How long could the ancient Egyptians expect to rest in peace? According to new research led by the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, the answer is… not very long!
Today, bargain hunting is all the rage and searching for antiques in vintage markets is a popular weekend pastime, but researchers have found that it took on a morbid twist in ancient Egypt. It turns out that up-cycled coffins were de rigeur, and many were in fact patched together from pieces of older ones, some only a few generations old!
It’s well known that tomb robbery was rife in ancient Egypt, the gold and other valuables buried inside made them a tempting target for opportunist thieves. Families of the deceased often spent a great deal of money on the coffin, and personalised them with painted inscriptions and spells, which they believed would guarantee safe passage into the afterlife.
This new evidence for trade in second-hand coffins suggests that the sarcophagi themselves were just as valuable a target as the treasures hidden inside. But why, when they were willing to spend so much money, would they want a recycled one?
Curators at the Fitzwilliam believe that much of the cost was due to the scarcity of timber available, making old coffins very valuable. In one case it seems the wood was so precious that the coffin was painstaking stitched back together after the wood split during its manufacture.
Coffin craftsmen, it seems, were forced to come up with practical solutions to meet the high demand. By stocking up on second-hand coffins, and skilfully converting the old into the new, they were able to offer an attractive alternative.
The sarcophagi raise questions about just how wide-scale the recycled coffin trade was, and whether the coffin makers themselves took advantage of the tomb-raiding network to stock up on supplies. But what became of the bodies inside them is yet to be determined…
Many of the coffins were apparently bought ‘off the peg’ and then personalised by the buyer, but those of a wealthier status could commission specially designed coffins made from recycled coffin material.
X-Rays and CT Scans of one of the coffins belonging to Nespawershefyt, the chief scribe at the Temple of Amun-Re in Thebes, reveal that it was made from at least one other older coffin and pieced together from lots of different bits of wood. Any gaps and old joining holes were then filled with linen, clay and straw. The coffin was evidently commissioned early in his life, because by the time of his death the inscriptions had needed to be updated to reflect his growth in rank.
In addition to this creative upcycling, Nespawershefyt’s sarcophagus contained another surprising detail; 3000 year-old fingerprints, probably from the coffin’s craftsman, were found in the varnish on the underside of the lid, suggesting that someone tried to move it before the varnish had dried.
The fingerprints provide a rare snapshot into past activity, and could possibly reveal more about their owner. The study into ancient fingerprints is a growing area of interest as they have the potential to reveal details on the age and occupation of the owner, and, if matched on another item, could even be used to identify other objects handled or manufactured by the same individual.
The new evidence from these coffins gives us a unique glimpse into life in ancient Egypt, and emphasises the importance they placed on preparations for the afterlife. The analysis of the coffins in the collection brings us closer to the craftsmen who produced them, and the care, ingenuity and morbid thriftiness that went into their creation.
Death on the Nile: Uncovering the afterlife of ancient Egypt runs until 22nd May 2016 at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.
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