A Painted Coffin (ca. 664-525 BCE)

Margaret Swaney
Meg Swaney is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins University studying Egyptian Art and Archaeology. She also holds a master's degree in Museum Studies from New York University ('13), where her research focused on the ethics of displaying Egyptian mummies, as well as a bachelor's degree in Anthropology from the University of Chicago ('11).
Sanchita Balachandran
Sanchita Balachandran is the Associate Director of the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Near Eastern Studies. She teaches courses related to the identification and analysis of ancient manufacturing techniques of objects, as well as the history, ethics and practice of museum conservation.
Imaging the coffin with (L to R) Ashley Fuitko Arico, Meg Swaney and Sanchita Balachandran.

Imaging the coffin with (L to R) Ashley Fuitko Arico, Meg Swaney and Sanchita Balachandran.

This coffin was donated to Johns Hopkins by the nephews of Colonel Cohen in 1884 because they “felt a pride in the collection, and desire that it should remain in this community.” Originally listed in Cohen’s “Catalogue of Egyptian Antiquities” as a “Mummy-case in wood, painted; with vertical line of hierog[lyphs] in front,” the coffin may have once belonged to the “Mummy of a youth” who is listed in Cohen’s catalog, though this relationship is uncertain. Nearly a century after the coffin and the mummy were donated to the museum, an autopsy was carried out at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The caption to a newspaper image from the autopsy in 1979 states that the coffin, stored in a closet at the hospital, was “the dead man’s sarcophagus.” Based on our recent study, we now know that the so-called “Cohen mummy” is actually a woman. While we still do not know if the coffin belonged to this ancient Egyptian woman, it is at least plausible that, given her small stature (4ft. 7in. in height), she could have been placed inside it.

Coffins provided a protective environment in which the dead could be transformed into an akh, (a blessed spirit) in order to enter into the afterlife. A person could be buried in a single coffin or in a nested series of coffins, each playing its own symbolic role. The decoration of this coffin suggests it is an inner coffin possibly dating to the 26th Dynasty (ca. 664-525 BCE). The relatively plain surface, likely originally appearing white, was meant to imitate the wrapped mummy; the pedestal at the foot further emphasizes the coffin’s sculptural quality as an image of the deceased. The large floral collar on the chest represents the garlands placed over the body as part of the funerary rites, while the idealizing face surrounded by a striated wig with alternating stripes of yellow, red, and Egyptian blue mimics funerary masks placed over the head for protection and to aid in the deceased’s transfiguration. The red face was fitted with a (now missing) beard, suggesting it was created for a man, though by this period, such details were not necessarily gender markers. Furthermore, the re-use of coffins in antiquity was not uncommon, and inscriptions could be updated to reflect changes in use, which may be the case for this coffin.

The offering formula in infrared reflected light (L); as transcribed in JSesh software; and viewed in visible infrared luminescence (R).

The offering formula in infrared reflected light (L); as transcribed in JSesh software; and viewed in visible infrared luminescence (R).

The line of hieroglyphs on the front of the coffin preserves a standard offering formula invoking the funerary god Osiris, ruler of the underworld: “Recitation by Osiris: May he give all offerings [to…].” Recent technical imaging of the painted areas of the coffin shows that the inscription was written in a combination of carbon black pigment (as visible in the infrared reflected light image above) mixed with Egyptian blue, an ancient synthetic pigment which glows in the visible infrared luminescence image at above right. This unique characteristic of Egyptian blue made it possible to see a previously “hidden” name on the wooden panel on the foot of the coffin. Though the area now looks entirely black, a woman’s name, “Amenirdis,” meaning “It is (the god) Amun who has given her,” appears when photographed through visible infrared luminescence imaging. This means the name was painted in Egyptian blue, a pigment that had important symbolic meanings in antiquity. Was Amenirdis the name of the woman whose mummy once occupied the coffin? Is she the same individual we now call the “Cohen Mummy”?