This Third Intermediate Period coffin is one of the finest examples to ever appear at auction. It was acquired by the Swedish scientist Olof Vilhelm Arrhenius during his travels to Egypt in the 1920s and shipped home in a warship. It first became known to a wider audience when his descendants put it on loan in Heidelberg in the early 1980s, and it has since been on loan to 2 other public institutions until the present day. What makes this coffin remarkable is its excellent state of preservation and extensive and fine pictorial reprersentations across almost every surface. In previous periods, Egyptian tombs were decorated with painted or sculpted scenes but due to the extensive destruction during the Third Intermediate Period, this extensive imagery was transferred to coffins as seen here.
Consisting of a lid originally made for a woman and a trough made for a man named Pa-di-tu-Amun, this coffin set reflects extensive ancient reuse of elements of coffins from earlier burial ensembles, and further shows evidence of multiple alterations on its lid. Since Egyptian coffins of this period were made in standardized sizes, the lid of one could easily be “married” to the trough of another. A close examination of this coffin however allows a more complex understanding of the many changes undergone by both parts of the coffin in ancient times. Most likely, Pa-di-tu-Amun adapted the lid of the coffin of a priestess to match his extant coffin trough some time in early Dynasty 22. The clear addition of a beard on a female face implies that both elements were used together by a male owner in antiquity.
The lid of this coffin is of the “stola” type, named for the red “mummy braces” or stola painted above the floral collar encircling the upper part of the body. Stola coffins exclusively occur after the end of the 21st Dynasty during the first few reigns of Dynasty 22, and 129 examples of stola coffins (including this one) have been extensively classified by R. van Walsem (op. cit.). The decoration scheme of this lid is identified in his authoritative work as stola coffin type 12Bb, based on the arrangement of the floral collar on the upper body, the layout of winged sundisks and goddesses in the central portion, and the pattern of vertical text bands and vignettes from the knees to feet. The clearly modeled breasts, as well as the originally beardless face painted yellow indicate that the lid was originally made for a female owner. The coffin shows extensive traces of reuse, including several alterations of the lid probably reflecting reuse for various priestesses associated with the cult of Amun. The latest textual alteration features the titles “mistress of the house, chantress of [Amun]”, which helps to relate this coffin to burials of members of families of the Amun priesthood throughout western Thebes, especially with the the famous “Second Cachette” discovered in 1891 at Deir el-Bahri in the Bab el-Gasus tomb. Consisting of more than 250 coffins and mummy-covers, the circumstances of this discovery have been authoritatively studied by A. Niwinski (21st Dynasty Coffins from Thebes: Chronological and Typological Studies) and R. Sousa (Gleaming Coffins: Iconography and Symbolism in Theban Coffin Decoration (21st Dynasty), vol. 1). Stola-type coffins are known from many locations in western Thebes and further afield, however, and this example may well derive from a context other than the Bab el-Gasus find.
Originally decorated in polychrome painted images and hieroglyphs on a white background, the lid was covered with a coating of resin that gave it its yellow color. The original polychromy features bright pigment, including a distinctive “apple green” color that is documented on other stola coffins. At some later point, relief decoration was added in thick dark green gesso, partially covering the earlier polychromy – this can especially be noted on the wings of the goddesses and winged sun disks, as well as on the two vertical bands of inscription. These text bands feature the offering formula drawn in narrow hieroglyphs in yellow, invoking Re-Harakhty-Atum (left-hand column) and Osiris (right-hand column). A third layer of alteration is discernible in thicker yellow signs on a black background naming the chantress title as described above; this might represent an addition only of the titles and a name, which is unfortunately entirely missing on the lid, due to losses near the feet. The name of the original owner of the lid is presumably covered beneath these later layers of paint. We may therefore imagine at least two and possibly three uses of the coffin lid by female owners, prior to its adaptation for a male burial. The underside of the coffin lid is coated in thick black resin, a material which was liberally applied to mummies and funerary equipment in order to allow divine transformation of the soul of the deceased.
The trough extensively features the name, titles, and genealogy of the “Chief of Servants/Weavers of the House of Amun” Pa-di-tu-Amun (a variation of the extremely common name Pa-di-Amun, “the one whom Amun gave”). This final alteration may have been made at the time of the association of the lid with the trough intended for Pa-di-tu-Amun, which would have necessitated the addition of a beard to the female face. It is unusual that the breasts were not removed in the final transformation of the coffin; in other similar instances the breasts were removed and painting was done to mask their removal (see Louvre AF 9593 in Niwinski, op. cit., no. 349). The hands are a modern restoration, and the form of the original hands (usually open for a woman, and shown closed as here for a man) is not known. The research of K. Cooney on the extensive reuse of coffins during the Third Intermediate Period has resulted in a heightened awareness of the frequency of the reuse of funerary items during this era, exemplified very clearly in the present example (see The Cost of Death: The Social and Economic Value of Ancient Egyptian Funerary Art in the Ramesside Period). Cooney has found that about 50 percent of all yellow coffins were reused, while as many as 75 percent of the coffins from the Bab el-Gasus cachette have traces of reuse.
The trough of the coffin is richly decorated in polychrome iconography that combines themes from the Underworld books (the Amduat and the Book of the Earth) with elements of funerary ritual. Making use of directional symbols, as well as a rich iconography of both the Osirian and solar cycles, the coffin formed a microcosm to protectively envelop the deceased and enable his or her eternal transformation into a divine being. Described by de Araújo Duarte (op. cit.) as the “coffin which best attests the level of intericonicity between elements of the funerary procession with those of the Amduat,” this example stands out among those he studied. Scenes of a solar barque being dragged on a sled by various divine beings dominate both the right and left sides of the coffin exterior, and combine elements of the 10th and 12th Hours of the Amduat, iconography that is well-known from royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings. An especially interesting scene depicts groups of ba-souls (human-headed birds) with arms raised in adoration, as well as human-headed uraeus cobras, all pulling the ropes of the solar boat containing the ram-headed sun god, who is protected by the mehen-serpent and accompanied by goddesses Isis, Nepthys and Maat. A mummified and seated baboon deity may be interpreted as a form of the god Osiris at the end of the 12th hour of the night. As on contemporary papyri, the coffins of the late Third Intermediate Period tend to emphasize the last four hours of the journey of the solar bark through the night. These scenes of a boat on a sledge also evoke the funerary procession of the mummy of the deceased to the tomb, implicitly linking the landscape of western Thebes with the divine landscape of the Underworld. The texts inscribed both inside and outside of the coffin trough similarly evince a combination of standard offering formulas and mortuary texts with otherworldly content. Every empty space around figures and blocks of text is filled with emblematic signs or sign groups that serve as protective devices and brief captions, some with enigmatic meaning. The extremely intricate iconography of the exterior of the trough features many well-drawn details of interest- a male figure (possibly the coffin owner) holding an oar; a small figure of a priest playing a double flute; mirror-image groupings of Osiris, Isis, and Maat associated with figures of a divine cow; and symmetrical representations of the “Abydos fetish,” the reliquary of Osiris’ head. The rim of the entire coffin trough is crowned with a frieze of protective uraeus cobras, beneath which a long register of text featuring offering formulas unfolds in either direction from an ankh sign at the head, here probably introducing the formulas with a wish of “May he live!” and detailing Pa-di-tu-Amun’s genealogy.
Pa-di-tu-Amun’s descent from a line of men carrying the same title is mentioned repeatedly in the abundant inscriptions on the exterior of the coffin trough, often in association with images of Pa-di-tu-Amun before an enthroned deity. His father is named as Ipui-wer (Ipui the Elder), who also held the title of “Chief of Servants/Weavers of the House of Amun, and the scribe of those who belong to the House of Amun.” The coffin owner’s grandfather is named as “Chief of Servants/Weavers of the House of Amun” Userhet-mose, who might be associated with the owner of a coffin now in Cairo (Inv. 29661) found in the Bab el-Gasus cachette. The genealogy of a family featuring the names Ipui the Elder and Userhet-mose is also detailed on a Dynasty 22-23 block statue in Cairo from the Karnak Cachette and may represent descendants of the same family of priests (acc. no. JE 37365, see K. Jansen-Winkeln, “Zu einigen Inschriften der Dritten Zwischenzeit,” Revue d’Égyptologie 55, pl. 16).
The interior of the coffin trough is dominated by a large mummiform figure of the god Osiris crowned with the nemes headdress and triple atef or hemhem-crown, standing atop the hieroglyph for gold. The name of “Osiris, Foremost of the West[erners]” graces a cartouche in the location that would correspond to the location of the head of the mummy of the deceased, who is considered to be joined with Osiris. The figure of Osiris is surrounded by figures of the goddess of the West, the vulture goddess Nekhbet, falcon deities, a bearded serpent deity, a figure of Anubis, and shrines possibly representing Upper and Lower Egypt. Below the dominant image of Osiris are standing and kneeling figures of Isis flanking an anthropomorphic form of the djed-pillar, symbol of Osiris, holding the “Isis knot” or tyet symbol in either hand. Jackal divinities in animal form flank the register below, followed by alternating djed and tyet symbols of Osiris and Isis, reinforcing the major theme of the coffin’s interior decoration.
Either side of the mummy’s head is decorated on the trough interior with scenes of Pa-di-tu-Amun in the form of a standing mummy before the enthroned god Osiris. On either side of the coffin interior, Pa-di-tu-Amun kneels before a snake deity and Osiris. At the bottom on either side, the mummified Pa-di-tu-Amun stands before jackal-headed Anubis, protector of the cemetery (one figure is labeled as In(p)ut, a female jackal deity). Gender complexity is exemplified throughout the coffin’s text and decoration in various ways, including forms of Isis depicted as a bearded male deity. It is therefore difficult to disentangle the issues of coffin reuse for male and female owners from the issues of gender as they relate to the gender fluidity of ancient Egyptian religious concepts (for example, the inherent nature of female association with the male god Osiris upon death) – these rich complexities enhance rather than detract from the appeal of this coffin set.
A full transation of the text is available upon request.