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Ancient Egyptian Coffins

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Research into the Fitzwilliam Museum’s collection of Egyptian coffins began in 2004, as part of the project to examine and conserve objects during the refurbishment of the Egyptian coffins, completed in 2006. In the past, projects of this kind have focussed on either the iconography and textual content of the decoration, or the technology of the structure and decoration. In contrast, the Fitzwilliam’s project is a fusion of approaches: working with experts in ancient painting and carpentry techniques, the museum’s conservation and curatorial staff study each coffin (or coffin fragment) individually, using analytical techniques, constructional analysis and wood identification, and textual and iconographic studies, as well as archival research. This synthetic approach results in a more complete history of each object, from its construction in Egypt to its arrival in Cambridge, which will be published in an online catalogue.

Currently, the team is focusing on the inner coffin of Pakepu. The structure of the decorative layers require careful examination. A cartonnage-like overlay has possibly been identified; if confirmed over the whole structure, this could be indicate a deliberate attempt to create a ‘pseudo-cartonnage’ around the body, but encased within a wooden structure. The decoration was clearly applied after the body was inside the coffin. Comparison with other examples of this type and date will be very instructive for further understanding the religious purpose of the inner coffin.

From X-radiography, it appears that the inner coffin is constructed from fewer pieces of wood than the intermediate coffin. However, study of other coffins with CT scanning has revealed the limitations of our understanding of coffin structure using only X-radiographs, and that CT scanning is absolutely essential to comprehend fully the construction of coffin substrates. Working with a specialist in rendering CT images, it should be possible to identify any ‘pseudo-cartonnage’ structure (if present), as well as determining whether any of the materials have been re-used. The grant from the Isaac Newton Trust will be used to recruit a postdoctoral researcher to work with the team.

Project information

Outcomes of the project

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