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The portraits covered the faces of bodies that were mummified for burial.
Extant examples indicate that they were mounted into the bands of cloth that were used to wrap the bodies.
In 1887, the British archaeologist Flinders Petrie started excavations at Hawara.
He discovered a Roman necropolis which yielded 81 portrait mummies in the first year of excavation.
Although interest in Ancient Egypt steadily increased after that period, further finds of mummy portraits did not become known before the early 19th century.
The provenance of these first new finds is unclear; they may come from Saqqara as well, or perhaps from Thebes.
The Italian explorer Pietro della Valle, on a visit to Saqqara-Memphis in 1615, was the first European to discover and describe mummy portraits.
He transported some mummies with portraits to Europe, which are now in the Albertinum (Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden).
In parallel, more scientific engagement with the portraits was beginning.Although little was known about their archaeological find contexts, Graf went as far as to ascribe the portraits to known Ptolemaic pharaohs by analogy with other works of art, mainly coin portraits.None of these associations were particularly well argued or convincing, but they gained him much attention, not least because he gained the support of well-known scholars like Rudolf Virchow.It is not clear when their production ended, but recent research suggests the middle of the 3rd century.They are among the largest groups among the very few survivors of the highly prestigious panel painting tradition of the classical world, which was continued into Byzantine and Western traditions in the post-classical world, including the local tradition of Coptic iconography in Egypt.