Technical study of an Egyptian cast plaster mummy mask in the collection of the Harvard Art Museums

Haddon Dine, Julie Wertz, Katherine Eremin, and Angela Chang


An in-depth technical examination of a Mummy Mask of a Man (1965.551) in the collection of the Harvard Art Museums is underway to learn more about its manufacture and original appearance, adding to the limited body of technical knowledge of such objects. The three-dimensional plaster head was made in Egypt during the period of the Roman empire, and it has significant remnants of paint, as well as translucent glass over the eyes. This head is a fragment of a larger object that would have extended farther, likely including hands crossed over the chest, and it would have been placed over a mummy. Like the well-known Fayum panel paintings, the mask is a portrait of the deceased that combines Roman and Egyptian funerary practices. These masks were made during the same period as the panel paintings, although mummy masks have a much longer history in Egypt and also continued being made for longer. The Harvard mask belongs to a category of plaster mummy masks with raised heads modeled in the round, with panels extending from the neck. At least part of the head, including the face, was cast in a mold, with details such as the hair, beard, eyes, and ears added. The construction methods used for the head and assembly of the components, including insertion of the eyes, are being investigated. The study includes visual examination, multiband imaging, X-radiography, X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF), scanning electron microscopy-energy dispersive spectroscopy (SEM-EDS), Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR), and Raman spectroscopy to characterize construction methods, pigments, binders, and other possible materials. Micro-computed tomography (micro-CT) has been conducted to examine the texture inside the closed head to provide more information about the construction. To date, the study has succeeded in identifying remnants of decoration, including a scene on the back of the neck, details about how the head was assembled, the plaster, and the paint stratigraphy and pigments, including huntite, madder, and iron-based pigments. Continuing work aims to investigate paint binders and more about the construction, as well as to explore ways of confirming or rejecting connections to masks from the same mold using photogrammetry. The paper will also question how we consider this object in an art museum setting: this mask is intimately connected with the body of a deceased person, from which the mask is now dissociated, and the mask had a necessary purpose in the belief system of the deceased. The findings of the study offer more information about workshop practices, and the work will be included in an upcoming exhibition on Egyptian mummy portraits at the Harvard Art Museums.

2021 | Virtual | Volume 28