What’s more, the mummy paintings existed in scholarship limbo, falling somewhere between classifications of
and Egyptian art. They’d been made in a time of great cultural melding in Egypt, during the Roman occupation, and represent both Egyptian funerary traditions (mummification) and the Romans’ burgeoning experimentation with portraiture and painting techniques like
—a painting method that entails melting beeswax and then adding colored pigments to it. “When they entered collections in the 19th century, mummy portraits were viewed more as curiosities because no one really knew what to make of them,” Svoboda told Artsy
. “They weren’t completely Egyptian and they weren’t completely Classical—they were both.”
APPEAR is addressing these challenges by bringing together an array of scholars, curators, scientists, and conservators to research a large group of mummy portraits (a handful of which are still attached to their original mummies or bits of shroud). To aggregate and easily compare information about these works, participating institutions upload details on each painting’s size, materials, inscriptions, tool marks, panel shape, decorative details, and more to a single database.
The project kicked off at a key moment in conservation innovation, when new technologies allowing for less invasive analysis emerged. Ultraviolet illumination, infrared reflectography, radiography, and other imaging methods let conservators scan and characterize materials without having to extract samples from the delicate works. “Before, you had to take a very large sample to identify the pigment or wood, and with these precious objects, you can’t really do that; most institutions won’t allow it,” explained Svoboda. “So these developments have been enormous in advancing the understanding of [the portraits].”