Life in Ancient Egypt

Gods & Religion: Fragment from a Woman's Coffin

Coffin Fragment A falcon-headed god wearing a solar disk crown and seated upon a throne forms the primary decorative device on this painted coffin fragment. The inscription in front of the deity identifies him as Re-Horakhty-Atum, the god central in creation myths. To the ancient Egyptians, before the world appeared, only a dark, watery, void defined by eight gods and goddesses existed. Then Re, the sun god, rose out of this primordial water and established land. He gave birth to the god Shu and the goddesses Tefnet and Maat, and in some versions his tears became mankind. Thus divine cosmic order came into being.

Re had several aspects: Khepri, the morning; Horakhty, the midday; and Atum, the afternoon. Although Re-Horakhty-Atum was not a funerary god, during Dynasty XXI (ca. 1070-945 B.C.) with increasing frequency he replaced Osiris in the traditional offering formula. This shift accounts for his presence on this piece.

Although many ancient Egyptian coffins were decorated, the brightly colored and elaborately embellished Third Intermediate Period coffins seem to have been particular favorites of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century art collectors. Of the many hundreds of coffin fragments of this type, most show complete scenes or figures of gods; rarely do we see, for example, incomplete portions of two scenes. This observation suggests that during the early days of collecting, when someone located a coffin outside of an archaeological excavation he carefully chopped it up into vignettes. The finder knew he could realize a greater profit from several pieces than from one whole object. This fragment of an anthropoid coffin, intended for a woman, is such a piece.

Fragment from a Woman's Coffin
(gessoed wood, paint)
Dynasty XXI
(ca. 1070-945 B.C.)
Provenience unknown
Length 46 cm; width 22.5 cm
ACC. 9074-2667

Excerpted from Reflections of Greatness: Ancient Egypt at The Carnegie Museum of Natural History by Diana Craig Patch.
© 1990 The Board of Trustees, Carnegie Institute.

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