BMCR 2007.06.37

The Beautiful Burial in Roman Egypt: Art, Identity, and Funerary Religion

, The beautiful burial in Roman Egypt : art, identity, and funerary religion. Oxford studies in ancient culture and representation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. 1 online resource (xxi, 334 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates) : illustrations (some color), maps.. ISBN 9781429430906 $150.00.

How Egyptian was Roman Egypt? The question has dominated quarters of Classics, Art History, and Ancient History for over a century. The perpetuation of classical Egyptian iconography on temples suggests a fundamental religious conservatism, while papyrological documentation reflects extensive Hellenism.

But for some decades — since at least Glen Bowersock’s Hellenism in Late Antiquity — the most exciting work has sought to de-polarize Egyptianism and Hellenism as forces and instead to explain the ways that Egyptian traditions could be revitalized through Hellenism and Hellenism appropriated in Egyptian terms. Thus in recent years the scholar of Roman Egypt has had to reckon with such carefully nuanced studies as Fowden’s Egyptian Hermes, Venit’s Monumental Tombs of Ancient Alexandria, Dieleman’s Priests, Tongues, and Rites, as well as the many essential essays of Jan Quaegebeur.1 Into this lively scholarship on the interplay of Egyptian and Hellenistic traditions in the Roman period comes this impressive and richly documented book by Christina Riggs, the new curator of Egyptology at the University of Manchester Museum. The book covers the varying uses of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman imagery in that most conservative of subcultures, mummification workshops.

The relevance of Egyptian mortuary practice to the larger question of Hellenism is readily apparent when one visits museum exhibits of later Egyptian mummies, with their new incorporation of lifelike portraits of the deceased. Those portraits seem to stress the individuality, even the personality of the deceased, in striking contrast to classical Egyptian mummies that assimilated the deceased entirely to Hathor or Osiris. Does this shift — seemingly pan-Egyptian — signify the triumph of Hellenism in Egyptian mortuary thought, or do the portraits belong to some particular development in mortuary symbolism or ritual? This topic has been approached variously by Lorelei Corcoran, Barbara Borg, and the recent collection Portraits and Masks; but Riggs is the first to tackle it through the comparative study of mummies traceable to particular workshops in various parts of Egypt.2

Over five clear and abundantly illustrated chapters (and an appendix that lays out her corpus of mummies and mortuary materials with justifiable provenance), Riggs argues essentially that mummification workshops integrated Hellenistic models of portraiture — to various degrees and in various iconographic contexts — when it was desirable to stress the appearance of the deceased as in life, before his or her full transfiguration into an Osiris or a Hathor of the world of the dead. Such Hellenistic models (for the workshops typically stressed Greek, not Roman, dress) allowed the display of the accoutrements of prestige gained in life and fit into the new visual culture of public statuary. More importantly, these models meshed neatly with the liminal stage of the mortuary process, when families might interact ritually with the mummy, but did not supplant belief in the post-liminal stage, when the deceased would be addressed as, imagined as, and portrayed as Osiris or Hathor. Nor, in the workshops that Riggs reconstructs, did Hellenism or Roman values change in any significant way the fundamental Egyptian program for mortuary iconography, which sought the transfiguration of the deceased in the medium of the body through the efficacy of symbols and mythological scenes.

Stylistically, The Beautiful Burial in Roman Egypt betrays its origins as an Oxford University dissertation (under the direction of Helen Whitehouse), addressing its more substantive discussions to individual mummy masks, shrouds, and tombs, rather than driving home a synthetic argument about mortuary culture in Roman Egypt. Especially given her sensitivity to the social meaning of Hellenistic portraiture, Riggs is perhaps too reticent about developing a practical or ritual context for visualizing the portrait mummies, especially given classical assertions that Egyptians kept the mummies in their homes (Diodorus Siculus 1.91.1-2; Athanasius, V. Ant. 90). But the importance of this book lies in Riggs’ definition of a corpus of mummies and mummification materials that reflect individual workshops and, more pertinently, the strategies and choices their craftsmen employed in using or excluding Hellenistic models.

Chapter One, “Art, Identity, and Funerary Religion,” introduces the larger questions of the book: the divergent styles and goals of Egyptian and Hellenistic art, where the one strives for efficacy while the latter seeks realism; the well-documented ambiguities of ethnic and religious identity in Roman Egypt; and the basic mortuary mythologies around the gods Osiris and Re that mummification and funerary ritual sought to embody through the preparation and divine transfiguration of the corpse. A brief (perhaps too brief) literature review of research on mummy masks since the 1990’s leads into a description of the major corpora that Riggs uses: mummies traceable to first-century CE workshops in the Kharga Oasis and Akhmim. (She later supplements these corpora with later mortuary materials from several Theban sites.)

Chapter Two, “Osiris, Hathor, and the Gendered Dead,” discusses the significance of gender in funerary tradition and the workshops’ occasional integration of Hellenistic portraiture to assert gender in the mortuary process. The assimilation of deceased women to Hathor, rather than Osiris, corresponds to a ritual endeavor to declare the reproductive capacity of the deceased in the afterlife (much as the deceased male, as Osiris, brings fertility from his throne in the West). Hence the prominent breasts, nipples, and even pubic triangles in female mummies. And yet evidence from Riggs mummy corpora shows an increasing practice of representing deceased women — especially (p.255) — according to models drawn from Hellenistic sculpture: garments, jewelry, coiffure, crowns. While the Kharga oasis corpus demonstrates the vitality of traditional Egyptian mortuary iconography into the second century, the first-century Akhmim corpus shows the workshops versatility in using both Hellenistic portraiture and Egyptian symbolism alternately for constructing mummies and masks for the deceased, to stress either her real-life attributes or her transfiguration body as Hathor.

Chapter Three, “Portraying the Dead,” proceeds further into the implications of representing the deceased in Hellenized versus Egyptian form. Scrutinizing a wealth of mummy shrouds, sarcophagi, mummies, and tombs, Riggs shows how the selective use of Greek robes, Roman coiffure, jewelry, or other Hellenistic accoutrements in mummy shrouds or masks could signify the social position of the deceased, while Egyptian coiffures, jewelry, and sexual characteristics stressed the anticipated efficacy of the transfigured body. We see traditionally arranged Egyptian mortuary scenes on tomb walls and mummy masks in which the deceased appears in her initial state in Greek robes and coiffure, and in her transfigured state in Egyptian divine dress.

It is in this chapter that Riggs becomes rather vague about the use of the mummies that incorporated such Hellenistic portraiture. On the one hand, she situates the choice of such models in a Hellenized world of statuary and visualization, in which the prestigious dead were to be remembered as in life, beheld in the round. Some mummy portraits and shrouds are framed in such a way that Riggs can imagine their exhibition before the mummy was interred (157-60). Wall-paintings, such as the tomb of Petosiris in the Dakhla oasis, suggest a regular offering cult in which family members would have the opportunity to gaze on the deceased represented as in life, in Hellenistic portraiture (160-65). But Riggs goes no further than throwing out these suggestions. Given the sustained attention to this question in the Portraits and Masks volume (esp. Borg, Montserrat, and Corcoran), this reticence does limit the book’s contribution.

Chapter Four, “Art and Archaism in Western Thebes,” scrutinizes the particularly conservative Roman-era mortuary workshops of this ancient priestly region for their awareness of Hellenistic forms. Were they operating in a cultural bubble or in fact making deliberate iconographic choices to exclude Hellenistic models of portraiture? Evidence from Deir el-Bahri and Deir el-Medina demonstrates that, while clients and artisans might be thoroughly conversant with the terms of prestige and office in a Hellenized society, the mortuary workshops held to archaic traditions in mummy and tomb decoration, representing the deceased typically as Osiris or Hathor into the second century. Some Hellenistic themes had entered the iconography, such as zodiacs, Nike figures, and the insignia of office in the Sarapis cult. The secondéthird-century workshops that produced a cache of mummies at Deir el-Bahri show an eventual shift to representing the deceased as in life, with Greek robes and accoutrements. But on the whole the Theban materials offer a striking contrast to the contemporaneous workshops elsewhere in Egypt that had moved almost entirely to Hellenistic portraiture or even, as in Oxyrhynchus, mortuary statues.

A Conclusion, “The Beautiful Burial in Roman Egypt,” summarizes Riggs’ contentions about the new iconographic opportunities that a world of Hellenistic statuary and naturalistic models offered mortuary workshops and their clients in representing the deceased before his or her transfiguration as Osiris or Hathor. The Appendix lists the corpus of mummies, shrouds, and mortuary materials according to provenance, followed by a very impressive bibliography and quite adequate index.

Riggs demonstrates the persistence of Egyptian tradition in mortuary workshops in several quite distinct places in Egypt, places whose extensive Hellenization — in religion, in economics, in politics — has been otherwise abundantly documented through papyri and inscriptions. The alternately archaizing or Hellenizing strategies that she documents among these workshops enlarges our understanding of the diversity of mortuary practices and conceptions in Roman Egypt, balancing the evidence for a more exclusively Hellenistic turn in mortuary representation in the Fayyum (see Walker, Bierbrier, and Roberts in Portraits and Masks), in Alexandria (as Venit discusses), and among the stone-carving workshops of later Roman Egypt that Thelma Thomas has reconstructed. In fact, bringing together the work of Riggs, Venit, and Thomas, as well as Dunand and others on the terra-cotta images often found in tombs, we might begin to consider the varying roles and agency of ateliers in mediating Roman, Hellenistic, and Egyptian traditions in that most basic of religious spheres, death and its ritualization.3


1. G. Bowersock, Hellenism in Late Antiquity (Ann Arbor 1990), G. Fowden, Egyptian Hermes (Cambridge 1986), M. Venit, Monumental Tombs of Ancient Alexandria (Cambridge 2002), J. Dieleman, Priests, Tongues, and Rites: The London-Leiden Magical Manuscripts and Translation in Egyptian Ritual (100-300 CE) (Leiden 2005). Works of Quaegebeur: e.g., “Cultes égyptiens et grecs en Egypte hellénistique: L’exploitation des sources,” Egypt and the Hellenistic World, edd. E. Van’t Dack, P. Van Dessel, and W. Van Gucht (Louvain 1983), pp.303-24.

2. L. Corcoran, Portrait Mummies from Roman Egypt (Chicago 1995); B. Borg, Mummienporträts: Chronologie und Kultureller Kontext (Mainz 1996); M. Bierbrier, ed., Portraits and Masks: Burial Customs in Roman Egypt (London 1997), reviewed by this author in BASP 36 (1999): 147-51.

3. T. Thomas, Late Antique Egyptian Funerary Sculpture (Princeton 2000), F. Dunand, Religion populaire en Egypte romaine (Leiden 1979).