Egypt (Roman period), mummy footcase with four nude prisoners, late first century B.C. to early first century. Cartonnage, 25.5 cm high.
Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black Archive & Library at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

Four naked warriors, all still wearing a quiver of arrows, but lacking their bows, kneel within the decorative borders of a richly painted panel. Though represented in a characteristic pose of submission, they are distinguished from one another by the color of their skin and the varied postures of their bound limbs. Chained to a central pier, they face each other in pairs. The warrior in the lower left field is clearly black. In this distinctly Egyptian work, he represents an inhabitant of Nubia, a land much farther up the Nile, located between present-day southern Egypt and northern Sudan.

The four figures seem to allude to the nine traditional enemies of Egypt, that is, the various people lying beyond the Egyptian frontier. In addition to the figure of the Nubian to the south, the other captives conjure the various ethnicities ranged along Egypt’s borders to the east and west. They seem to include a Libyan, a Semitic warrior from Syria or Palestine and a light-skinned captive, perhaps from western Asia.

The defeated enemies of Egypt decorate the underside of a footcase, a now-isolated part of an elaborate funerary ensemble. The footcase was unearthed in Hawara, a site at the edge of the archaeologically rich Fayum district in northwestern Egypt. It dates to the beginning of the Roman occupation of this ancient land along the Nile.

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Though familiar to students of ancient Egyptian art and history, the stylized conventions of defeat seen here have taken on a meaning quite different from the grand days of expansion into enemy territory under dynamic rulers such as the mighty Pharaoh Rameses II. Its later use here coincides with the Roman leader Octavian’s defeat in 31 B.C. of Antony and Cleopatra VII, the last ruler of the Greek-descended Ptolemaic dynasty. The conquest of Egypt occurred as the result of the final stage of Rome’s tortured emergence from its outmoded system of republican government. More broadly, the overthrow of the Ptolemies brought the entire eastern part of the Mediterranean under the direct rule of Rome.

This particular type of footcase seems to have evolved during the early phase of the Roman occupation of Egypt. Here, the age-old formula of the captured enemy of Egypt found its last expression. After mummification, the linen-swathed body of the deceased was wrapped in brightly painted furnishings and then placed within a modest grave shaft. The feet of the deceased once were housed within the footcase’s hollow form. The other side of the footcase bears the raised form of simplified sandaled feet.

The existence of other such footcases with nearly identical figures and ornamentation speaks to the great scale of production of such burial equipment in the region. Many seem to have been made in the immediate vicinity of the graves themselves, perhaps in family-run shops.

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Burial customs among the Egyptians may seem as time-honored and enduring as their priestly traditions and sacred lore. Today’s image of the royal mummy, swathed in yards of bandages and placed in a series of ornate, nesting coffins, conjures a timeless concern with the afterlife. Yet Egyptian culture was far from static, its history defined by many and varied phases of development. Modes of burial were no exception. By the time of the later Roman conquest of Egypt, when this footcase was made, even the bodies of commoners were often buried in elaborate trappings.

One of the most common materials used for this purpose was the easily workable medium of cartonnage. Often described as papier-mâché, this relatively cheap, pliant substance was formed of successive layers of cloth and a kind of plaster known as gesso. The lightweight compound material could be formed over molds and painted, creating an often stunning visual effect resembling the much more costly techniques of metalwork and precious stones. Also made in the form of full mummy cases, cartonnage could be used, as here, to create an ensemble of separate coverings fixed over key points of an elaborately wrapped body, such as the head, chest and feet.

The imagery of the thoroughly powerless foreign enemy had long been a potent affirmation of state power during the expansive periods of Egypt’s past. A broader but ethnically similar group of nine captives decorates the footstool of King Tutankhamen’s throne, as well as the upper side of the soles of his sandals. Tutankhamen ruled in the late 14th century B.C., when the image of conquest symbolically represented on these articles of state could still reflect actual fact. The isolated nature of this imagery, and its particular association with the feet, have a talismanic intention, expressing the effortless power of the ruler over his perennially threatening opponents.

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But why would this powerful stylization of a ruler’s power be evoked in the quite different funerary context of the cartonnage footcase? The person who once rested within it was most likely a private individual of modest means, probably well-off but not among the truly wealthy or noble classes and therefore living far removed from the seat of centralized power.

The answer may lie in the changing context of Egyptian funerary culture under foreign rule. The design of both mummy cases and coffins had become much more generic during the Ptolemaic period. The vast trove of sacred imagery and its accompanying wealth of appropriate inscriptions had degenerated to a point not much beyond mere decoration. The iconic figure of the subdued captive may have been taken over during the late period for a more intimate function in the funerary cult of the Roman era.

Co-opted from its original link to state power, the image of the subdued captive may have served as a more personal guarantor of a favored future in the afterlife, a role once played by an infinitely more privileged spiritual engagement with text, imagery and performed ritual.

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The Image of the Black Archive & Library resides at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also chairman of The Root. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.