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Masks have a long tradition in Egyptian funerary practice. They were to provide protection and mark idealised individuality to assist a person’s afterlife journey to a peaceful field of reeds – an equivalent of heaven. Burial practices evolved through millennia and the Ptolemaic Period (332-30 BCE), the last stage of the ancient kingdom, saw a proliferation of distinct body masks made of cloth and plaster. The Australian Museum has one complete set of such body masks from Abydos.

Visit of Carlo Rindi, Monash University, to examine and talk about Egyptian masks
Mask from Sedment (E01900) with the reseach team in the background. March 2022. Image: Natalia Mroz
© Australian Museum

Cartonnage (cardboard) - a word derived from French – describes a material made of layers of linen or papyrus covered with plaster and used in ancient Egyptian funerary masks and full-body casing from the First Intermediate Period (c. 2181–2055 BCE) to the Roman era (332 BC -395 AD).

Quite fragile compared to wooden coffins or stone sarcophagi, many cartonnage masks survived surprisingly well preserved for some millennia. They proliferated in the Greco-Roman period of Egyptian history and hundreds were recovered from ancient cemeteries. Relatively little research was completed on these funerary accessories but in recent times scholars have begun to show more interest, as is attested by a study conducted by Dr. Carlo Rindi Nuzzolo who examined our masks in April 2022.

The Australian Museum acquired three cartonnage masks via subscription to the Egypt Exploration Fund – two from Sedment (1910) and one set (a mask with four other body pieces) from Abydos (1912). As was rather common at that time the masks came without comprehensive provenance or documentation. Recent conservation work on these masks encouraged us to conduct basic research, which is summarised here.

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Group photo of masks (E021583-006, E021583-005, E019000, E019001). Image: Melissa Holt
© Australian Museum

The samples of fabric from two masks and foot cover were dated by the radiocarbon method, confirming they were from the early Greco-Roman Period as indicated by their style. These (calibrated) dates are around 350 BCE.

The two masks from Sedment are broadly similar in appearance, however one of them, in addition to the painting, has a gilded face suggesting it was made for a person of higher status and means. Typically for this period, a mask was part of a set of six pieces covering different parts of the mummified human remains to provide protection from malevolent forces. As these masks are in fragile condition, we assume the remaining parts of the sets decayed beyond recovery.

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layers of paper squares glued on the inside the mask. Image: Melissa Holt
© Australian Museum

Our research revealed that the Sedment masks were repaired, stiffened with a layer of paper squares glued on the inside, presumably before they were dispatched to the Museum. Similar repairs using comparable squares of cloth were sometimes done in antiquity. In addition, the main area of the head and wigs were repainted with somewhat odd grey-green paint, which looks like it was done before being sent to Australia.

The mask from Abydos, however, was acquired as a complete set of six pieces. Significantly, following archaeologists’ marking on these pieces we were able to trace this mask to tomb 422 (cemetery “E” in Abydos) – the only tomb known at that time that was not ransacked and looted, possibly even in antiquity. This tomb is relatively well described by Thomas Eric Peet (1911-1912) who excavated and studied it in the early 20th century, providing an essential context that can help to better understand the masks and their use. For example, one of the children's mummified human remains unusually had a cartonnage mask, with body covers shortened but with a headpiece of adult size. Perhaps unsurprising, since the masks were often made in workshops using a mould and generally were not intended for children.

Visit of Carlo Rindi, Monash University, to examine and talk about Egyptian masks
Mask from Sedment (E01900). Image: Natalia Mroz
© Australian Museum

Peet reported: “Across the vault lay seven large limestone coffins, containing fully mummified bodies of adults, mostly in rich cartonnage.” In addition, there were five children’s burials, poorly preserved and one with a cartonnage mask, others were without any accessories. The best-preserved mummified child was given to the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh. The best-preserved cartonnage set was given to the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History - Accession Number ANT 006835 and the best gilt mask to the British Museum – BM number EA51146.

Visit of Carlo Rindi, Monash University, to examine and talk about Egyptian masks
Dr. Carlo Rindi Nuzzolo, Australian Museum, March 2022. Image: Natalia Mroz
© Australian Museum

The lids of most of the limestone coffins were damaged and consequently the cartonnage masks of the remaining mummified human remains were in poor condition. Heavy lids, it seems, spoiled the faces of the masks and toes of the foot cover as is evident in our set from Abydos. Peet asserted that “All that was in a fit condition to be moved is shown on PI. XXVIII” (in his publication). Perhaps the report went to print before he changed his mind and salvaged a few more items, including a partially damaged mask shipped to the Australian Museum.

Masks were not made as portraits, but instead were idealised countenance, usually mass-produced from the mould in specialised workshops and by travelling artisans, and a style alone is not strictly limited to any cemetery or region. Typically, in this period, a space was designated on the mask to inscribe the name of a deceased person. No name was written on any of our three masks.

Ultimately, mask sets were to provide protection and mark idealised individuality to facilitate a person’s afterlife journey to the Egyptian equivalent of heaven – a peaceful field of reeds.

Visit of Carlo Rindi, Monash University, to examine and talk about Egyptian masks
Drs. Carlo Rindi Nuzzolo and Stan Florek with masks, Australian Museum, March 2022. Image: Natalia Mroz
© Australian Museum

Additional Information

The Graeco-Roman Period (332 BC -395 AD) began with Alexander the Great conquering Egypt and its (then) Persian rulers; it ended when Egypt became part of the Byzantine Empire with its prevailing Christian religion.

Calibrated date in essence is a conversion of radiocarbon age approximately into modern calendar date, expressed as in the Common Era (CE or AD) or before the Common Era (BCE).

Ptolemaic mummified human remains in burials at Abydos usually have six cartonnage pieces placed on the body, an actual mask, a collar, two rectangular pieces positioned on the lower waist and upper legs, a leg-shin piece, and a foot-cover.

All quotes are from Thomas Eric Peet. 1914. The Cemeteries of Abydos Part II. 1911-1912. London: Egypt Exploration Fund. Note: distribution list included in this report is not entirely accurate.

I like to thank all colleagues directly involved in conservation work, research, documentation and presentation: Melissa Holt, David Chan, Natalia Mroz, Abram Powell (Australian Museum) and Carlo Rindi Nuzzolo, (Marie Curie Global Fellow, Monash University).