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3-D Reconstruction Reveals the Face of an Ancient Egyptian Toddler

The digital likeness bears a striking similarity to a portrait attached to the front of the boy’s mummy

A "mummy portrait" affixed to a 3- to 4-year-old Egyptian boy's mummy (left) and a 3-D facial reconstruction based on the child's bone structure (right) (Nerlich AG, et al. PLOS One 2020)
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European researchers have unveiled a 3-D facial reconstruction of an Egyptian boy who was mummified during the first century A.D., reports Laura Geggel for Live Science. The digital likeness bears a startling resemblance to a lifelike portrait of the deceased buried alongside his remains.

Between the first and third centuries A.D., attaching so-called “mummy portraits” to the front of mummified corpses was a popular practice among certain strata of Roman Egyptian society, wrote Brigit Katz for Smithsonian magazine in 2017.

Compared with the ancient funerary artwork, the modern reconstruction shows “considerable similarities”—albeit with one notable exception, as the team notes in the journal PLOS One.

Analysis of the skeleton’s bones and teeth suggests the boy was roughly 3 to 4 years old at the time of his death. But the researchers point out that “on a subjective level, the portrait appears slightly ‘older,’” likely due to its lithe depiction of the child’s nose and mouth.

Mummy ct scan
A roughly 2,000-year-old mummy undergoes a CT scan to reveal the structure of the skeleton wrapped within. (Nerlich AG, et al. PLOS One 2020)

This more mature representation “may have been the results of an artistic convention of that time,” lead author Andreas Nerlich, a pathologist at the Academic Clinic Munich-Bogenhausen in Germany, tells Live Science.

Similarities between the boy’s portrait and the digital reconstruction may help answer a question that has lingered since British archaeologist W.M. Flinders Petrie discovered a trove of mummy portraits in Egypt’s Fayum region in the late 1880s: Who do the artworks represent?

Per the paper, the new findings, as well as previous research on the subject, suggest the portraits portray the mummies buried alongside them. Still, the authors note that the paintings don’t always depict their subject at the time of death.

“One of the portraits shows a young man while the mummy is that of an elderly man with a white beard,” the researchers write, adding that some adults may have commissioned a portrait earlier in life and stored it for later use.

During his lifetime, Petrie uncovered around 150 mummy portraits—also called “Fayum portraits” after the region where they were first discovered. Today, approximately 1,000 are housed in collections across the world.

As Alexxa Gotthardt reported for Artsy in 2019, the portraits meld aspects of both Egyptian and Greco-Roman culture. Realistic portraiture served an array of public and private functions throughout Roman history, while mummification is famously Egyptian.

mummy facial reconstruction
The Egyptian boy's reconstructed face alongside a 3-D scan of his skull (Nerlich AG, et al. PLOS One 2020)

To create the 3-D reconstruction, the researchers took computerized tomography (CT) scans of the 30-inch-long skeleton encased in the linen mummy wrappings. Their analysis suggested the boy likely succumbed to pneumonia, and that his brain and certain internal organs had been removed as part of mummification, according to Live Science.

Nerlich and his colleagues made sure to keep the artist working on the reconstruction from coming into contact with the mummy’s portrait, per the paper.

Instead, the artist’s reconstruction relied on the Egyptian boy’s bone structure, as well as studies that tracked the average development of soft tissues in the faces of young children. The researchers only revealed details of the portrait toward the end of the process, when the artist was given information on the boy’s eye color and hairstyle.

Overall, the researchers conclude that the similarities between the reconstruction and the portrait are so striking that the painting must have been created just before or after the boy’s death.

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