Why does this young man appear to be sprouting phantasmic locks of hair from above his left ear?
It seems that he's shadowed by the ghostly ponytail of the coffin's previous owner. The portrait has clearly been recut, and the original must have showed a boy devoted to the goddess Isis: her young male followers proclaimed their devotion by shaving their heads, razoring off everything except a single long tuft of hair above the ear. (The hairstyle was modelled on that of the mythic child Harpocrates, son of Isis.)
Sheer need must have driven the later family to choose this piece — with its prior owner's prominently protruding hairstyle — for reappropration and recutting. Why not choose one with a portrait of a non-devotee, whose hair would be much less troublesome to erase? Or else simply make better use of abrasives to take down the background plane around the head, fully scrubbing off any lingering halo? Clearly money — or time — was limited, and the family made do with the used piece they had at hand: a striking reminder of the exigencies of death, the high rates of infant mortality in the ancient world, and above all, the frequent recarving and reuse of sarcophagi in antiquity by Romans themselves.
I return to this piece in a later post: The Phantom Ponytail returns.
Comments warmly invited.
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