In Ancient Egypt it was believed that a person's spirit could wander freely in and out of their tomb. A mummy mask helped the returning spirit recognise the host body. Carolyn Perry explains
This rather lovely female face is in fact a mummy mask from Egypt now in London's Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. But what was a mummy mask? And what was it for?
For the Ancient Egyptians it was important that the form and appearance of the mummified body be as realistic as possible. For example, the many layers of bandage could be used to restore bulk and shape to the mummified body, and masks were made to give a face to the deceased. Mummy masks depict the head - and often the chest - of the dead person and were placed over the wrapped head of the mummy. They protected the facial area, and also served a supernatural purpose: Egyptians believed that a person's spirit could wander freely in and out of the tomb. For the returning spirit, the mask could aid recognition of the host body.
The first mummy masks have been found in sites dating from the end of the Old Kingdom (2686-2181 bc) and thereafter they appear increasingly in elite burials. Examples from the Middle Kingdom (about 2025-1700 bc) are sometimes inscribed. This particular mask dates from the 18th Dynasty (in the New Kingdom periods about 1550-1069 bc) an era in which masks were less common and found only in a small number of elite burials. Such treatment of the deceased belongs only to the higher echelons of society, so whoever this lady was, she was certainly of some means.
In fact, we know almost nothing about the long-dead person represented by this mask. It came to the Petrie Museum as part of a bequest from the scientist and archaeologist Robert Mond (1867-1938). It is thought that it probably came from near the building known as the Ramesseum (the memorial temple of the Pharaoh Ramesses II at Thebes) since Mond excavated there.
But the mask is now adrift from its mummy, with no clues to the identity of its wearer. We cannot even be sure what she looked like, such is the extent of idealism in Egyptian art. All descriptions of the mask note that the woman wears a wig, but it may be that her own hair is represented in a very stylised way.
Wigs appear to have been common in ancient Egypt and some wigs of human hair have been excavated in a remarkably good state of preservation.
However, scholars debate whether hairstyles shown in painting and sculpture are wigs or simply styled and dressed hair. Similarly, this mask is described in the Petrie Museum's Register as having "traces of a painted headdress". But if she is wearing a wig, it may be that the "headdress" is actually part of the wig itself: some of the wigs in the Cairo Museum are extraordinarily complex. It is sometimes difficult to see whether an Egyptian artist wished to show something as it was, or as an idealising convention wished it to be. If our lady indeed wore a headdress, it is difficult to tell of what it was made. The blue petals are those of the lotus, considered sacred, representing rebirth and renewal: the lotus blooms in the day and closes each night. The mask may show an actual wreath of flowers as part of a funeral rite, or simply use the shape and colour of the lotus petal as a symbol.
We can be sure, however, that the woman was wearing eye make-up. Eye make-up was worn by Egyptians of both sexes, and even the humblest graves contain palettes thought to have been used for mixing cosmetics. The dark colour was made from a lead ore ground to a powder and mixed with grease (sometimes animal fat) so that it stuck to the face. Both the elite and the poor wore make-up, but the fineness and intrinsic value of the containers and applicators varied immensely. There may have been aesthetic value attached to the wearing of eye make-up, but it was also practical - and is often done today for this reason. The dark colour immediately around the eye offers some protection against the intense glare of the sun, and one of the most common ores, galena (lead sulphide) has disinfectant and fly-deterrent properties.
The mask itself is made of a material called cartonnage, a term used in Egyptology to describe plastered layers of fibre or papyrus which was, while wet and flexible, moulded over the surface of the wrapped body. The surface was smooth enough to paint on and more stable than a regular linen shroud. The fibres or papyri are not applied as pulp but rather as strips or layers, often strips of linen cut to size, which are then covered with a plaster layer, and so on. Here it is possible to make out the layers of material at the base of the neck.
So the mask presents us with an enigma: a beautiful woman, 3,500 years old, but with an ageless face; carefully portrayed, but not a portrait in our terms. This is one of several mummy masks that can be seen in the Petrie Museum.
Carolyn Perry is director of programmes at MBI International * The Petrie Museum in Malet Place, London WC1, houses an estimated 80,000 objects, making it one of the greatest collections of Egyptian and Sudanese archaeology in the world. Although a university museum (University College, London) it is open to the public. Tuesday and Wednesday mornings are set aside for school groups, booking essential. The entire collection is online and accessible via the website, as are some of the museum's educational resources. Digital Egypt for Universities is accessible via the website and useful for teachers preparing lessons. The museum also has two outreach educators.
Tel: 020 7679 2884
KS2: Use the internet to search databases and interpret information. The Petrie collection is online. Ask pupils to find the mummy mask and research a variety of objects that could have accompanied this mummy in the tomb.
They need to bear in mind the date of the mask, and such variables as the sex and age of the owner.
Art and design
KS2: The Petrie was designed as a university teaching collection. Ask pupils to consider how this has affected display and compare it with another museum designed for the public.
KS4-5: Create a storyboard about the production of the mask. In the context of a memorial portrait, apply what students have learnt to the creation of their own sculpture. This need not relate specifically to Egypt, but they should be made aware of, for example, Henry Moore's response to sculpture from ancient Egypt. They should also try cartonnage.
KS2: What can we learn about ancient Egypt from one object? Ask pupils to make a drawing of the object and describe it. Then ask them to use information from the object and what they have learnt about ancient Egypt to decide what this source tells us about life in ancient Egypt.
Encourage them to think about why it is important for historians to consider multiple sources of information. Having considered and discussed the mask, the children should write a museum label for the object, including some information on what the mask shows us about the Egyptians'
belief in life after death.