Cartonnage Mummy Mask

mummy mask
Cartonnage mummy mask, Ptolemaic period (332-30 BC), Egypt. KM 1989.3.2

From far back in their history through the Graeco-Roman period, ancient Egyptians fashioned some sort of mask to cover the faces of the dead. They took great care with these masks as part of their elaborate precautions to preserve the body after death. Sometimes placed directly on the mummy itself, sometimes attached to an outer covering or coffin, such masks were rendered more as idealized images than as individualized portraits of the deceased.

The mummy mask featured here, probably made for a woman, is constructed from a thin, layered material called cartonnage, which was produced by soaking strips of linen in glue and laying the strips down over a head-shaped form or the actual head of a mummy. The wet linen was allowed to dry, creating a perfectly contoured mask. The mask was then covered with a thin gesso layer, painted, and gilded.

The fragile Kelsey mask has presented an interesting challenge to our conservation staff. Large sections of it—including the back and shoulders—are missing, and until recently it was too unstable to display. The mask was repaired at least twice in the past, but both attempts failed to fully stabilize the delicate sides, top, and face. Evidence of these old repairs was visible on the inside of the mask.

To stabilize the mask, past repairs were replaced with new ones made from Japanese tissue, thus strengthening the sides and top of the mask. Japanese tissue is a soft, long-fibered paper made from the fibers of various plants common to Japan, including the mulberry tree. Painted Japanese tissue was also used to fill in losses in the face and sides of the mask.

The conserved mummy mask is a central object in the special exhibition “Conserving Antiquity,” on display from November 2, 2012, to February 10, 2013.