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Art Through Time: A Global View

Death Art: Coffin of Henettawy

» Unknown Artist, Deir el-Bahri, western Thebes, Egypt
Coffin of Henettawy

Coffin of Henettawy
Artist / Origin: Unknown Artist, Deir el-Bahri, western Thebes, Egypt
Region: Africa
Date: Third Intermediate Period, 21st Dynasty, ca. 1040 BCE–992 BCE
Period: 3000 BCE – 500 BCE
Material: Gessoed and painted wood
Medium: Other
Dimensions: H: 79 7/8 in. (203 cm.)
Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Credit: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund

Preservation of the deceased’s body was critical, according to ancient Egyptian beliefs about the afterlife.

An important part of the preservation process was mummification, a technique which evolved over several millennia and was fully developed in the Fourth Dynasty. The body of the deceased was dried out and the internal organs were removed, except for the heart, which was intentionally left within the corpse. The body was then wrapped in linen and enclosed in a coffin or tomb along with the preserved organs, Books of the Dead, and other items deemed important to one’s well-being in the afterlife.

The Coffin Set of Henettawy includes two nearly identical coffins, one nesting inside the other. During the Third Intermediate Period, the period when this particular coffin was created, using more than one coffin was a common practice among the ruling class. Coffins of the period are also notable for their elaborate ornamentation, particularly because tomb walls of the period, even for the elite, were generally left bare. Henettawy’s outer coffin, shown here, is adorned with dressings, bracelets, rings and other jewelry that replicate the gold decoration often found on coffins of Egyptian rulers. It also bears a variety of protective symbols, as well as inscriptions and images invoking the blessings of the gods.

Expert Perspective:
Deborah Vischak, Lecturer of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University

“Egyptians mummified their dead out of a fundamental understanding of the importance of the physical body to the complete person, both in life and in death. So the Egyptians had this idea clearly that that physical body remaining intact to some degree was important for the individual to be able to succeed on into the next world and to live sort of happily forever in eternity after they passed away. The process of mummification was in the beginning restricted to members of the royal family. And then over the course of Egyptian history, it was then made accessible to broader segments of the population. By and large, it was restricted to elite numbers of the population, like most forms of expensive material culture.

The mummification is one element of a larger process of dealing with death, with burying the deceased, and continuing the cult to ensure the deceased’s successful existence in the next world. Things associated with a mummified body, in particular, are jewelry, generally speaking, and the coffin. In some cases the Book of the Dead would be put with the body inside the coffin and other kinds of small objects. But many of the objects that were offered to the deceased, or buried with the deceased in the burial chamber, would be outside of the coffin, in the chamber itself. And this includes a variety of different kinds of offerings—food offerings, incense and oils, or furniture for very wealthy people, linens, other kinds of small things that would be in the burial chamber.

The traditional coffin was rectangular. And then in the New Kingdom what we call, anthropoid coffins came into fashion, where you can see, a bit, the outline of the body—the head and the shoulders, at least. And that became pretty much traditional. It was certainly a style that was in use for the rest of Egyptian history. In some cases what happened, especially for very wealthy patrons, certainly royal people, is that they had more than one coffin. So there would be the initial coffin, in which the body was actually placed, and then that coffin might go inside anther coffin, and then inside another sarcophagus—this idea of sort of nesting layers to protect the body that’s at the core of all that material. So there could be a mixing of an anthropoid coffin inside and a regular coffin or anthropoid inside an anthropoid. Sort of like Russian dolls.”

Additional Resources

“Coffin set of Henettawy [Egyptian; From Deir el-Bahri, western Thebes].” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/tipd/ho_25.3.182-184.htm(October 2006).

Dodson, Aidan, and Salima Ikram. The Tomb in Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson, 2008.

El-Shahawy, Abeer. Funerary Art of Ancient Egypt: A Bridge to the Realm of the Hereafter. Photography by Farid Atiya. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2005.

Malek, Jaromir. Egyptian Art (Art and Ideas). London: Phaidon, 1999.

Robins, Gay. Art of Ancient Egypt, revised edition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.

Silverman, David, ed. Ancient Egypt. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Taylor, John H. Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Wasserman, J. The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth by Day. Translated by R. Faulkner. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2000.

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Produced by THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG. 2009.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-888-2