In Focus

Coffin of Horankh

The following essay is from the 1996 publication Gods, Men, and Heroes: Ancient Art at the Dallas Museum of Art_._

In the Egyptian cult of the dead, the survival of the dead person's body was critically important. Not only was the body embalmed, but it was placed in one or more ornamental coffins and surrounded by an elaborate array of grave goods and tomb art, all of which served magical purposes believed essential for the afterlife. Should the actual body not survive well (embalming practices became more successful in the new Kingdom), the inscriptions, amulets, and magical imagery accompanying the corpse would ensure a long and happy life in the afterworld. From the Middle Kingdom onward, coffins were often made in the shape of human body wrapped in the linen shrouds of burial. Fine Middle Kingdom coffins might show the deceased's features and attributes as similar to those of Osiris, lord of the dead, for Egyptian funerary beliefs involved the identification of the dead person with Osiris. Osiris is usually represented with a green face, which symbolized the green growth of venegation, new life, and immortality.

The pure and powerful style of Middle Kingdom anthropoid coffins was succeeded by various ornamental styles that employed brightly painted funerary symbols like scarab beetles, the vulture goddess Nekhbet, the Horus hawk, and the goddess Hathor in cow form. The DMA has on display a number of examples of this type of coffin, as well as cartonnages (a plaster/gesso material moded in the form of the dead body), on long-term loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The DMA's Late Period coffin is a substantial work made from a single tree trunk. It is a fine example of the 25th Dynasty's return to an earlier, classical style in Egyptian coffin design, having been made during the period when Egyptians, under Nubian rulers, attempted to revive ancient Egyptian glories.

The front and back of the anthropoid coffin are modeled to imitate the appearance of a mummy wrapped in its linen shroud. The painting is on a gesso ground over linen, which completely covers the body of the coffin. The colors have survived well, especially the blue and yellow on the wig and the green on the face. The main body is a warm off-white. Blue pigment appears on the inscription on the base. Because the head of the mummy identifies the dead person with Osiris, god of immortality, the face is given a startlingly lifelike appearance, achieved by sparkling eyes of calcite and obsidian set in bronze sockets. The vigorous modeling of the facial features, suggesting youth and health, add to the impression of eternal life.

This coffin was made for a high official or priest in the area near Thebes. His name, which appears in fragmentary form on the base, was Horankh. Photographs taken before the damage to the base show the whole name. The rest of the inscription is an invocation to Osiris, as Lord of Djedu. John Taylor of the British Museum suggests that the work is one of a group of coffins made in the workshops of Heracleopolis Magna, near the Fayum.

Adapted from

Ann 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.

Related Multimedia

Dr. Bromberg, Anne R. discusses the concept of death and burials in Egypt and other cultures; in conjunction with King Tutankhamun exhibition; shown on DMA.tv
Dr. Bromberg, Anne R. discusses the Coffin of Horank, DMA Collection, 1994.184; video created for Tutankhamun website DMA.tv; Egypt