Dark, direct, soulful: The eyes of the Al Fayyum portraits stare out and invite viewers in to see the faces of Egyptians who lived thousands of years ago, when the Greek Ptolemy rule gave way to Rome. Created to adorn the dead, these funereal portraits reveal how Egyptian, Roman, and Greek practices began to blend, creating a hybrid culture of enduring fascination to archaeologists and museumgoers alike.
In 1887 British archaeologist Flinders Petrie started excavating at the pyramid at Hawara near Egypt’s Al Fayyum Oasis in the hopes of finding tombs from the third millennium B.C. To his disappointment, he uncovered a first-century B.C. Roman-era cemetery instead. Soon his chagrin turned to curiosity and then to mounting excitement: On a mummified body found in one of the brick tombs, his team found a portrait: “the beautifully drawn head of a girl, in soft grey tints, entirely classical in its style and mode.”
Over the course of the dig at Al Fayyum, Petrie uncovered some 60 similar panels, whose realism moved him to describe them in his notes almost as they were living, breathing people: “A young, married woman of about 25,” he wrote of another find, “of a sweet but dignified expression, with beautiful features.”