Notes from Golden Boy’s Curator

The first in the series of posts following our “Golden Boy” on his way to the new building comes from Dr. Caroline Rocheleau:

In ancient Egypt, it was essential that an idealised representation of the facial features of the deceased be present on the exterior of the mummified body so that the soul might recognise its body after death. This tradition of external ornamentation of the mummy evolved greatly over the millennia, from the Old Kingdom plaster body coverings to mummy masks to mummy boards and cartonnage casings, and beaded nets to Roman painted shrouds and encaustic portraits.

During the Twenty-second Dynasty (circa 945-715 BCE), cartonnage casings became extremely popular. Cartonnage is a process similar to our modern papier maché, where strips of linen or papyrus were stiffened with gesso. Cartonnage casings entirely enveloped the mummy of the deceased, the head of the casing serving as a funerary mask. Strangely enough, cartonnage casings remind me of piñatas: the mummy is inserted within the papier maché case and it is sewn at the back, gessoed and decorated. The only way to get the mummy out is to smash it open (hence the piñata connotation). When cartonnage casings are displayed in museums, you can expect a mummy inside even if you can’t see it (a fact easily confirmed with x-rays).

Egyptian Gilded Mummy Covering

Egyptian Gilded Mummy Covering, North Carolina Museum of Art, 75.1.1 (a.k.a. "Golden Boy")

Cartonnage was rather inexpensive, but the production of a full-body casing was time-consuming. A much simpler and more practical alternative was adopted early in the Ptolemaic Period (305-30 BCE). Instead of body casings, artisans created separate cartonnage pieces that were secured to the outer layer of the mummy’s wrappings by the embalmers. Manufacturing a mummy covering in several pieces had major advantages: they could fit any mummy, could be mass-produced, and even purchased ready-made!

A complete set of cartonnage pieces would normally include a helmet mask for the head and shoulders, a pectoral for the chest, an apron for the legs, and soles for the feet, which were enclosed in a foot case. Additional pieces depicting various protective deities or other religious scenes were occasionally included. The mask, which was placed over the mummy’s head like a helmet, not only served as an idealised representation of the deceased, it was intended to protect the head against decapitation. You probably think I’m being funny, but Spell 43 of the Book of the Dead  was intended for ‘preventing a man’s decapitation in the realm of the dead’ because the Egyptians greatly feared being deprived of the ability to breath, see, speak, hear, and eat in the Netherworld. The other cartonnage pieces were decorated with religious vignettes and hieroglyphs to protect the deceased and facilitate their journey to the Afterlife.

Gilded mummy coverings–like our Golden Boy–were cartonnage pieces almost entirely covered with gold leaf rather than painted. In this instance, the gold was not only decorative, it was a symbol of permanence and immortality and emphasised the deceased’s connection to the sun god Ra. The mask often sported blue hair (symbol of rejuvenation) and the traditional religious motifs and hieroglyphs were incised or embossed in the gold, effectively protecting the deceased by their simple presence. Impressively, our gilded mummy covering is practically complete; the only piece missing is the foot case. Despite the fact that it is covered in gold, I think this artefact doesn’t always get the attention it deserves, perhaps because its function is difficult to understand.  Personally, I think he’s rather cute and I like his blue hair. His eyes are slightly uneven (one’s lower than the other) and the artisan even painted red veins in them!  And he’s got that serene golden smile…

Stay tuned for the next installment of The Adventures of Golden Boy, when our dazzling hero gets a visit from a conservator…

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