The Metropolitan Museum of Art has acquired an exceptional gilded cartonnage coffin from Late Ptolemaic Period Egypt. Cartonnage was made of layers of linen or papyrus plastered together to create a material that when wet could be molded into a desired shape and then dried into a hard shell. The hardened shell was then painted or gilded, more frequently the former than the latter. Cartonnage funerary masks and sarcophagi were used in Egypt from the First Intermediate Period (2181–2055 B.C.) well into the Roman era.
Molded into a mummiform shape, the coffin was made between 150 and 50 B.C. to hold the remains of one Nedjemankh. He was a priest of Heryshef, a fertility god depicted with the head of a ram, in Heracleopolis Magna. The city had been the cult center of Heryshef since the third millennium B.C. and the Ptolemies, keen to associate their Greek religious traditions with the ancient Egypt pantheon, declared Heryshaf the equivalent of Herakles and renamed the city to match.
The recently-acquired coffin is a spectacular example of a very high status cartonnage artifact, even unique in several ways. It is composed of layers ofa linen, gesso and resin and decorated with gold, silver and glass. The lid is covered with scenes of funerary spells and one long inscription referring to the gold and silver that are so prominently displayed in the coffin itself. Inside the lid is an image of the sky goddess Nut adorned with silver foil. The base of the coffin is decorated with a djed pillar, symbol of stability and the creator god Osiris.
Unique to this coffin are the thin sheets of silver foil on the interior of the lid, intended to protect Nedjemankh’s face. To the ancient Egyptians, the precious metals gold and silver symbolized several things. On a general level, they could represent the flesh and bones of the gods, or the sun and the moon; on a more specific level, they were identified with the eyes of the cosmic deity Heryshef, whom Nedjemankh served.
Even more remarkably, the long inscription on the front of the coffin’s lid explicitly connects gold and “fine gold” (electrum) to the flesh of the gods, the sun, and the rebirth of the deceased. The association of the inscription with the actual use of metals on the coffin is a rare — possibly unique — occurrence.
Perhaps even rarer than the beauty, condition and quality of the cartonnage coffin is that it was actually legally exported. No fraudulent “private Swiss collection,” no forged documents, no fake history ginned up by sellers seeking to justify a sudden appearance on the market in the 90s. Instead, there is a full ownership record and legal paperwork proving that it was exported from Egypt in 1971 with a license from the authorities. Believe it or not, it was bought by a real Swiss private collector from the shop of Cairo dealer Habib Tawadrus. (This is the first time I can recall seeing the Swiss private collector be an actual flesh-and-blood human instead of a convenient fiction to cover the widespread flouting of cultural patrimony laws in the antiquities trade.) The coffin has remained in the owner’s family until the Metropolitan bought it from them this year.
It is now on display in the Met’s Lila Acheson Wallace Galleries for Egyptian Art.