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Faces Revealed Project ... Why?

Yellow coffins have been intensively studied but, while in the past the scholars focused mainly on the study of layout, iconography, and texts, in recent years the attention moved towards the production, materials, and painting techniques, as well as the various techniques of execution and the widespread reuse of coffins during the Third Intermediate Period. All these more recent studies are linked by a common task: investigating whether the construction and painting/ decorative techniques can be also functional elements to create a typology, against the background of a growing interest in the existence of ateliers and the reuse of objects.

The Faces Revealed Project is inserted in this new line of research, focusing on two areas never considered before: the physiognomic traits of the coffin face without the pictorial ‘layer’, and the impact and importance of the plaster for the ʻmodellingʼ and/or the ‘remodelling’ of the sculpted wooden masks.

Facial features are important elements in understanding the typology and classification of statues. Details such as eyebrows, eye shape, cosmetic lines, and ears allowed the scholars to group and date uninscribed statues or identify chronological internal changes in the style and statuary production. These elements have rarely been considered in the analysis of Egyptian coffins. But, during the New Kingdom (1550-1069 BC) the anthropoid coffin was the predominant shape of the coffin, and it was used throughout Egyptian history. Moreover, the faces are not only painted on anthropoid coffins, but they also represent – together with the hands – the only sculpted trait of these objects, worked separately and then applied to the main structure with the help of wooden tubular pegs and then covered by two layers of plaster (differing in composition and granulometry) used to help create a curved surface and to give a better shape to the head, face and other elements.

Research Objectives

The main focus of the Faces Revealed Project is to understand:

a) how important the paint is when compared with the modelled/sculpted masks, alongside how faithfully it reproduces them;

b) whether the different physiognomical modelled/sculpted traits and proportions of the faces can be linked to different workshops and/or can reflect the stylistic features of a certain period (as also proposed for the Egyptian statues);

c) how important the plaster is in the modelling of the originally sculpted traits in creating forms and three-dimensionality, and whether its thickness can be linked to the economy of the workshop or different locations, or linked to the reuse of the masks/coffins. We have to consider that around 53.82% of coffins dated to this period provide circumstantial evidence of reuse. The presence of excess plaster on the coffin arms, for example, is suggestive of reuse, because the plaster was a common way to cover over the older style of modelled forearms and elbows. Could the same be the case for the faces?

So why these sculpted/ modelled elements, especially faces, have never been considered before?

An answer could be because these are minor details if compared to iconographical and textual apparatus but, maybe, also because the physical geometry of the object is not always visible to the naked eye because it is concealed (visually, not physically) by the paint. For these reasons, photogrammetry is the most suitable technique to start an objective and in-depth morphometric analysis of faces on coffins. The photogrammetric approach proves to be cost-effective, versatile, and useful since it offers an excellent record of the morphology of the surface allowing it to digitally switch off the painted layer and observe in the clearest way the physical geometry.

First observations made on a small group of coffins in 2019 -thanks to the Vatican Coffin Project collaboration-, posed a series of interesting questions all of them linked to the importance of the painted traits, and the possible individuation of common workshops as well as possible reuse of older coffins, or part of coffins, modifying traits with the help of the paint and the plaster. An important element to be considered, for example, is the difference – sometimes quite marked – between the physical geometry and visual appearance of these objects, which is worth being investigated. When we digitally switch off the paint, the appearance of the face, and the object in all its form, changes substantially and in different cases, the paint does not correspond to the geometry but remodels/adjusts it.

In 2019 these and more questions became the research objectives of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Faces Revealed Project.



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