AD 100-450. Chapter 5. Oxford University Press.
- Pitts, M. 2014. Roman Visualizing Material Culture as Globalizing Koine. P 3-20. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781107338920