For the first time in over a century, archaeologists have discovered ancient mummies buried alongside painted portraits, providing an unprecedented glimpse into the lives of the ancient Egyptians. The portraits were found at the Gerza archaeological site in the ancient city of Fayum around 100 kilometers (62 miles) southwest of Cairo, as per a recent announcement from the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.
Excavations at the site have recently been focused on a huge funerary building from the Ptolemaic and Roman eras, dating from the 3rd century BCE to the 3rd century CE, which was first discovered in 2016.
Within this structure, they unearthed a number of human remains that have been laid to rest in a diversity of styles, from high-quality mummification to a simple burial. The team believes the type of burial likely reflects the individual's wealth and social status.
Along with the bodies, the team also excavated a rare terracotta statue of the goddess Isis-Aphrodite in one of the wooden coffins and papyrus inscriptions written in Demotic and Greek script that explains the life of those buried at the site.
Chief among the finds are some Fayoum portraits, paintings on a wooden board that depict the deceased person. They are typically associated with high social status, generally found above the mummies of Roman Egypt’s upper social castes, such as military leaders, civil servants, and religious figures.
Fayoum portraits are scarcely found alongside ancient Egyptian mummies. The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities explains that some of the last mummy portraits like this were discovered by British archaeologist Flinders Petrie over 115 years ago, years before Egyptologists had even excavated the tomb of Tutankhamun.
Thanks to the dry heat of Egypt and the tightly sealed tombs, many of these portraits remain in remarkably good condition and still beam with vibrant color. Historians are particularly fond of these relics as they provide a unique insight into the hairstyles, clothes, and jewelry of the time. The recently discovered portrait, for instance, clearly shows the distinctive hairstyle of the individual, as well as their rings, bracelets, and necklaces.
Given their naturalistic style, it’s hard to believe these paintings came from ancient Egyptians. Their style is strongly influenced by the artistic traditions of the Greco-Romans who controlled Egypt from 30 BC until 641 CE. It's said that extremely similar portraits can be found in ancient archaeological sites in Italy, such as Pompeii.