The Afterlife of Ancient Egypt

Egyptian artisans produced work that continues to amaze millennia later, but they were human and fallible, too, and their work was often far from perfect.

Garry Shaw | Published in 25 Feb 2016

Wooden model of a brewing and baking worksAbout 3,000 years ago, a man named Nespawershefyt, working in the temple of Amun at Karnak (in modern Luxor), commissioned a set of coffins for himself, consisting of an outer coffin and an inner coffin – the smaller of the two to be placed in the larger, much like Russian dolls – and a mummy board that would be placed on top of his embalmed and wrapped body within. He seems to have commissioned this fabulous funerary assemblage after reaching a reasonably high rank in the temple hierarchy, a point in his career when he could afford something of quality to contain his mummified corpse for eternity.

The artisans duly set off to complete their task. They crafted the mummy board from two linked pieces of sycamore fig, and the outer coffin from tamarisk and sycamore fig, joined together. When it came to the inner coffin, however, disaster struck. The plank of sidr wood that they'd chosen for the job was damaged in places, requiring pieces to be cut out, and it split during the manufacturing process, leaving the artisans to carefully fill in the various gaps with other pieces of wood. They even threw parts of an older coffin into the mix. Such irregularities were expertly hidden when the coffins were painted, the artists first applying a bright yellow base on their wooden surfaces and then adding colourful images of deities and religious texts. The job was complete, or so it seemed. Years later, Nespawershefyt decided to update his funerary inscriptions: he had received a promotion at the temple and wanted to mention his new higher-level position on his coffins. You cannot leave your CV out-of-date for eternity, so the artisans set to work once again.

Coffin from the coffin set of Nespawershefyt

Three millennia later and these coffins are now among the major attractions within the new exhibition, Death on the Nile: Uncovering the Afterlife of Ancient Egypt at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Central to this exhibition are the insights into Egyptian craft techniques provided by non-invasive imaging techniques, such as infra-red photography and x-rays, that have enabled experts to peer beneath the painted surfaces of the Fitzwilliam's coffins and see the handiwork of the ancient craftsmen – details hidden for thousands of years, all invisible to the naked eye. For the first time, we can now see how Nespawershefyt's wonderful burial assemblage was created, revealing his artisans' skill and the problems they had faced when trying to create the best possible coffin for their patron; a story lost to history has been rediscovered. And it is one of many in the exhibition.

As is revealed throughout the exhibition, the Cambridge team's research uncovered many surprises about the coffins. That of Userhet, for example, made sometime between 1855 and 1790 BC, was carved from a piece of sycamore fig that had split down its side during manufacture; its ancient craftsman had skilfully sewn up the crack, and hidden the repair work beneath thick paste. Older coffins were also recycled or reused (these perhaps having been robbed from tombs and sold on, no questions asked), with the wood – an expensive commodity, particularly when a foreign import, such as cedar of Lebanon – broken apart and pieced together, or simply redecorated. The coffin of Muthotep, from around 1250-1184 BC, was, in fact, an older coffin remodelled and repainted; in places, its decoration has become loose, revealing the older decoration below. We will never know if Muthotep was aware that her coffin had once belonged to someone else. For less affluent members of society, coffins could also be bought 'off the shelf’. This was perhaps the case with the coffin of Henenu, made around 2345-2150 BC. Carved from sycamore fig, its curving planks carefully pieced together, the coffin's inscription is neatly laid-out, until you reach his name, which has been fitted into the remaining space with far less skill; it was probably added at the time of sale.   

‘Death on the Nile’ provides an intriguing glimpse into the world of Egypt's craftsmen and the funerary industry, presenting the well-known theme of death in ancient Egypt from a refreshing new angle using modern research. Though you might skim through some of the more technical or lengthy panels, the exhibition still effortlessly manages to emphasise the great skill of the ancient craftsmen by highlighting their hard work, adaptability, and even their mistakes (as well as their knowledge of how to cover up these same mistakes). This is significant. Often, Egypt's art and architecture is discussed using hyperbole; words such as ‘perfection’ tend to crop up, frequently in the same breath as exclamations about unrepeatable accuracy. Such statements remove the Egyptians from reality. People are not perfect and neither are their creations. By drawing our attention to the imperfections within these beautiful artefacts, the exhibition reveals the artisans' skills both subtly and powerfully. It removes the perfection, but reinforces the human.

Death on the Nile: Uncovering the Afterlife of Ancient Egypt runs until 22nd May 2016 at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Admission is free.

Garry Shaw is the author of The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends and The Pharaoh: Life at Court and on Campaign. He also writes generally on heritage and travel.