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Mummy Portrait Painting Workshop- Helen Ackers

IATL Blog & Reports | Helen Ackers | Pedagogic Intervention | 2 June 2018

Too often Visual Culture and Art History are studied abstractly, confined to the classroom and lecture theatre, and discussed at a purely theoretical level. Much can be learnt from researching and carefully studying art works or material remains within these academic environments.

Workhop Promotional Video

Through careful analysis a student can learn to put an artefact into its cultural and historical contexts. They can gain important insights into an object’s aesthetic, utilitarian, cultural and ideological functions. They can learn to identify subjects and to date, categorise and recognise stylistic developments. However, what this pedagogic approach can lack is a consideration of the how. That is how were these objects made? How did the use of material dictate the choice of design and vice versa? How long did it take to make an object and what was the skill involved? How did the artists or craftspeople who produced the object work (with others, in a workshop, or alone) and what was the division of labour? An innovative, hands-on method of teaching can help us address these questions.


In the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, is a mummy portrait of woman from Roman Egypt. This portrait was discovered in 1911 by renowned Egyptologist William Flinders Petrie when excavating in Hawara, Egypt. The subject of the portrait is a woman who wears her hair in an elaborate and fashionable Roman hairstyle and is bedecked in jewellery, both of which can be used to date the portrait to 110-130 AD. The portrait is painted on a wooden panel and would have been positioned over the face of a cartonnage body case, as we find, for example, in the Mummy of Artemidorus in the British Museum. This and a large selection of other painted Egyptian mummy portraits are rare and fantastic examples of preserved painting from the ancient world, a wonderful consequence of the Egyptian archaeological context so conducive to the preservation of organic material.

From a historical perspective these painted portraits, in combination with their subject’s mummified remains, provide fantastic evidence for Egyptian burial customs and cultural interaction in Roman Egypt. However, at a more subjective level, these portraits draw viewers to them. The portrait instils in the viewer a feeling of knowledge of the ancient person and consequently creates a connect with the past. This observation immediately reminds us, as viewers, of the significance of the artist/craftsperson to our impression of the subject and indeed more broadly to our understanding of antiquity. So how were these portraits made? What techniques and materials were used and how do these differ to modern painting? These were some of the questions we sought to answer through two workshops on March 7th, 2018.

Participants working on their Mummy project
Jevon assisting participants attempting the hot wax painting technique; participants working on their mummy portraits.

These workshops were made possible by an IATL pedagogic intervention grant. My intention in organising these workshops was to supplement my lectures and seminars on Classical Art and Archaeology, in the Warwick Classics and Ancient History department, with a hands-on, practical workshop. In this respect I was building upon a precedent set by Professor Zahra Newby (Classics and Ancient History) who has previously organised mosaic and stone carving workshops as a complement to Classical Art and Archaeology lectures. In all instances these workshops were extremely successful and greatly enhanced the students’ understanding of ancient art. Professor Newby was also able to do this through support of an IATL pedagogic intervention grant. Further, previously while at Wolfson college, Oxford University, I organised a series Art in Antiquity: a first-hand exploration of ancient production techniques, which consisted of eight workshops and academic seminars. Inspired by the success of this series, and the precedent in the department at Warwick, I wanted to provide a highly relevant and stimulating workshop for my current students.

Participant painting details of a mummy portrait with tempera (egg-based) pigment.

In this instance I decided that an ancient painting techniques workshop would be of particular interest to my undergraduate students studying Domestic Space in the Roman World, an important part of which is the study of Roman wall painting, and for my MA Art of the Ancient World students. Further, as this workshop was of great relevance to Art History students, it provided an excellent opportunity for interdisciplinary connections and all the workshops were advertised to both Art History and Classics students. Dr Sarah Walford (Art History) also helped with organisation on the day and Art History were kind enough to provide a lunch for all participants on the workshop. This provided an opportunity for students from different departments to share and discuss their knowledge and thoughts on ancient painting techniques.

Participant painting details of a mummy portrait with tempera (egg-based) pigment.

The workshops were kindly led by Jevon Thistlewood, Paintings Conservator at the Ashmolean Museum. Jevon was responsible for the recent restoration of the mummy portraits in the Ashmolean collection and is an expert on ancient painting techniques. We ran two workshops (12:00-14:30 & 14:30-17:00), with forty participants in total. Students all worked on their own mummy portrait, which they were permitted to take home with them. Three techniques were demonstrated: encaustic (cold wax), encaustic (hot wax) and tempera (egg-based paint). In this way students could experiment with different ancient painting techniques and tools and were consequently able to evaluate and discuss the advantages and challenges of these. The workshop was very successful and we received highly positive feedback from participants (here I provide just two of many positive appraisals):

Having attended the “Paint a Mummy Portrait Workshop”, I thought it was really interesting to gain some knowledge of the encaustic and tempera techniques that were used to create these portraits, and even better to be able to try our hand at creating our own portraits or just to experiment with the different painting materials and techniques. It was lovely to have the opportunity to engage with the art of the ancient world in a different way and in a relaxed atmosphere. Thank you!
Jacqui Butler, MA student, Ancient Visual and Material Culture
The painting workshop was a great opportunity to learn about ancient art in a very practical environment, studying materials and application and giving us a new perspective on the subject. It was a fun and engaging experience, and helped enhance my understanding of the production of mummy portraits in Roman Egypt. I’m grateful to have been able to participate, and found the workshop complemented my modules and allowed me to appreciate ancient art in a new context.
Alice Clinch, MA student Ancient Visual and Material Culture

Acknowledgements

We were fortunate enough to have Adam Cartwright (Technology officer, IATL) film some of the workshop for us. Ewout Buckens edited this footage to create a short video, highlighting the purpose of the workshop.