Egyptologists use many different terms relating to coffins and funerary equipment, so in this post I’m going to define a few of the most common for you. The terms we use for Mummy 1770 will come near the end of this post.
Before I get into where you should put your mummy there is one key thing; a mummy has preserved skin tissue covering the underlying bone (Asru from the Manchester Museum is a good example), a skeleton is the exposed bone with no soft tissue over the top. Some mummies can become skeletons (through poor preservation) but skeletons cannot become mummies.
The mummy of Asru from the Manchester Museum (Left) and the Skeleton of Khanum-Nakht from the Manchester Museum (Right)
A mummy can be wrapped, when the linen bandages are still intact, and when there are no wrappings, this can either be because the body has been unwrapped (although of course this is not something that the ancient Egyptians ever intended to happen to their dead), or tissue preservation has occurred through ‘natural mummification’(particularly evident in prehistoric Egypt, but this is by no means limited to the Egyptian culture).
Now that we have looked at the types of bodies you might come across we should go through the different types of coffins and wrappings the Egyptians used.
The boxes that have been found containing the Egyptian dead have generated a lot of different words, in various attempts to distinguish the between the different shapes, sizes and particularly materials in which they have been made.
Pot burial: Towards the end of the prehistoric period in Egypt, rather than simply being buried in the sand, bodies began to be given protection. There are particularly good examples from Badari, where huge pots made of Nile clay have been found holding human remains. The example below is from the Petrie Museum in London.
Pot Burial from Hememieh, near the village of Badari,, photo from The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archeaology at UCL
Reed coffin: Reed coffins are exactly what the name suggests, they look like large lidded baskets but they were used during the Early Dynastic period to bury the dead (in the flexed position), just like the pot burials, providing the body with protection from scavengers.
Early Dynastic coffin made of woven reeds, Manchester Museum
The first wooden coffins were used for elite burials, with the body still curled up, but by the end of the Old Kingdom, Egyptian coffins were looking more like, well, Egyptian coffins!
Box coffin: Box coffins are decorated rectangular wooden coffins. These coffins were the first layer of protection for the mummy, and were often decorated with false doors (through which the soul could leave and enter), eyes (so the deceased could see out) and hieroglyphic inscriptions, including the deceased’s name and lists of food offerings.
Body / anthropoid coffin: This type of coffin first appeared in the Middle Kingdom, and as the name suggests, it is in the shape of a human body. The mummy is placed into this coffin, which in turn can be placed into a box coffins. The anthropoid coffin usually has a stylised, young face; this means that the face on the coffin doesn’t always look like the mummy inside used to.
The Two Brothers box and body coffins, Manchester Museum
Nested coffins: During the New Kingdom, the burials of the very wealthiest people included multiple, nested coffins. These coffins are anthropoid in shape and sit one inside the other, like Russian dolls. Most coffins of this type are made of wood – unless you are looking at the coffins of royalty where you see gilded wood or pure gold as in the case of the innermost coffin of Tutankhamun.
The coffins are typically decorated with hieroglyphics and traditional funerary scenes which represented the Egyptians views of the world.
Coffin set belonging to the temple singer Tamutnofret, composed of an outer coffin, an inner coffin and a “mummy-cover”, Thebes, Louvre, Paris (Photograph: Réunion des Musées Nationaux)
Sarcophagus: Now this is a word you hear a lot when people talk about mummies, the thing is, not all Egyptian coffins are sarcophagi. This word comes from Greek, and translates literally as ‘flesh eating stone’, usually referring to a type of limestone thought to dissolve the body (and you thought my guide to mummification was gross!), therefore the term sarcophagus specifically refers to a coffin, either box or anthropoid in shape, that, importantly, is made from stone.
Sarcophagi date back to the Old Kingdom, and by the New Kingdom, anthropoid coffins would be placed inside the sarcophagus as a final layer of protection for the mummy. The sarcophagus would be covered in hieroglyphic inscriptions and depictions of the gods both inside and outside, and the anthropoid sarcophagi would have a portrait carved head of the person inside.
Black sarcophagus found in Alexandria July 2018, photo was made available by the Egyptian ministry of Antiquities
Mummy masks: Undoubtedly the mummy mask we are all most familiar with is the golden mask of Tutankhamun, these masks are usually idealised images of the person beneath. The use of gold on the masks represents the golden skin of the Gods also as gold doesn’t tarnish it was also associated with eternal life. Due to these beliefs gold was almost exclusively reserved for royalty and the higher nobility.
Those who couldn’t afford to have their masks made of solid gold had to make do with mask created from cartonnage. If you could afford it, you could have your mask gilded (by applying gold leaf) so your mask would also represent the skin of the Gods – at a slightly less extortionate cost.
An example of a gilded mummy mask, Manchester Museum
Cartonnage: Now I mentioned ‘cartonnage’ just then, this is a term used to describe layers of papyrus, linen or other fibres that were plastered and moulded into a variety of shapes. when the cartonnage was dry it provided an even surface suitable for intricate decoration. There were a variety of uses for cartonnage including; mummy masks (which could then be guided or painted), slippers as seen in mummy 1770, and foot cases as seen on the two Roman mummies on display at Manchester Museum. This material was also used for mummy cases, which are often simply referred to as ‘Cartonnages’, these are typically the innermost coffins of elite burials, especially during the Third Intermediate Period.
The mummy mask and slippers of Mummy 1770 showing the different uses of cartonnage.
Faiyum portrait mummies: By the Roman Period of Egyptian history, coffins had lost their significance, and the mummy-shape was achieved by the use of resin and elaborately designed and constructed patterns of wrappings, but most recognisable by the very Roman-looking and individual portraits, rather than the stylised and idealised depictions of the Pharaonic period.
Mummy Portrait, Ancient Worlds gallery Manchester Museum