by Elaine A. Evans, Curator/Adjunct Assistant Professor, McClung Museum
The McClung Museum’s recently acquired ancient Egyptian wood coffin face (“mask”) has added significantly to our knowledge about burial practices in the Nile Valley. A few observations will be made here related to the techniques, materials, and styles used in the manufacture of ancient Egyptian coffin faces. Also examined will be the face’s importance and its connection to its long-lost original support.
The hand carved, painted, terracotta-colored face (24.3 cm. high x 16.5 cm. wide x 8 cm. deep, nose tip to rear) displays wide, flatly defined eyes, a slender aquiline nose with slight anatomical detail, and small, plump, pursed lips (Figure 1).
The long, slightly arched eyebrows over heavy eyelids, outline for the eyes, and the clear, circular pupils against painted white eyeballs, are drawn in black paint. Painted above the forehead is a brown band trimming a plain black wig. At one time the face may have had well defined ears, now missing, and possibly a chin beard. The latter is suggested by an irregular area of missing gesso under the chin with a mud-filled dowel hole (1.4 cm. diameter) in its center. There are no traces of a black line to indicate the way the beard would have been attached. The skin color, appropriate to depictions of males, small, short chin, and slight smile imply the appearance of youth.
The face is in a state of fair preservation, which does not detract from its overall appearance. The one-piece, wood core is overlaid with a thinly applied layer of gesso. Gesso, a mixture of whiting and glue, when skillfully applied provides a good, smooth painting ground for artisans, particularly when working on wood. However, the gesso on this face is bumpy and in some areas uneven, indicating a hasty and less than careful application before it quickly hardened. Attempts to conceal imperfections in the wood underneath the gesso are seen on the upper proper right edge; one flaw has traces of gesso filler. On the upper forehead and wig areas are wood plugs, one above the proper right and left eyebrows and one of mud to the right of center on the wig (Figure 2).
An examination of the rear of the face revealed it had been separately carved and fixed to a space provided at the front of its coffin lid by tenons, or pegs, of pointed wood (Figure 3).
One of four sockets (7.0 cm. diameter) has a projecting peg and three have broken ones. The two smaller, vertically centered, holes remain from a former exhibit mount.
The Coffin Face in Ancient Egypt
Anthropoid coffins, one of which belonged to the Museum’s face, were believed to be the idealized substitute for the deceased should something happen to the body. The face on the coffin was essential, even though it was seldom a true portrait of the deceased and more often representational. The tomb was the deceased’s eternal house, and the coffin an enclosure to safeguard his/her earthly remains, or spirit. In this setting, life would be insured in the afterworld in the same way as on earth. To the ancient Egyptians there was no difference between the coffin’s function and its religious importance; they were intertwined. A wooden coffin, with its painted, symbolic, sacred decorations and scenes, was paramount to the devout, no matter how plainly it was made. Wood for the coffin served much the same purpose as today, that is, to protect the contents. However, to the ancient Egyptians, certain kinds of wood also had religious and symbolic meaning, and took on further significance when carved or decorated with religious images and motifs. (Note 1) Sycamore wood, for example, was sacred to the sun god Re and the goddesses Hathor, Isis, and Nut. The willow was sacred to Osiris, Lord of the Dead. Even colors had symbolic import. Red, for example, was associated with fire and blood, or life and regeneration. Blue might represent heaven, as well as the river Nile and fertility, or yellow, the sun and eternity, and so on. Also, wood was scarce in Egypt and coffin production was an expensive, time-consuming undertaking, as it utilized very modest tools. For example, one customer’s order could consist of at least three coffins, each to be fitted within one another, for a woodworker to make and an artisan to decorate. The name inscribed on a coffin and a representational face identified the deceased.
Some Coffins Lost Their Faces
True anthropoid coffins began to appear in the Middle Kingdom about the end of Dynasty XII (ca. 1979 BC), and continued to be produced into much later periods. Unfortunately, little attention has been paid to simply decorated types like the coffin, which presumably belonged to the Museum’s face. Rather, it is the elaborate, more sumptuously embellished and inscribed coffins that catch the eye. Sometimes the faces have added allure, such as inlaid eyes and eyebrows, and faces covered in gold leaf or painted bright red and enhanced by striped wigs.
A face on a newly finished coffin lid will defy detection in having been separately attached. Any seams or other evidence of attachment were attended to and painted, thereby concealing the join. Numerous examples confirm that a face of a coffin was shaped apart from the lid. A good case in point is the coffin of Djed-mut-es-ankh of Dynasty XXI (1039–991 BC) (Note 2), which had the face ripped off from its otherwise intact coffin lid (Figure 4).
As with the McClung Museum’s face, this one had been carved separately from wood, painted over gesso, and pegged on to the front of the coffin lid. It is the flat, blank section, with empty peg holes, that remains to attest to the method of attachment. The holes eerily correspond to the McClung Museum’s face. The vacant space on this lid documents the way in which the McClung Museum’s face had at one time been attached to its own coffin lid. No doubt, in each instance, the face was torn away by unscrupulous tomb robbers for profit to be gained from the sale of such exotic faces.
Nevertheless, judging from the style and technical aspects of the McClung Museum’s face, a few observations may be offered by comparing it to those on countless known coffins found by excavators. Many have similar characteristics and bear a close resemblance to the Museum’s example. (Note 3)
- Based on recent research, it may be in the genre of types produced in the Late Period, circa 1085–332 BC. It is difficult to provide a date with absolute certainty, lacking a known provenance. Even so, it might be ventured that the face was produced during the Late Period. This conclusion has been subjectively based on stylistic and technical criteria of coffin types of that period.
- It may be noted that the unpretentious face was part of a private coffin belonging to a person of more than modest circumstance, one wealthy enough to afford a hand carved, painted, wood coffin. It represents an essential part of the several classes of coffins made to suit a customer’s financial circumstance.
- Moreover, the face provides a comparison to the face on the brightly decorated, Late Period coffin lid of Djed-Khons-Iwef-Ankh in the McClung Museum’s Egyptian Gallery. The new addition to the Museum’s collection illustrates the same method of attachment that was used for the face on that coffin lid.
- I wish to thank Brian Bond, Tennessee Forest Products Center, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, for offering his expertise in a continuing investigation into the identity of the face’s wood. These findings will be presented in a forthcoming Research Notes.
- This innermost coffin lid is on exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: MMA 25.3.1.
- For examples, see Edouard Naville, Ahnas el Medineh (Hereacleopolis Magna) and J. J. Taylor and F. L. Griffith, The Tomb of Paheri. London: Egypt Exploration Fund, 1894, Pls. VII, XI; pp. 13–14. Naville dates them to the Ptolemaic or Roman times; see also, a wood coffin lid, circa Dynasty XXV, 750 BC, in The Egyptian Mummy Secrets and Science, University Museum Handbook l. Philadelphia: The University Museum, 1980, p. ii; John H. Taylor, Egyptian Coffins. Aylesbury, Bucks: Shire Publications, Inc., 1989, p. 62, 51.
Selected Web Resources
The Mummy, Boston Museum of Fine Arts
Mummification, The British Museum
Egyptian Mummies, Encyclopedia Smithsonian