Mummy of Herakleides
Getty conversations

During ancient Egypt’s last dynasty, a massive cultural exchange occurred between Greeks and Egyptians.

A conversation with Dr. Sara E. Cole, Antiquities Department, Getty Museum and Dr. Steven Zucker, Executive Director, Smarthistory, in front of Mummy of Herakleides, 120–140 C.E., Romano-Egyptian. Human and bird remains; linen, pigment, beeswax, gold, and wood, 175.3 x 44 x 33 cm. Getty Villa, Los Angeles.

During ancient Egypt’s last dynasty, a massive cultural exchange occurred between Greeks and Egyptians, then reflected in art and cultural practices. Learn how this Greco-Egyptian legacy influenced portrayals of the dead, such as for Herakleides.

Getty has joined forces with Smarthistory to bring you an in-depth look at select works within our collection, whether you’re looking to learn more at home or want to make art more accessible in your classroom. This six-part video series illuminates art history concepts through fun, unscripted conversations between art historians, curators, archaeologists, and artists, committed to a fresh take on the history of visual arts.

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’re in the Getty Villa, in a room dedicated to Roman Egypt, and in the middle is this magnificent intact mummy.

Dr. Sara E. Cole: [0:15] His name is Herakleides, and he lived in Egypt during the time when Egypt was a province of the Roman Empire.

Dr. Zucker: [0:22] When people think about Egypt in the ancient world, they often think about the several-thousand-year Pharaonic period, when Egypt was ruled by Egyptian kings. That was followed by a 300-year period when Egypt was ruled by Macedonian Greeks, and that’s what we call the Ptolemaic Period, but this mummy dates from the time immediately after that, when Rome had had taken Egypt as a province.

Dr. Cole: [0:46] During the Ptolemaic period, there was an influx of Greeks into Egypt. There were Greek men who were members of the Ptolemaic court and administration, but also a number of Greek men who served as mercenaries in the Ptolemaic army. The Ptolemies rewarded these men by giving them land grants.

[1:05] These men settled in Egypt. Many of them intermarried with the local Egyptian population. What happened over that 300-year period was that many blended Greco-Egyptian communities developed. Herakleides probably was a high-ranking member of one of these Greco-Egyptian communities.

[1:24] The practice of mummification, which had been engaged in in Egypt for millennia, carried into the Ptolemaic and the Roman periods. The concept of mummifying the individual and then creating a likeness of them to accompany them into the tomb is integral to Egyptian ideas about the afterlife and the significance of preserving the body and preserving a likeness to carry them over into the next life.

Dr. Zucker: [1:52] For me, while we stand in this gallery, it’s impossible not to see that face as the face of the man immediately below that thin piece of wood.

Dr. Cole: [2:00] We get such an immediate sense of connection looking into his face. In the earlier periods, the Egyptian types of portraiture were very idealized. They weren’t meant to be portraits in our modern sense of the term.

[2:14] But what we see in this period is individuals choosing to engage in this Greco-Roman tradition of realistic, naturalistic likenesses. There probably is still an element of idealization, but we really do get the sense that they are meant to represent the individual.

Dr. Zucker: [2:32] From analysis that has been done, we know that the age of the man represented in paint is approximately the age of the man within.

Dr. Cole: [2:40] He was approximately 20 years old when he died.

Dr. Zucker: [2:43] I was looking carefully at the surface. The hatching and the crosshatching of the tempera paint is so fine and gives a wonderful sense of dimensionality, a sense that we are looking into a face that is present.

Dr. Cole: [2:55] The artist has achieved a wonderful sense of a lifelike quality and a three-dimensionality.

Dr. Zucker: [3:01] The painting is done on a thin wooden panel made out of linden, which was grown in Europe, so this is imported wood. And that importation is evident also in the red that we see in the shroud that surrounds the face.

Dr. Cole: [3:14] The red pigment is actually a red lead that came from the Rio Tinto region of Spain, where the Romans mined silver. So like the wooden board that was used to create his portrait, this reflects that Herakleides had access to these wide-ranging trade networks that connected the entire Mediterranean and Near East in the Roman imperial period.

Dr. Zucker: [3:37] And that red is a beautiful, rich ground for very elaborate iconography on the body’s surface.

Dr. Cole: [3:44] While his portrait is in a Greco-Roman style, all of the painting on the shroud itself depicts Egyptian deities and Egyptian amuletic icons meant to protect Herakleides as he makes his transition into the next world.

Dr. Zucker: [3:59] At the top, we see two falcons facing each other.

Dr. Cole: [4:02] We see two falcons wearing the white crown of upper Egypt. Those might represent the god Horus, who was the son of the god of the dead, Osiris. At either shoulder, we also see icons known as the Eye of Horus, an icon that symbolized well-being and protection.

[4:22] Between the two falcons, we see this elaborate crown, which consists of a pair of cow’s horns surrounding a sun disc, atop which are two plumes. This was a type of crown that was worn by several different goddesses. It could be referencing the goddess Isis or perhaps the goddess Hathor.

Dr. Zucker: [4:42] Below we see another figure, also wearing an elaborate crown.

Dr. Cole: [4:46] This is a somewhat enigmatic figure, because she could represent several different goddesses. The goddess is standing with her wings outstretched, and in each hand, she holds a feather representing ma’at, or balance or justice. On top of her head, she’s wearing this crown with cow horns surrounding a solar disc, surmounted by two feathers.

[5:08] She could represent the goddess Nut, who was the sky goddess, often depicted in Egyptian burials, but she could also be the goddess Isis, who similarly served a protective function. Both of these goddesses are depicted in Egyptian funerary iconography protecting the deceased as they journey into the next life.

[5:28] Then on either side of her, we see these two stands or plinths, on top of which is a modius type of grain measure that was incorporated into crowns worn by the goddess Isis during this period.

Dr. Zucker: [5:42] I’m struck by the gilding of her outfit.

Dr. Cole: [5:44] We see ample use of gilding in the burial of Herakleides, not only on his portrait itself but then also on the painted decoration on his shroud, which signals his wealth but also references the fact that the gods were believed to have skin of gold.

Dr. Zucker: [6:01] Below that goddess, we see a water bird, an ibis. What’s so striking to me is that, just as the painted face is set above the face of the man within the shroud, the representation of the ibis is also above an actual bird.

Dr. Cole: [6:17] Herakleides is not the only mummy included in this burial. There is a mummified ibis bird placed over Herakleides’ abdomen and incorporated into his mummy wrappings. It’s located approximately in the same spot as the painted image of the ibis on the mummy’s shroud. The ibis was an animal associated with the god Thoth, the god of wisdom and learning and scribes.

[6:44] So the placement of an actual mummified animal within the mummy wrappings of a person is extremely unusual, and it’s difficult to understand what it might signify. It might be that Herakleides was a priest of Thoth, or perhaps he was a scribe, and so he’s signaling his profession.

[7:03] It could simply be that Herakleides was a personal devotee of Thoth and wanted to be buried with an ibis for this reason. It could also have funerary connotations, because Thoth played a role in specific steps in the process of being admitted into the afterlife. It’s also possible that it references all of these simultaneously.

Dr. Zucker: [7:25] As we move down the legs, there’s another god who’s represented, this time flanked by two cobras.

Dr. Cole: [7:27] This is the god of the dead, Osiris, shown as a mummified figure. In Egyptian mythology, Osiris was the first to be mummified, and so he’s standing flanked by two cobras wearing sun discs on their head. Osiris wears this distinctive type of crown called the Atef crown. His skin is gilded as well.

Dr. Zucker: [7:53] Finally, as we reach the ankles, we see yet another falcon, this time holding the feathers of ma’at.

Dr. Cole: [7:55] We see here this falcon with outstretched wings. Above each of his wings, he holds a feather of ma’at, representing truth, balance, or justice. He wears a solar disc on top of his head, so this is probably the solar deity Ra-Horakhty.

Dr. Zucker: [8:15] All of these figures would have been understood to have played a role in the journey of this man from the world of the living to the world of the dead.

Dr. Cole: [8:24] They’re all associated with creating a safe passage into the next life.

Dr. Zucker: [8:29] Looking closely, I see golden toe caps that are represented in paint.

Dr. Cole: [8:33] In Egyptian mummification, there was a tradition of creating caps or sheaths of gold that would be placed over individual toes. The most famous example comes from the New Kingdom, from the burial of Tutankhamun, so this painted image is a reference to that practice.

Dr. Zucker: [8:51] Finally, there is an inscription.

Dr. Cole: [8:53] This inscription is how we know Herakleides’ name, which we’re extremely fortunate to know because in most instances portrait mummies don’t have names associated with them, but above his feet, in Greek letters, we see the name Herakleides.

Dr. Zucker: [9:09] That’s a Greek name and a reminder that although we’ve now described all of these ancient Egyptian deities, this is a multicultural moment in Egypt.

Dr. Cole: [9:18] It’s also a signal that Herakleides might have had a multicultural sense of his own identity. He very possibly could have identified simultaneously as being both Greek and Egyptian and also probably identified as an inhabitant of the Roman Empire. In some sense, he was simultaneously all three of these things.

[9:38] [music]

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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Cite this page as: Dr. Sara E. Cole and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Mummy of Herakleides
Getty conversations," in Smarthistory, March 28, 2022, accessed July 18, 2024,