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Transfiguring the Dead: The Iconography, Commemorative Use, and Materiality of Mummy Shrouds from Roman Egypt

  • Author(s): Jimenez, Lissette Marie
  • Advisor(s): Redmount, Carol
  • et al.

The mummy shrouds, often overlooked or dissected into dichotomous parts because of their Hellenistic and Egyptian hybrid pictorial nature, provide unparalleled insight into religious and social facets of life and death in Roman Egypt. Moving beyond the aesthetic properties of these objects and focusing on the symbolic and material functions of the iconography on the shrouds enables a fuller understanding of individual and collective social aspirations of the inhabitants of Roman Egypt. When viewed in their entirety, the mummy shrouds present a hybrid visual language that defines much of the funerary art from Roman Egypt. In the overall decorative scheme of the mummy shroud, vivid forms of expression, such as naturalism and traditional Egyptian symbolism, are used to embody the beliefs and practices relating to death. By placing the mummy shrouds in their Egyptian contexts and by analyzing both the physical portrait of the dead and the surrounding iconography, we can comprehend the development of funerary symbolism and practice within a multicultural context.

This dissertation examines the iconography and material properties of the mummy shrouds through the applied theoretical lenses of gender, identity, hybridity, and materiality. These approaches reveal how the combination of the physical material properties of the shroud, the mummified body of the deceased, and the symbolic properties of the iconography converged to form a lasting image that possessed magical properties aiding in the divine transfiguration of the deceased. The bundled ensemble of the mummy, shroud, and tomb situated within their historical and archaeological contexts reveals how objects and landscapes acted as vehicles for posthumously constructing one's identity, commemorating the deceased within a community, and aiding the deceased on his or her journey through the afterlife. Taken as a whole, the funerary ensemble provided for the dead lends itself to an understanding of how material components worked together to reveal the religious and social inclinations of the deceased and the community in which he or she once lived.

This study is divided into five main parts. Part I examines the tradition of funerary shrouds dating from the New Kingdom through the Roman Period. It is also an introduction to the corpus of mummy shrouds analyzed in this study and provides information regarding dating, provenance, physical attributes, and distribution. Parts II and III critically analyze traditionally employed methodologies and demonstrate the advantages of new theoretical approaches concerning typologies of iconography. In Part IV, social and anthropological theories regarding agency and materiality are applied in case studies of the mummy shrouds. Part V reveals my conclusions and a detailed catalog of all currently known mummy shrouds. In this dissertation, I address new methodological and historiographic considerations regarding compositional and stylistic trends in the iconography of the mummy shrouds from Roman Egypt.

Chapter 1 situates the mummy shrouds within their historical setting and presents the evolution of the funerary shroud tradition dating from the New Kingdom onward. The chapter concludes with a presentation of the corpus of mummy shrouds analyzed in this dissertation. Chapter 2 critiques the scholarly interpretations of Greco-Roman funerary art and illustrates the current trends and evolution of the scholarship. The discussion begins with the earliest and most traditional approaches from Classical perspectives, where the primary focus of these studies was on the naturalism of painted mummy portraits. By examining the various art historical, Egyptological, and textual scholarly perspectives, the goal is to provide a framework for how to adequately analyze the mummy shrouds. Chapter 2 includes a discussion of previous scholarship that addresses issues of aesthetics, dating, provenance, and identity. The overall goal of this chapter is to assess the failures and successes of previous studies of Greco-Roman mummy portraits and shrouds, and to use this scholarship to inform the theoretical approaches applied in my analysis of the mummy shrouds.

Chapters 3 and 4 argue for the importance of typological approaches to material culture and demonstrate the need for an iconographic typology of the mummy shrouds. The first section presents how typologies are constructed to produce quantitative results and address specific research questions regarding the symbolism and meaning of the iconography of the shrouds. Chapter 4 engages in a discussion of the Osiris and Hathor shroud types and examines issues of gender representation and identity formation. Chapter 5 focuses on the hybridized nature of the Coffin Shrine Portrait, Full-body Portrait, and Tri-figure shrouds. The goal of this chapter is to illustrate how hybridized visual combinations expressed in these shroud types produced new symbolic meanings that were translatable to the viewer on multiple levels.

Chapter 6 is a discussion of the materiality and agency of objects, with particular reference to features of the shrouds that enabled human and object interactions. The application of a theoretical lens of materiality to the mummy shrouds allows for the exploration of the co- existence and co-mingling of traditions. The fundamental role materiality plays in shaping humanity, or in shaping relationships between humans, objects and humans, and objects themselves, is rarely considered. In this chapter, mummy shrouds from Thebes are examined using an ontological perspective in which I argue that these funerary ensembles demonstrate how social relationships develop through these material forms, and how these relationships can be observed in the materiality, mutuality, vitality, and plurality of funerary objects. One broader implication of this theoretical application is that this type of object-oriented analysis provides a potential framework for interpreting how materiality shaped the social lives of ancient objects and people through various networks of relationships that constituted elite Roman Egyptian burial practices.

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