The following is an excerpt of an article I wrote and the Cleveland Museum of Art published on their blog on Medium

Funerary Portrait of a Woman (left) Funerary Portrait of a Man (right)

Two ancient Egyptian funerary portraits, Funerary Portrait of a Woman and Funerary Portrait of a Man, are being investigated for the APPEAR (Ancient Panel Paintings: Examination, Analysis, and Research) Project. The APPEAR Project was launched in 2013 by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles as an international collaboration to bring together the results of research into mummy portraits and related artifacts such as shrouds, shrines, and complete mummies from collecting institutions around the world. Compiling this information into one place allows an unprecedented understanding of the range of materials and techniques used for these works of art, permitting scholars to compare, identify, and authenticate portraits.

The ongoing analysis and technical research on the Funerary Portrait of a Woman and Funerary Portrait of a Man began in July 2018 when the CMA’s Objects conservation staff, Beth Edelstein, Colleen Snyder, and summer interns, Natalya Swanson, Celine Wachsmuth, and Margalit Schindler, began conducting historical, technical, and analytical investigations, including imaging with various wavelengths of light (Multispectral Imaging), x-radiography, and identification of pigments, binders, and fibers.

Mock-up panel photographed in reflected light (left) and visible induced infrared luminescence (VIL) (right) which shows Egyptian blue captured within the infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum. 

The study began by preparing a mock-up panel using paint media and pigments that might be present on the CMA portraits. Creating the panel gave us the ability to prepare materials that were available to ancient artists, aiding in the interpretation of the construction of the portraits.

Multispectral imaging (MSI) was carried out on the portraits and the mock-up panel. This imaging technique uses different wavelengths of light to help illuminate and identify different materials in the painting without the need for removing samples or touching the object. Because the panel was constructed with known binding media and pigments, it acted as a point of comparison for material characterization and identification.

Reflected light (left), Raking light (center), Specular light (right)

Other imaging techniques that are leading to enhanced understanding of the portraits include x-radiography and reflectance transformation imaging (RTI); the latter shows a detailed representation of the topography of the painting’s surface. Surface testing with x-ray fluorescence (XRF) reveals the chemical elements present in each color, providing important information about the types of pigments that make up the paint.

In addition to the non-destructive analysis, we took microscopic fragments of paint and fiber and analyzed them using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) and polarized light microscopy (PLM). These techniques uncover information about the paint binding medium and help to identify fibers from the fabric support.

Taking samples of Funerary Portrait of a Man (Cleveland Museum of Art) to be analyzed by conservation scientists at the Getty Conservation Institute. Image courtesy of Philip Brutz.

Thus far, the project has been highly collaborative and the understanding of these objects has been enhanced by the shared information and expertise of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s conservators with their international colleagues. The investigation of these portraits is ongoing and the results will be added to the Getty APPEAR database to be compared with other portraits in collections worldwide.

A copy of the full report can be provided upon request.

Natalya Swanson