Investigating Herakleides: A Portrait Mummy from Roman Egypt

This mummy of a young man reflects the diverse cultural influences and extensive international trade connections in Egypt under the Roman Empire through its iconography, materials, and burial techniques.

By The J. Paul Getty Museum

Mummy of Herakleides (A.D. 120-140) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

In 30 BC, upon the death of queen Cleopatra VII, Egypt became a province of the nascent Roman Empire. Cleopatra was the last of a line of Greco–Macedonian rulers known as the Ptolemies, who reigned in Egypt for about 300 years after the conquests of Alexander the Great. 

The intersection of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman influences in Egypt at this time was found in all aspects of life and death, including the ways in which people chose to be buried. 

Collage: Mummy Portraits by T. CoradoThe J. Paul Getty Museum

From the first to third centuries AD, while the traditional practice of mummification continued in Egypt, a new trend arose: some individuals chose to have a portrait panel, painted in a Greco-Roman style, incorporated into their mummy wrappings. 

Mummy of Herakleides (A.D. 120-140) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

This mummy is of a young man named Herakleides. A technical study of his mummified remains, as well as the methods and materials used to create his portrait and burial shroud, has revealed aspects of his identity and the age in which he lived, which was around AD 120–140. 

Herakleides: Layers of the assemblage by T. CoradoThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Multiple layers of linen and resin were used to create the mummy bundle,

which was wrapped in a single linen outer shroud that was painted red and decorated with Egyptian religious imagery. 

The portrait panel was placed over the mummy’s head and secured with linen wrappings.

Herakleides (Detail of image) by T. CracchiolaThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Herakleides’ portrait exemplifies his high social status. The sophisticated rendering of his features is achieved through a cross-hatching tempera (pigment mixed with animal glue) technique applied to a 2–millimeter thick linden wood panel imported from present-day Europe. Gilding (gold leaf) was used to decorate the portrait and mummy.

Detail of painted surface and its micrograph by Getty Conservation InstituteThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The red paint used to color the shroud was identified as a combination of beeswax and red-lead.  

Analyses of the trace elements revealed that this particular red mineral is a synthesized pigment, imported from the Rio Tino Valley of Spain, thousands of miles from Egypt. Red-lead is a processed by-product of silver mining. 

Fragmentary Papyrus with Spells and Vignettes from the Book of the Dead (304–30 B.C.) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Red coloring was used on mummy wrappings by as early as the third millennium BC, and the color had particular significance in mortuary contexts. In Egyptian belief, the deceased journeyed through the underworld each night and was reborn with the sun (the god Re) each morning.

Re emerged as a red sun disc following his nightly battle with Apophis, the serpent god of chaos. Perhaps the use of red was meant to honor this daily rebirth.

This vignette from an Egyptian papyrus containing Book of the Dead spells shows four baboons and two ba-birds (human-headed birds that embodied the deceased’s spirit) praising the morning sun.

A group of seven red-colored mummies from different museums were confirmed to have the identical paint combination of beeswax and red-lead and similar decorative features. This suggests that the group may have come from the same workshop, perhaps in the Fayyum Oasis, where the majority of portrait mummies have been found.

Image of Isidora (Black background) by T. CracchiolaThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The portrait of Isidora in the Getty collection still has the partial remains of her red shroud and belongs to this unique group.

Mummy of Herakleides (A.D. 120-140) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The front of Herakleides’ shroud is decorated with painted and gilded images of deities and other funerary symbols. 

Illustration of decoration by T. CoradoThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Just below Herakleides’ chest, a goddess spreads her wings in a gesture of protection. She could represent one of several Egyptian goddesses: Isis, Nut, Nephthys, Hathor, or Maat. 

An ibis, the sacred Egyptian bird representing Thoth, god of wisdom and learning, is painted above the abdomen. The ibis wears a sun disc on his head and carries a ceremonial fan. 

Below the ibis, the shrouded, mummiform image of the underworld god Osiris stands between two elongated cobras wearing sun discs. 

A falcon with outstretched wings and a sun disc may represent the god Re-Horakhty, who combined aspects of the sun god Re with the god Horus, son of Osiris.  

Footcase of Herakleides (0120/0140) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

At the lower section of the mummy, his feet are represented with gilded toes, imitating the golden toe caps sometimes used on pharaonic mummies. Above his feet is a faded inscription in black paint.

Infrared footcase of Herakleides by Getty Conservation InstituteThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Imaging the inscription with infrared reflectography enabled the name, written in Greek, to be enhanced, identifying the mummy as: ΗΡΑΚΛΕΙΔΗC ΘΕΡΜΟΥ, “Herakleides, son of Thermos.” 

Herakleides: CT scan by Gerard VuilleumierThe J. Paul Getty Museum

An opportunity to examine Herakleides by CAT (computed axial tomography) scanning at a local hospital guided our study from the outside in.

Right: Mummy of Herakleides (by T. Cracchiola). Left: CT body scan by Alex Juncosa, UCLA.The J. Paul Getty Museum

In addition to learning that the skeleton within the wrappings was in perfect condition, we made new discoveries.

Herakleides: CT Scan 2 by Alex Juncosa, UCLA David Geffen School of MedicineThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Examination of his bones and teeth indicated that Herakleides was around 18–20 years old when he died, although cause of death could not be determined. This age is consistent with his portrait. 

Herakleides: Scan cross-section by T. CracchiolaThe J. Paul Getty Museum

We could also see that he was lying on a wooden board, which is a typical feature of other Romano-Egyptian mummies. This view shows a cross-section of the mummy from the top. His skull, surrounded by layers of linen wrappings, can be seen above the wooden board. The layer of red-lead painted over the shroud forms the dense white outline.

One unexpected discovery is that a mummified ibis was wrapped and placed over Herakleides’ abdomen beneath the linen shroud. The location of this sacred bird of Thoth corresponds with the ibis painted on the outside of the shroud. In the CAT scan, you can just make out the ibis’ beak curved between Herakleides’ forearms.

Illustration of decoration, T. Corado, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Herakleides: Scan of abdomen - Ibis outlined, Alex Juncosa, UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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While mummified animals were common in ancient Egypt, it was unusual for an individual to incorporate an animal into his own mummification, placing it on his body. Herakleides may have had a personal connection to the god Thoth, perhaps as a priest or scribe.

Mummy of Herakleides (A.D. 120-140) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The combination of Egyptian and Greco-Roman elements in Herakleides’ burial exemplifies the multicultural context in which he lived. 

The trade networks of the Roman Empire were vast, as we see from Herakleides’ access to imported materials like red pigment from Spain and linden wood from Europe. 

He must have been a man of high status in order to afford these imports and to have commissioned a high-quality portrait complete with gilding. He was likely a follower of the god Thoth, and perhaps held a priestly or scribal office in a temple.                                

More broadly, Herakleides serves as a reminder that the ancient Mediterranean was a diverse and interconnected world, and that communities in Roman Egypt were centers of blended social and religious practices as well as artistic expression.

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© 2021 The J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles.

For more on Herakleides and Mummy Portraits, see the following resources:

Faces of Roman Egypt on Google Arts & Culture

Herakleides: A Portrait Mummy from Roman Egypt by Lorelei H. Corcoran and Marie Svoboda

Getting to Know Herakleides and The Mummification Process on Youtube

Marie Svoboda on Egyptian Mummy Portraits on Getty’s Art + Ideas podcast

Walton, M., Trentelman, K. “Romano-Egyptian Red Lead Pigment: A Subsidiary Commodity of Spanish Silver Mining and Refinement,” Archaeometry 51 (2009)

Svoboda, M., Walton, M.  “Material Investigations of the J. Paul Getty Museum’s Red-Shroud Mummy,” in Decorated Surfaces on Ancient Egyptian Objects: Technology, Deterioration and Conservation. Proceedings from the ICON Conference at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK. (2007).

To cite these texts, please use: “Investigating Herakleides: A Portrait Mummy from Roman Egypt” published online in 2021 via Google Arts & Culture, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

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