Coffin of Horankh

c. 700 BCE
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General Description

Ancient Egyptian coffins housed an individual's physical remains and ka (vital force or soul) during the journey to the afterlife. The decorations on the inside and outside of the coffins guaranteed the deceased's survival. Such decorations could include food and drink, servants, or in the instance of the DMA coffin, a pair of obsidian eyes to see the rising sun, spells, and other items that reflected the religious beliefs and social practices of the ancient Egyptians.

This striking coffin is made from a single tree-trunk which has been hollowed out and carefully carved to create an anthropoid casing. The figure's brilliant calcite and obsidian eyes shine with glittering force, and the forms of the body are clearly and powerfully delineated under the representation of linen mummy wrappings. The colors on the molded gesso (linen impregnated with plaster) have survived in excellent condition, which adds to the dramatic effect. Clearly aesthetic emphasis is placed on life and undying vitality rather than on death.

Anthropoid coffins, introduced during the 12th Dynasty (1985-1795 B.C.E.), replicate the form of a human body wrapped in a linen shroud and served as substitutes for the corpses in case the remains were lost or destroyed. The Dallas coffin was made for Horankh as indicated by the name inscribed on the base. Although the sculpted head is rendered in a naturalistic manner, the colors and beard are symbolic; the green face symbolizing spring growth, life, and immortality, and the plaited, upturned beard, are both attributes of Osiris, Lord of the Underworld and god of the resurrection. Horankh's dedication to Osiris is evident in the invocation to the deity inscribed on the base of the statue.

Horankh lived during the 25th Dynasty (747-656 B.C.E.), which is also known as the Kushite or Nubian Dynasty. Nubia was located along the Nile River between Aswan in southern Egypt and Khartoum in northern Sudan. There the ancient Nubians developed powerful, independent kingdoms beginning around 3100 B.C.E. and competed with Egypt for the use of the Nile River as a commercial highway and for the acquisition of land. While Egypt dominated Nubia on more than one occasion, the Nubians took advantage of a divided Egypt in 747 B.C.E. and ruled it for one hundred years.

When Nubian kings ruled Egypt, Egyptian artists looked back to the classic models of their earlier art. An outer coffin like this one, with its lack of ornate decoration, was modeled on the severe purity of Middle Kingdom coffins (2055-1650 B.C.E.).

Adapted from

  • Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), cat. 62, 184-185.
  • Anne Bromberg, "Coffin of Horankh," in Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection, ed. Charles Venable (New Haven, NJ: Yale University Press, 1997), 21.
  • Bonnie Pitman, ed., Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), 128.
  • Anne R. Bromberg, and Karl Kilinski II, Gods, Men, and Heroes: Ancient Art at the Dallas Museum of Art. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996), 24.

Web Resources

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Compare to another anthropoid coffin.