Life Everlasting: National Museums Scotland Collection of Ancient Egyptian Coffins
Bill Manley and Aidan Dodson 2010
National Museums Scotland
Having recently read an excellent paper by Julie Ann Morgan about the way in which Third Intermediate Period mummies can be analysed and understood, I was in just the right frame of mind for this book, which looks at mummy coffins in the National Museum of Scotland collections.
The National Museums Scotland (NMA) are responsible for three of Scotland’s collections, all in Edinburgh. Those outside these three collections, or indeed outside Edinburgh, are not included in this book. The three collections were contributed to by many familiar names, including Alexander Henry Rhind, Sir William Flinders Petrie, Edwin Ward and Cyril Aldred, include some splendid examples from all periods of coffin building, and deserve a wider audience.
This book sets out to describe the NMS coffins and related material, contextualizing them historically and geographically. In spite of the fact that one of the authors is hieroglyph expert Bill Manley, it is made clear that there is no discussion of the texts appearing on coffins, which the authors hope will be studied by future researchers.
The coffins examined in the book cover the Middle Kingdom to Roman rule.
Two audiences appear to be targeted, and this is reflected both in the organization and the structure of the book. The book is, first and foremost, a catalogue, offering researchers the means to assess what the NMS collections have available. But at the same time it also provides a more general introduction to coffins and their overall development. The catalogue section is therefore organized chronologically, with introductory material at the beginning of each chronological chapter or “part”.
The book is beautifully presented on good quality paper, with attractive layouts and helpful site plans and maps, with high quality colour photograph throughout of the sort shown on the front cover (Figure 1).
Table of Contents
Forward; Acknowledgements; Map with sites from where the coffins were found
- National Museums of Scotland, Collection of Ancient Egyptian Coffins
- Part 1 – The Middle Kingdom (19th to 18th Centuries BC)
- Part 2 – The Qurna burial and New Kingdom (16th to 13th Centuries BC)
- Part 3 – Yellow Coffins (10th Century BC)
- Part 4 -Simpler Styles (10th-8th Centuries BC)
- Part 5 – Diversity in Forms (8th to 7th Centuries BC)
- Part 6 – The Late Period and the Ptolemies (6th to 1st Centuries BC)
- Part 7 – Roman Rule (1st to 3rd Centuries AD)
Appendix: Mask from a stone mummiform coffin
Concordances; Chronology of Ancient Egypt; Bibliography; Glossary; Index; Image Credits
Summary of the Contents
Opening Chapter: Collection of Ancient Egyptian Coffins
The opening chapter introduces the National Museums of Scotland and their Egyptian collections, spanning ten pages. A history lesson it its own right, the chapter explains how each of the museums came about, evolved and came to possess their Egyptian collections. As with many items in collections all over Europe and the U.S., many come from private collections and are unprovenanced, although general provenances can be proposed for some on the base of similarities of design and style.
One of the major contributors to the collections was Alexander Rhind, who, for reasons of ill health, found himself in Luxor in the mid 1800s. He was given permission to excavate and was a stickler for recording his work. He recorded many of his observations in a book published in 1862, Thebes: Its tombs and their Tenants, Ancient and Modern. He bequeathed his personal collections of Egyptian objects to the National Museum of Antiquities on his death. As Manley and Dodson put it “Rhind’s efforts at Luxor yielded some of the jewels of the National Museum of Antiquities collections.”
The NMS collections are made up of three institutions: The University of Edinburgh National History Museum (now the National Museums Scotland galleries), the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland and the Royal Scottish Museum. The first chapter explains how the collections were acquired, and what sort of cataloguing and publication has taken place in the past. For example, Margaret Murray provided initial descriptions and visitor guides for two of the collections. There is a detailed look into the acquisitions of the contents of the Qurna burials: In 1909 Petri, who had received a single payment of £100 from the Royal Scottish Museum, uncovered an intact tomb at a site called El Khor at Qurna in Thebes. It contained the coffins of a young woman and child, grave goods including jewellery, and it is believed that its owners may have been royal.. The Royal Scottish Museum had paid for the excavation and were therefore entitled, under the old rules, to objects from the burial, including the mummy coffins of the “Queen” and child. This makes the Qurna group the only known intact royal burial outside Egypt, quite a coup for the Royal Scottish Museum.
The opening chapter finishes up with a comment about the value of the catalogue that follows. I have quoted from this substantially, to ensure that readers of this review can assess for themselves the ethical and philosophical approach to the production of the catalogue:
Each item in the following catalogue begins – as we must not forget – with a human life, and the duty of care for their memories has passed into the hands of the NMS . . . . By whatever agency the coffins have come to be with us, however, and they are here to stay and it is our duty of care to see that they are well cared for. This catalogue arises partly out of that duty of care and partly out of the hope that you, the reader, will appreciate the stories that the coffins tell about their past and recall for a moment some of the lives . . . associated with them” (pages 9-10).
The bulk of the book is, as the table of contents shows, separated into a number of broadly chronological parts.
Each part is provided with a useful introduction that puts the coffins into their political contexts, describing the dominant shapes and styles and explaining some of the changes that took place in coffin form, style and iconography. Each introduction is around a page and a half long, but the authors manage to pack some very useful information into these pages. Where available, proposed typographical sequences are shown. These introductory pieces, which make reference to the coffins within the collection by catalogue number, are invaluable, drawing the reader in to the development of coffins over this two millennia period, demonstrating how ideas evolved and influenced designs. Most of the catalogue entries, each describing a mummy coffin, is usually two pages long.
Part 1. The earliest of these parts is the Middle Kingdom. The introductory text to his part explains the background to the rectangular form, the decoration with wedjat eyes, offering formulae and invocations of mortuary deities, as well as the underlying spiritual beliefs that drove the ideas of burial preparation.
Part 2. In part 2 the authors look at some major innovations in coffin design following the end of the Middle Kingdom. Particular emphasis is placed on the anthropoid rishi (feathered) coffins, of which the collection has a notable example, a style that survived in the Third Intermediate Period for royalty but went out of use for less exalted members of society.
Part 3 discusses the yellow coffins that appear during the reign of Amenhotep III but are probably at their peak in the Twenty First Dynasty. A fabulous polychrome approach to decorating anthropoid coffins, they are full of life, colour and vivid iconography. The chapter also explores the new treatments of the mummies contained within the coffins, the use of decoration inside and out, and the use of mummy boards. An illustration of Andrej Niwinski’s 8-part typography helps to clarify how the coffin’s surface was divided into different zones for decoration, with different arrangements and key features (like arms and hands) being emphasized at different times.
Part 4, Simpler Styles, looks at what happened following the yellow style, during the Twenty Second Dynasty. Colours changes, as did the decorative style and the arrangement of texts, with very sparse decoration of coffin interiors. Innovations, including the introduction of cartonnage mummy cases, are discussed. Some of the foot-boards from this phase are enchanting. As with Yellow Coffins in part 3, a typological sequence is provided, this time by John Taylor.
Part 5, Diversity in Forms, introduces the innovation of the bivalve coffin, together with new styles of decoration and subject matter. Again, a 5-part typology by John Taylor helps to clarify the designs and the sequence of their development.
Part 6 looks at the Late Period and the Ptolemies, a period plagued by poor dating. Top level changes are described, with broad trends identified and illustrated with a number of the Scottish coffins.
Part 7, Roman Rule, is very well represented in the collections. A short overview is provided to indicate the main changes, which include the amalgamation of Egyptian and Hellenistic design concepts and motifs.
In each part, after the introductory text, each catalogue item is accompanied by a photograph, sometimes with several views and occasionally with associated relevant materials are also shown. Each item is provided with a paragraph of introduction followed by a description under most of the following headings:
- Owner (the name of the coffin’s occupant, where known);
- Number (NMA registration number);
- Dating (part of dynasty and approximate date range BC);
- Dimensions (varies, but can include length, width, depth of lid and depth of trough)
- Material (for example wood or cartonnage, paint and plaster. Only rarely is the type of wood shown)
- Description (paragraphs describing the coffin, its shape, its key features, the key iconographical motifs and the location of texts);
- Mode of Acquisition (details of how the object was acquired);
- Provenance (its actual or possible point of origin, where known);
- Associated Material (anything found with the coffin, including mummies, mummy boards etc);
- Remarks (any additional comments that did not fit the above categories but contribute to knowledge about the coffin), and
Appendices are for the benefit of researchers. Appendix 1 is a listing of coffins by catalogue numbers, with coffin owner name , one word description and dating. Appendix 2 is a numerically ordered list by NMS Registration Number. Appendix 3 is a list of coffins recorded by Margaret Murray’s 1900 publication of Egypt Antiquities in the National Museum of Arts, Edinburgh.
Finally, there is a chronology of Egypt, a bibliography and a glossary of terms followed by an index and image credits.
The smallest section is Part 1, the Middle Kingdom, with only two coffins, and the longest are Parts 6 (late Period and Ptolemies) with seventeen and Part 7 (Roman Rule) with eighteen. All of the mummy coffins have at least one page dedicated to them; others have more. The longest of the accounts is devoted to the Qurna burial, with three and a half pages devoted to the rishi-style “Queen Coffin” and a further page-and-a-bit allocated to the Qurna child. All of the coffins are provided with photographs in frontal view, many with side views too, and some with foot boards. Other photographs show coffin interiors and related materials.
Some of the descriptions are quite detailed, reinforcing the information provided by the photographs. The remarks are often of particular interest, providing comments on typology and dates, stylistic similarities with other coffins and particularly unusual features. There are plenty of references to take the reader further.
The book is an excellent resource with a good introduction that places the reader in the context of the Scottish collections and how they came to be, before moving on to the catalogue, which divides the coffins in the collections into chronological parts, with detailed descriptions and excellent photographs. It appears to be aiming at two audiences: researchers who will use the catalogue in their work, and general readers interested in coffins and their development.
Each phase of development is given a good introduction of its own and each of the coffins is well described. The reader soon becomes proficient in the terminology and the key elements of coffin design. Because it is ordered chronologically, the book gives readers the opportunity to understand how mummy design evolved over time and to understand why some of the changes occurred.
Although the book favours coffins that are perfectly preserved, often with beautiful paintwork, it by no means excludes those that have had a more demanding existence. Similarly, not all the coffins conform to the norm – some of them are distinctly unusual. This provides a good insight into the mix available in the NMA collections.
The book assumes an existing level of knowledge about funerary practices and iconography. Unlike, for example, John Taylor’s ” Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead,” which also combines the function of a catalogue with an explanatory overlay, this book leaves the subject of the funerary well alone. If you are reading this book as a beginner, it would be helpful to acquire that knowledge prior to reading this book.
One possible downside for researchers, mentioned in the introductions, is that text showing on the coffins are not translated or interpreted, so those researchers who wish specifically to find out more about that topic may be disappointed. For those who read hieroglyphs, however, the pictures are of such good quality that some of the texts can be read from the photographs, which may indicate if they are worth further examination. Additionally, the bibliography should point the reader in the direction of papers and books that explore the mummies further and that may contain analysis of the texts.
Another limitation of the book is its scope. At first glance the subtitle “National Museums Scotland Collection of ancient Egyptian Coffins” may give the idea that all Scottish museums are included in the catalogue. This is not the case, of course. Only three collections are included, all in Edinburgh, so collections like that in the Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery in Glasgow are excluded. That’s not a problem as long as you know the scope of the book in advance.
There is very little about mummies, which is perfectly appropriate as this is a book about coffins. It is worth mentioning, however, as some potential readers might be hoping for more about the mummies contained within these coffins than there actually is.
Finally, it is worth reiterating that this is a book based on three collections held in Edinburgh, and does not include any of the Scottish museums with ancient Egyptian collections beyond them.
The book works on at least two levels.
If you are a relative beginner to the world of coffins, this is an excellent primer. Organized chronologically, and accompanied by excellent photographs, the introduction to each part sets the scene for the period, enabling the reader to follow the evolution of ideas and the corresponding styles. The catalogue itself develops these points by describing mummies in each category.
If you are researching mummy coffins or funerary iconography this book will help introduce the NMA collections and help you to see what they may offer for your own research purposes. It does, however, lack any translation or analysis of the texts that appear on the coffins. For those who read hieroglyphs, the photographs are of sufficiently good quality that it is possible to make out many of the texts shown, which may help researchers to determine whether they are worthy of further examination.
This is a beautifully illustrated book. With a topic as graphically vibrant as this one, the photographs and illustrations are a key consideration, and this book gets it right. There is at least one view per coffin, showing it full frontal or from the side, and sometimes multiple views. Some of the vignettes are singled out for showing in detail, as are some of the foot boards.
Overall, this is as much an introduction to mummy coffin design and how it changed as it is a catalogue. As such, it will be as useful for beginners with an interest in the evolution of coffins as it will for those starting to research coffins in earnest or who are looking to compare designs between different museums world-wide.
Morgan, J.A. (awaiting publication), Image of the Sah: a study of the graphic styles and colour patterning on the mummy-cases dating to the Twenty-Second and Twenty-Fifth Dynasties
Taylor, J. 2010, Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. British Museum Press