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Pigment and power

dressing in
Roman Egypt
Elisabeth R. OConnell, curator, British Museum
hats one weird loo!ing bird, grinned an "merican student on
one o# my tours o# the"ncient Egypt and $udan %epartment study
collection #or uni&ersity students last year.
"nd to Egyptology students he is. "nd to students o# Classical
"rchaeology too. But thats rather the point. Roman Egypt '() BC*
"% +,-. witnessed some o# the most interesting, inno&ati&e and
trans#ormati&e combinations o# traditions in the ancient world.
he god sits casually on his throne, one sandal*clad #oot #orward,
his !nees apart and draped in a garment. /rom the waist down, he
could be any o# a number o# senior Olympian deities, or Roman
emperors mas0uerading as such. 1e wears a #eathered mail
armour shirt that ends 2ust abo&e his elbows. 1is arms, now
bro!en o##, would ha&e held symbols o# power, perhaps an orb and
sceptre. 1is cloa!, pushed bac! o&er his shoulders, is #astened
with a circular broach. /rom the waist up, his costume belongs to
military deities and, especially, Roman emperors, who were also
worshipped in temples dedicated to them throughout the empire.
he head, howe&er, places us #irmly in an Egyptian conte3t.
4imestone sculpture o# 1orus #rom Roman Egypt
5ts 1orus, the sun god and di&ine representati&e o# the li&ing !ing
in ancient Egyptian tradition. 1is head is that o# a #alcon, rendered
in naturalistic style with the birds distincti&e #acial mar!ings
articulated by the car&ing and also traces o# paint. 1is eyes,
howe&er, are strangely human6 instead o# being placed on the
sides o# the head, li!e any real bird, they are #rontal, and his
incised pupils tilt his ga7e upward. 5n an imaginati&e turn, the
#eathers o# the #alcons nec! blend into the scales o# the mail shirt.
5n the top o# his head is a hole, into which a 'probably metal. crown
once #it.
Big Bird, as 5 thin! o# him, has been o## public display since 899+
when the gallery he was #ormerly displayed in was recon#igured to
create the :reat Court. $ince 5 arri&ed at the Museum in -));,
hes been the culmination o# my tours #or uni&ersity students,
gi&ing us the opportunity to e3plore cultural identity through
di##erent !inds o# ob2ects #rom Roman Egypt. <e loo! at magical
papyri written in Egyptian and :ree!, with some o# the Egyptian
words written in Old Coptic, that is, the Egyptian language written
in :ree! script. <hy the glosses o# Egyptian words in :ree!
script= Because in magical spells it was &ery important to say the
words correctly or else the spell wouldnt wor!. "nd :ree! script,
unli!e Egyptian, represented the &owels ensuring that the words
said aloud were accurately pronounced at a time when literacy in
Egyptian scripts was on the wane. <e also loo! at mummy
portraits belonging #irmly in the Roman tradition o# indi&idualised
commemorati&e portraiture, but made #or the speci#ic purpose o#
placing o&er the #ace o# a mummy, a #eature that belongs
unmista!ably to Egyptian #unerary practice. <e see the same
combination o# traditions in this limestone sculpture o# 1orus and
other contemporary depictions.
he opportunity to get the sculpture on public display arose last
year when the :ayer*"nderson cat was scheduled to tra&el to
Paris, then $hetland, #or e3hibition. Big Bird would get his &ery
own case at the top o# a ramp, amid other sculpture more readily
identi#iable as Egyptian in the British Museum Egyptian $culpture
<hile preparing the display, we also had a chance to identi#y some
o# the pigments that are apparent to the na!ed eye> his yellow
arms, blac! pupils and eye*liner, garments in two di##erent shades
o# green, and his red and blac! throne. ?sing an inno&ati&e
imaging techni0ue, we were also able to detect the pigment used
#or his armour, and it turned out to be one o# the most &alued
pigments o# the ancient world,Egyptian blue.
he image on the right was ta!en with an in#rared camera. he bright white
areas show where traces o# Egyptian blue pigment sur&i&e
"lthough no longer apparent to the na!ed eye, it shows up in
&isible*induced luminescence imaging by British Museum
scientist, @oanne %yer. 5n addition to the strange 'to us.
combination o# :raeco*Roman*Egyptian elements, he would also
ha&e been rather garishly painted.
" colour reconstruction based on pigment analysis suggests how the statue
originally may ha&e loo!ed
1orus A 5 should really stop thin!ing o# him as Big Bird A will not go
bac! into the study collection when the :ayer*"nderson cat
returns, but instead 2oin a touring e3hibition on the Roman Empire
which will gi&e &isitors to the e3hibition in locations including
Bristol, Borwich and Co&entry, that is, in #ormer Roman Britain, an
opportunity to see a selection o# ob2ects #rom "ntinoupolis and
other cities #rom the #ormer empires southern #rontier, Roman
/or their collaboration and enthusiasm, 5 than! @oanne %yer,
racey $wee!, Michelle 1ercules, "ntony $impson, $usan
1olmes, Paul :oodhead, Robert /rith, E&an Cor!, Emily aylor
and Dathleen $cott #rom the "merican Research Center in Egypt.