Egyptian "Mummy Portrait" Shows The Face Of A Boy That Died In Greco-Roman Times


Jack Dunhill

Social Media Coordinator and Staff Writer

clockSep 28 2020, 21:58 UTC

The mummy portrait (left) pictured next to the model produced by Nerlich AG et. al (2020). 

Using CT scans and digital wizardry, researchers of a study published in PLOS One have reconstructed the face of a 3- to 4-year-old boy that was mummified during the Greco-Roman period (332 BC-395 AD) – and it bears striking resemblance to the portrait on his mummy.

Mummy portraits were part of a tradition that depicted the likeness of the deceased when they were alive and were placed on top of their caskets. A variety of adult mummy portraits have been found, with some accurately portraying the individual and others looking nothing like their portrait. However, this is the first study to investigate the likeness of a portrait and a young child.


In search of answers, researchers from Munich, Germany, collaborated with Austrian scientists to produce a whole-body CT scan of the infant mummy currently in the museum collection at Staatliches Museum Ägyptischer Kunst (SMAEK)München. Previous X-rays from 1984 and modern CT scanning were used to digitally reconstruct him. The boy in question lived at some point during the Greco-Roman era, in which Alexander the Great conquered the Persians in Egypt before falling to the Roman empire, and he likely died of a lung infection like pneumonia.

The mummy subject to reconstruction, showing the wrapped body and portrait on top. Image: Nerlich AG (2020) PLOS One

After making a 3D model of the skull, the team added the soft facial tissue, reconstructed the nose, and added the hairstyle pictured in the mummy portrait. Comparing the result to the portrait speaks for itself – it is remarkably similar.

Yet whilst the features are similar, the portrait appears to have aged the child beyond his years, which may have been an artistic convention at the time. "On a subjective level, the portrait appears slightly “older," write the team, "on a biometric level, the width of the nose and the mouth are smaller in the portrait than in the face, which might explain the perceived difference in age."

The mummy portrait (left) pictured next to the model produced by Nerlich AG et. al (2020). 

The researchers now believe that some mummy portraits depicted the likeness of the person contained within, but are unsure whether or not it was a widely adopted practice to make young individuals look older in their portraits.

"The comparison between portrait and facial reconstruction strongly suggests that the portrait represented the deceased as he really looked. It must therefore have been made shortly after his death – possibly with the help of preliminary sketches. The portrait itself presumably followed certain artistic specifications or norms that may have resulted in the subject’s face looking older than his real age," the authors write.

"Since we are only able to provide a single case, it remains to be determined whether it is unique or part of a general phenomenon. Further studies will hopefully resolve this question," Nerlich et al. continue.


Mummy portraits from the time reveal a wide variety of facial features, hairstyles, jewelry, and clothing, but the way in which they are presented is always similar, with the head forward and the portrait ending at the upper chest. While this portrait resembled the mummy, others are completely different from the deceased in the casket.

The authors hope that further studies will clarify whether the portrait likeness is unique to this child or part of a more common practice. 

[H/T: Live Science]