The closest we will get to photographs of Egyptians who lived during 30 BC-AD 324. 

Shown here are examples of the extraordinary mummy mask portraits produced in Egypt during the Roman period. These portraits were essentially the mixing of two traditions: the Roman interest in realistic portraiture, and mummification, which had been practiced in Egypt for millennia. These were most often painted in encaustic (a mixture of pigment and hot wax), on a wooden board, at an approximately lifelike scale. These wooden panels were then placed on the outside of the cartonnage coffin, either cautiously wrapped into the mummy bandages, or placed over the head of the deceased individual. 

The topic of the accuracy of the portraits has been heavily researched, and it is now clear that these portraits displayed the person as they appeared in life -with sometimes a bit of artistic licence. It has been possible for researchers to recognize members of a family through analyzing their physical similarities depicted, and to date some mummies on the basis of clothing, hairstyles and jewellery worn in the portrait.

Now for a few points about the specific portraits shown as examples above (for more detailed accounts, check out the museum listings given below). All of these examples were, of course, found in Egypt. The ‘portrait of a thin-faced man’ shown first has remarkably free brushwork, and the man depicted displays a direct, intent gaze. The braids worn by the women in the 2nd example date the portrait to around the period of Roman emperor Trajan. The next portrait of a woman is attributed to the Malibu Painter. Dated to the Flavian dynasty by her hairstyle, she has incredibly large, expressive eyes, and her rich jewellery is indicative of her elite status. Perhaps the most remarkable of the portraits given in this post, the 4th example is of a young boy named Eutyches, who is dressed in a white Roman tunic, and looks calmly at the viewer. High rates of infant and child mortality, as attested to by this portrait, was an unfortunate reality of the ancient world in general. A bearded man is shown next, which dates to the Roman Imperial period. The portrait of a woman shown in the 6th image is attributed to the Isidora Master, and displays a mature women named Isidora, fully accessorized. A youth is displayed in the 7th portrait. Interestingly, a treated abnormality is evident in his right eye. Dating to the Roman Imperial period, the man displayed in the final example shown gazes confidently out at the viewer.

While I always strongly encourage people to view all forms of ancient art in person, the mummy portraits of Roman Egypt are of the most remarkable to see face-to-face. If you are to see no other form of ancient art, if at all possible, go see examples of these, for they bring ancient history alive. As artist Euphrosyne Doxiadis stated: “The Fayum portraits have an almost disturbing lifelike quality and intensity. The illusion, when standing in front of them, is that of coming face to face with someone one has to answer to—someone real.

Portrait of a thin-faced man, AD 140–170, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: 09.181.3.

Female Portrait Mask, 2nd century, courtesy of the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore: 32.5.

Mummy Portrait of a Woman, AD 75-100, courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California: 73.AP.91.

Portrait of the Boy Eutyches, AD 100–150, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: 18.9.2.

Mummy Portrait of a Bearded Man, ca. AD 170-180, courtesy of the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore: 32.6.

Mummy Portrait of a Woman, AD 100-110, courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California: 81.AP.42.

Portrait of a Youth with a Surgical Cut in one Eye, AD 190–210 courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: 09.181.4.

Mummy Portrait of a Man, late 1st century, courtesy of the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore: 32.3.


Emperor Hadrian’s young lover: Antinous. 

Who exactly was this guy, how did he mysteriously die, and why do we find hundreds of portraits of him throughout the Roman Empire?

We don’t actually know a lot about Antinous as a person himself. We do know that he was a Greek from western Asia Minor, but it remains unclear as to whether he was even a slave, or free. Roman emperor Hadrian probably meet Antinous when he toured the region in 123 AD -if this is the case, then their relationship probably lasted for several years. 

With a lack of historical information to record, I now move to the death of Antinous. His death essentially remains a mystery to us, and has become shrouded in imaginative myth, but we do have a few historical leads. During the year 130, Hadrian and his entourage spent a considerable about of time in Egypt, and at one point, traveled up the Nile to Hermpolis. The Egyptians celebrated the traditional festival of the Nile on the 22nd of October, and then, a few days later, they commemorated the death (by drowning in the river), and subsequent rebirth of the Egyptian god Osiris. This is possibly the day that Antinous died.

It is mostly agreed upon that Antinous drowned. However, the nature of this drowning remains ambiguous. Roman historian Cassius Dio (155-235 AD) reports the following on the matter:

“[Antinous] had been a favourite of the emperor and had died in Egypt, either by falling into the Nile, as Hadrian writes, or, as the truth is, by being offered in sacrifice. For Hadrian, as I have stated, was always very curious and employed divinations and incantations of all kinds.” (Book LXIX, translation via uchicago)

Dio here curiously suggests that Hadrian, under some strange superstitious belief, either forced, or persuaded, Antinous to cut his life short, in order to prolong his own. We will probably never know exactly what happened to Antinous, except for the fact that it left Hadrian in all-consuming grief. 

After his death, Hadrian deified Antinous, elevating him to a god, constructed multiple temples and shrines to him, and founded the centre of the new cult, the city of Antinouspolis, next to the Nile, near where he had died. Throughout the Empire at this time, we see huge numbers of portraits of Antinous, and at least 10 marble images of him have been found at Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli. Often in these images Antinous will be given attributes of one of the Olympian deities, in the example at the top of this post, for example, he is shown in a syncretic Dionysus-Osiris pose. This colossal statue is titled the Braschi Antinous, and is thought to be from the villa of Hadrian at Praeneste. This sculpture dates to the years immediately after the death of Antinous. On his head we can see a crown of ivy berries and leaves. Although the diadem on top of his head has been restored to (what appears to be) a pine cone of sorts, it would originally have displayed either a lotus flower or a cobra (uraeus). 

Shown sculpture courtesy of & can be viewed at the Vatican Museums: Museo Pio-Clementino, inv. 256. Photos taken by Jastrow via the Wiki Commons. When writing up this post, James Morwood’s publication Hadrian (Bloomsbury 2013) was of use.


A quick look at: Mictlantecuhtli, the Aztec god of death and lord of the underworld.

Mictlantecuhtli was believed to live in Mictlan, the cold, damp and gloomy underworld of the Aztecs, or lower part of the cosmos, where the remains of humans were kept.

This Templo Mayor Museum figure of Mictlantecuhtli, which is perhaps one of the most famous representations of the god, was found in the House of Eagles. Here he wears a loincloth, and stands grinning. Some have suggested that this grin of Mictlantecuhtli, who once harassed Quetzalcoatl on his journey to the underworld, may suggest his desire to torment. His claw-like hands are posed, as though ready to attack someone.

The holes on his scalp would have once been filled with black, wavy hair -which the Aztecs associated with chaos. Parts of his flesh has been teared off, and his liver falls from his chest cavity. This organ was connected to Mictlan, and housed the Ihiyotl soul (see Aguilar-Moreno 2007, chapter 7). Recent residue analysis has found traces of human blood on the statue. 

Artefact courtesy of the Museum of the Templo Mayor, Mexico City. Photos taken by Travis: oosik.

Recommended reading: Handbook to Life in the Aztec World (Oxford University Press, 2007) by Manuel Aguilar-Moreno. This is a very good overview and introduction to the Aztec culture, and expands on many of the points I briefly mentioned here.

Amum…He made me rule…No one rebels against me in all lands. All foreign lands are my subjects. He placed my border at the limits of heaven.”

-Section from the obelisk inscriptions of Hatshepsut, Karnak (trans. Lichtheim). Hatshepsut here emphasises her destined, god-given right to rule Egypt. In which and beyond, she is all-powerful. 

A quick look at: Hatshepsut (r. c. 1479–1458 BC), king of Egypt. 

When talking about aspects of ancient Egyptian history, I find that people are often surprised to hear that Egypt had female rulers aside from Cleopatra. Perhaps one of the most significant of these was Hatshepsut of Dynasty 18, some 1400 years before Cleopatra. Her life deserves far more recognition that it has typically received.

Hatshepsut was the daughter of king Thutmose I and his wife Ahmose. She had a younger half-brother: Thutmose II, who succeeded his father as king. She married her half-brother, an act that seems strange to us today, but it was not unusual for Egyptian royalty to marry family members. With the title “God’s wife”, Hatshepsut was extremely prominent during the reign of Thutmose II. Her husband had a son (Thutmose III) by another woman, who became king upon his father’s death. At this time Thutmose III was still a young child, and so Hatshepsut took care of Egypt, acting as regent. About 7 years into the regency, things started to change. Hatshepsut began using royal names and titles, which she made into feminine form. She was crowned king of Egypt. 

Her reign was accepted by a flourishing Egypt. As far as we know, there does not seem to have been foul play in her rise to kingship; there is no evidence for social trauma or bloodshed. Some Egyptologists have argued that she already held the strings of power during the reign of her husband. As king, she also acknowledged the kingship of Thutmose III -he is, for example, often depicted alongside her on monuments (although his inferior status is made clear by being placed behind her). Her reign as king was prosperous, and included trade expeditions (such as to Punt), and some military action, such as in Nubia. Her reign introduced a period of particularly outstanding artistic creativity, and her mortuary temple Deir el-Bahari is now one of the most visited monuments in Egypt.

Hatshepsut ruled as king for about 15 years. After this she seemingly disappears, and Thutmose III becomes sole king. It is not clear what happened to her; we do not know whether she died naturally, or was removed. Whatever occurred, her memory was wiped from Egyptian history. Thutmose III had her images and names removed from many of her monuments, and her statues at Deir el-Bahari were smashed. In addition, she was left out of later Egyptian king lists. Why this happened is much debated and not straight-forward, although the unconventional nature of her rule probably at least played a part in this. Manetho, however, much later during the Ptolemaic era, recognises her reign as king in his famous History of Egypt.

Much of this write-up draws from the work and interpretations of Egyptologist Marc Van De Mieroop. His publication ‘A History of Ancient Egypt’ (2010) is recommended. The shown sculpture of Hatshepsut is courtesy of & can be viewed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Via their online collections29.3.2.


A few pieces from prehistoric Japan.

Japan is “a world apart – a cultural Galápagos where a unique civilisation blossomed”, to quote the Lonely Planet. The early history of this unique country is significant for so many reasons. It has a particularly rich, and long, historical record, and the value of its cultural achievements continues to endure. 

It is clear that modern humans have inhabited this archipelago for 30,000 years (in the very least), during what is termed the ‘Late Palaeolithic’. The subsequent ‘Jōmon period’ constitutes Japan’s Neolithic period (about 10,000 BC - 400 BCE). The period is named after the characteristic patterns made with twisted cords on the period’s pottery (Jōmon meaning ‘cord pattern’, refer to photo 2). Given the huge temporal expanse and regional variability of this period, generalisations are obviously difficult. Despite this, the Jōmon culture is perhaps best conceived of as “a large loosely integrated cultural complex” (as noted by Richard Pearson). The onset of this period was gradual. People seem to have hunted wild animals, eaten seafood, and had a developing awareness of agriculture. By around 5,000 BCE, people appeared to have generally settled in stable communities, living mostly in pit dwellings with roofs of thatch or earth and wood. 

Shown in this post are a few examples of archaeological objects from this famous period of Japan’s history. The heads of clay figures shown in photos 1 and 4 date to the Late Jōmon period (ca. 1500–1000 BCE). The vessel shown in the 2nd image is the oldest artefact here, dating to the Middle Jōmon period (ca. 3500–2500 BCE), while the 3rd image, showing a Dogū figurine, is the youngest (Final Jōmon period, ca. 1000–300 BCE).

Shown artefacts are courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Via their online collections1975.268.1891975.268.1831975.268.1911975.268.190.

A landmark in human development: the emergence of writing.

The broad plains of southern Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) saw a population ‘explosion’ during the 4th millennium BCE. Why there was this sudden drastic population increase is a complicated question, and beyond the scope of this post, however, an important point of relevance here is that one site, Uruk, was of particular significance. Uruk is usually referred to as the ‘first city’ in world history, and greatly surpassed all its surrounding urban centres in population. This city came to be dominated by huge mud-brick buildings, and produced incredible works of art. Here we also have some of the earliest (clearly visible) evidence of high degrees of craft specialization, distinct social hierarchies and coercive political structures. With this new, highly organised way of living, something clearly became of paramount importance: the need to record and store economic and administrative information. This is essentially how writing developed. 

Accordingly, basically all of our earliest examples of ‘writing’ are records of accountancy. The example shown in this post from the Walters, dated to ca. 3100-2900 BC (late Uruk; Early Dynastic I-II), is a prime example of this -recording the transfer of land (one b’uru, about 150 acres). The allocation of workers’ rations is also a popular topic in early writing. Initially, a stick or reed was used to drawn abstract signs and pictographs onto clay, and is often referred to as proto-cuneiform, which doesn’t appear to have been an isolated development. 

A key advance made was when a sign came to not only represent its intended meaning, but also a sound or group of sounds. The tablet shown illustrates this transition: from a writing system based on pictures to one where signs represent sounds. For instance, while the vase can be easily recognized, it also represents a sound rather than representing solely an object. Over time, pictographic representations were replaced by wedge-shaped signs, today referred to as cuneiform.

Shown artefact courtesy of & can be viewed at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. Via their online collections41.219.


A quick look at: the genius. What was the genius, and how can we view this aspect of Roman domestic religion in ancient art?

genius (pl. genii) was the divine spirit which the Romans believed every human male was born with; the corresponding guardian spirit in women was called Juno. The genius of the male watched over him throughout his life, and enabled him to beget children. The significance of the genius took on particular importance due to the structure of Roman families.

The Roman family was centered around the paterfamilias, who was the oldest male member of the family. Everyone within this family was under his control. No major decisions of the family were made without the consent of the paterfamilias, he had control over the property of the family, and for much of Roman history, he had the power of life and death over members of his household. Thus, understandably, the wellbeing of the genius of the paterfamilias was crucial for his entire family, particularly as it was thought to guide the decisions he made. Members of the family would give offerings, and make appeals to the genius of the paterfamilias. Offerings were made on domestic altars (larariums), which nearly every Roman household possessed.

These larariums were usually built in the atrium or kitchen of the home (for an example of a lararium, see this photo from the House of Golden Cupids), and would contain a statuette of the genius (photos 2 & 3). Larariums could also be painted, such as shown in the House of the Vettii at Pompeii (photo 1). Here, we can see the genius figure in the middle, with two lares (household guardian spirits) on either side, to whom offerings were also made. The house snake was also a symbol of the genius, and is often present iconographically in Roman domestic art. These genius figures, be it statuette or painting, are typically depicted as a young, veiled man wearing a toga, who usually holds a patera and/ or a cornucopia.

The first image is taken by Patricio Lorente via the Wiki Commons, and the shown statuette is courtesy of the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, USA (54.2329). This figure is made of bronze with silver inlay, and dates to the 1st century.

On this day in 306 AD: Constantine the Great is proclaimed emperor of the Roman empire.

The rule of Constantine is given a particular significance in world history. This is largely because he was the first Christian (or, at least pro-Christian) emperor of Rome and the empire.

Not born or raised Christian, it was before the battle of the Milvian Bridge against Maxentius in 312 AD that Constantine experienced his famous vision. According to this account, after calling upon the highest God for help, Constantine is said to have seen a cross in the sky rising from the sun. Following this, the monogram for Christ (chi rho) was placed on the shields of his men going into battle. Constantine attributed the resulting victorious battle to the God of the Christians.

The question of whether of not Constantine was Christian, or how sincere his proclamation was, remains a matter of debate. Evidently his conversion did not entirely result in a changed morality, Constantine had his wife and son murdered. He was baptized a Christian shortly before his death, which was not an uncommon decision to make in this period. In Constantine’s instance, being emperor, he was still obligated to order executions and fight battles, which is why the cleansing of his sin through baptism was postponed to not long before his death. I would suggest that the importance Constantine placed on his baptism in preparation for his death reflects at least a degree of genuine belief. 

The matter of his personal faith aside, few other Roman emperors have left such a lasting impact on the course of world history. With his conversion, construction of Christian Rome, foundation of a new senate and capital, the way to a new epoch of world history was opened.

The artefact shown is the head of Constantine’s colossal statue, courtesy of & currently located at the Capitoline Museums. Photo taken by Jean-Christophe Benoist, via the Wiki Commons.


Plank figures.

While they may look a bit familiar to some (hmm…), truth is we don’t really know a lot about these rare ‘Plank Figures’ found in the province of Paphos.

Traces of paint remain on these large plank figures with schematic arms. Despite the 'arms,’ there appears to be no further indication of anatomical features, however it remains possible that the lost paintwork once depicted such details. The relief present in the second shown example may indicate clothing once portrayed.

The role of these statuettes remains puzzling to scholars today. Some suggest that they imitated xoana (wooden cult effigies) that stood in prehistoric shrines. Another line of thought is that they were associated with beliefs of fertility, and played a role in mortuary rites prior to their use of grave goods as markers of status.

Both date to the Early Cypriot III - Middle Cypriot I period (ca. 1900-1800 BCE), and are from a cemetery on a hill near the village of Kidasi. The Museum of Cycladic Art houses 7 such plank figures, the best collection of these unique artefacts in the world.

Artefacts courtesy of & currently located at the Goulandris Museum of Cycladic Art, Athens, Greece, Z 576 & Z 726. The artefact descriptions provided by the museum were of great use to me when writing up this post. Photos taken by Dan Diffendale: 1, 2 (cropped).