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Picturing a World

Faiyum face

Having finished a rough draft of my time-travel story, I've decided to press on with another idea in a genre new to me, set in a dystopian near future. At this stage, while I'm trying to bring my main characters into focus. Suddenly, in a blog post on a Gold necklace found in Roman baths in Bulgaria, up comes this face, a Faiyum portrait in the collection of the National Museum of Scotland.

My first response to the image was a fascination with the ancient hairstyle. (How would Janet Stephens recreate it?) Then I began studying that haunting expression—the side glance into space, the slightly open mouth, the raised left eyebrow. What is this woman thinking or remembering? There is no need to set her in the 2nd C! I'm now thinking she might provide a face for one of my characters, and maybe even a back story: beautiful, once-rich woman with fastidious tastes and artistic inclinations suppressed by the abusive husband she left before the Crisis?
From her, I went on to search out more of these funerary portraits found on mummy cases first uncovered in the Egyptian oasis of Faiyum. More than a thousand have been now been found. They are scattered in collections around the world, but you can take a quick look at seventy-six of them here, or read in more depth about one at The Met here. For the purposes of my new story, I want to stay away from a single ethnicity, but I can easily imagine an exercise: Choose three of these faces and write a story to link them.
On the more scientific side, you might be interested in an article, Unraveling the Mysteries of Ancient Egypt's Spellbinding Mummy Portraits. It sketches in the Getty's APPEAR research project that is pulling together a database from the work being done at institutions around the world. It contains zoomable examples, and a you-can't-make-this-stuff-up story about two that ended up thirty miles from each other in California. Another post on the project is the British Museum's Depicting the dead: ancient Egyptian mummy portraits. Just think of the possibilities for a present-day story of scholarly detection or of life at an oasis in the past if they really manage to identify individual artists or workshops!

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