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Purpose and symbolic significance of Egyptian Sarcophagi as Ancient Antiquities

Sarcophagi are among the most fascinating and attractive of Ancient Egyptian antiquities. Survey suggests that they are among the top must-see travel deals while in Egypt aside from the Sphinx and the great Pyramids of Giza. They tell us much of value concerning the materials and techniques used by the Ancient craftsmen and they constitute one of the richest sources of information about the Egyptians' religious concepts, providing a wealth of pictorial and textual evidence for the development of beliefs about the afterlife.

The attribution of coffins to the main phases of Egyptian civilization is relatively easy, since the shape and general appearance usually provide a rough guide. But to determine the date of a coffin more precisely evidence of all kinds has to be taken into account: the archaeological context, the constructional techniques, the layout of the designs, the color scheme employed, the decorative subject matter, the iconography of gods, goddesses and religious symbols, the choice of texts used, and so on, while to make matters more complicated some stylistic features were deliberately revived long after their original appearance.

To understand the changes in Ancient Egyptian coffin style over the centuries it is important to have some knowledge of the religious factors, which influenced their development. The coffin was primarily a container for the corpse, to protest it from destruction by scavenging animals or tomb robbers, but already in very early times it had a religious role to fulfil, the aim of which was an ancient artifact for the protection of the deceased and the ensuring of his well-being in the afterlife.

The coffin was given the means to do this in two ways: by the symbolic power inherent in its shape and by painting and inscribing on it specific religious scenes and texts, the magical presence of which around the mummy would achieve the desired effects. Because of the peculiar nature of Egyptian religious attitudes, whereby two or more mutually contradictory views of the afterlife could be held side by side, the texts and scenes on a particular coffin are often drawn from more than one different mythological source. Full analysis of the iconography and symbolism of coffins can be very complex and here we can only touch on the main factors, which influenced their form and decoration.

According to one of the earliest concepts of the afterlife, the grave or tomb acted as the deceased's eternal dwelling place. The superstructures of the great brick tombs of the Early Dynastic Period reflected this in their external decoration - a kind of recessed paneling which was based on the forms of primitive domestic architecture. The earliest symbolic role of the coffin was simply an extension of this idea, it, too, acted as a house for the owner's spirit and was adorned with a vaulted top and paneling analogous to that of the tombs. The tomb also satisfied the dead person's need for nourishment and other essentials by incorporating into its structure an offering chapel, the focal point of which was the false door' stela. Food and drink were regularly laid before this by the deceased's relatives or mortuary priests, and the false door served as a magical portal through which the spirit of the dead man could pass from the burial chamber on the western side of the tomb into the chapel on the east to partake of the offerings. In case the provision of offerings should be discontinued, lists of the desired commodities and scenes showing servants producing food and drink were carved on the chapel walls. These texts and pictures could, at the master’s command, magically act as substitutes for the things represented.

Towards the end of the Old Kingdom the most important of these magical aids began to be depicted on the insides of the coffin, as if they duplicated the walls of the tomb itself. At first this was perhaps just intended as a way of making doubly sure that the owner did not go hungry. Between the Old and Middle Kingdoms, however, the disturbed state of the country led to a serious decline in the practice of decorating tombs and it became increasingly common for the most essential material to be painted on the coffin. In this way the coffin came to be in some respects a miniature version of the tomb, and while its role as a `house' faded into obscurity the painting of its inner surfaces with major funerary texts and pictures continued, even after the revival of tomb decoration in the Middle Kingdom.

The solar and Osirian concepts of the afterlife

From the Old Kingdom onwards funerary beliefs and practices were primarily based on two alternative doctrines and allusions to these account for a large part of coffin decoration in the subsequent periods. According to the earlier view the dead ascended to heaven and joined Re, the sun god, accompanying him in his perpetual journeys across the sky by day and through the subterranean netherworld by night. Depictions of the god (usually in the hybrid form of the falcon-headed Re-Harakhty), the winged sun disk and the solar barque are commonly encountered on coffins, particularly after the New Kingdom. Representations of the sunrise (a symbol of rebirth) are also frequent, the favorite image showing the scarab beetle, Khepri, pushing the solar disk. By the Middle Kingdom the myth of Osiris had become the predominant influence on beliefs about the afterlife. Osiris, murdered by his brother Seth, was restored to life again through the agency of Isis, Nephthys, Horus and Thoth, and every individual hoped, by being identified with Osiris, to enjoy resurrection after death, as the god had done. According to mythology, his wife, Isis, and her sister, Nephthys, who were stationed at the foot and head of his bier, protected Osiris. Thus, after the Old Kingdom, inscriptions naming these goddesses (and later, figures of them) began to appear at the foot and head of the coffin to emphasise the occupant's identification with Osiris.

Further protection was provided by the four sons of Horus Imsety, Hapy, Doeamutef and Qebhsenuef; their speeches and later their figures were painted on the long sides of the coffin and they are often accompanied by invocations to other major deities of the Osirian cycle, such as Geb, Nut, Shu and Tefnut, so that the deceased was completely surrounded by a ring of divine protection. The coffin was usually orientated in the tomb with the sides facing the four cardinal points and the positioning of the principal deities on the walls followed a fixed pattern, already well established by the Middle Kingdom (figure 1). Chapter 151 of the Book of the Dead has a vignette, which shows these divinities grouped around the mummy in the same relative positions, which they occupy, on the coffins. Here we see not only Isis and Nephthys and the sons of Horus, but also two forms of Anubis, whose speeches and figures appear in the middle of the coffin sides in the New Kingdom.

The goddess Nut

Nut, the sky goddess, was of great importance as a protector of the dead at least as early as the Old Kingdom. Her funerary associations are twofold. On the one hand she was regarded as the mother of the deceased through his identification with Osiris (the son of Nut). The goddess could be symbolically identified with the coffin and so, when the dead man was sealed inside this, it was as if he was being placed within the body of Nut, his divine mother, thereby reaching a state from which he could begin a new life. Indeed, in texts of the Old Kingdom the word for the chest of a sarcophagus is mwt (`mother') - a clear allusion to this concept while on the interiors of many coffins of the Libyan Period a figure of the goddess appears, extending her arms as if to embrace the mummy. Nut's other important role, as sky goddess, led to her close association with the coffin lid. This lay above the mummy, just as Nut was supposed to stretch her star-studded body over the earth. In an important prayer, first found in the Pyramid Texts, the goddess is beseeched to spread herself over the deceased in a gesture of protection: `O my mother Nut, spread yourself over me, so that I may be placed among the imperishable stars and may never die.' Versions of this text were commonly written on coffin and sarcophagus lids and, beginning in the New Kingdom; figures of Nut in various protective attitudes were also depicted.

Anthropoid coffins

Each of the two main types of coffin - rectangular and anthropoid - originally had a different magical function. When the ancient egyptian antiquities that are anthropoid coffins first appeared, in the Twelfth Dynasty, they simply copied the appearance of the mummy and served as a substitute body in which the owner's spirit could reside if the real body were destroyed (the same idea supplied the motivation for the provision of tomb statues and the earliest shabtis). On a different level, the anthropoid coffin was an image of the deceased as asah, or divine being, with shining golden skin (hence the gilded faces of the finest specimens). At first this divine quality was not associated with any particular god. However, the popularity of the anthropoid coffin increased greatly from the New Kingdom, largely, one suspects, because it came to be regarded as a representation of the deceased in the guise of Osiris. The traditional image of the god was based on the appearance of a mummified body (figure 2), just as was the coffin, and so the use of such a case helped to emphasise the link between its occupant and the deity. With the passage of time the anthropoid coffin acquired other features taken from the iconography of Osiris: the curled divine beard, the hands crossed on the breast and, occasionally, the green face. In the New Kingdom the anthropoid cases also took over the symbolic functions of the rectangular coffins; these became virtually obsolete in the Eighteenth Dynasty and the motifs and designs belonging to them were interwoven with elements deriving from the anthropoid coffin's other roles.