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Coffin Reuse in the 21st Dynasty: How and Why did the Egyptians reuse the Body Containers of their Ancestors?

Coffin Reuse in the 21st Dynasty: How and Why did the Egyptians reuse the Body Containers of their Ancestors?

Coffin Reuse in the 21st Dynasty: How and Why did the Egyptians reuse the Body Containers of their Ancestors?

Contributed by Dr. Kathlyn Cooney, UCLA; ARCE Board of Governors

It's natural to relegate the three R's of conservation to the 21st Century, when the depletion of natural resources has made reduce, reuse and recycle a cornerstone of responsible environmental stewardship. But access to wood, a limited natural resource in 21st Dynasty Egypt necessitated its creative reuse.

At the Louvre: Outer coffin whose wig and hands were refashioned for an anonymous man, while a woman's name and titles still remain on lid and case, with Neil Crawford, lead photographer of the 21st Dynasty project. Photo: R. Hiramoto.

Economic and political circumstances disintegrated after the reign of Ramses III, pushing many Thebans to reuse what they had formerly imported or built from scratch. In my research about tomb robbery and funerary arts reuse at the end of the 20th Dynasty, I build a circumstantial case – based on dispute texts about tombs and tomb goods, tomb inventories, and some Late Ramesside Letters – that Deir el Medina families engaged in the regular reuse of funerary objects. The evidence suggests that West Theban families recommodified many of the older funerary objects in their own family tombs.

For most of its history, Egyptology has looked upon tomb robbery and funerary arts reuse as aberrant, regressive, and abnormal. Documents like the Tomb Robbery Papyri have reinforced that mindset. In their literature, the Egyptians themselves repeatedly describe the ideal burial situation as a stone house in which the ancestors reside for eternity, supported by income-producing lands set aside in an endowment to pay for priests and provisions in perpetuity. My current research on 21st Dynasty coffins is attempting to normalize the recommodification of funerary arts – at least during a time of crisis – as a creative negotiation that prioritized the coffin’s value of ritual over the value of perpetual use.

Coffin of Muthotep from the British Museum showing older 19th Dynasty decoration underneath the current 20th Dynasty surface. Photo: Kara Cooney.

I am currently working my way through many of the 800 or so 21st Dynasty coffins spread about the globe, and thus far, I have been startled to find that over 50% of 21st Dynasty coffins examined show evidence of reuse. The reuse of funerary arts represented a spectrum of possible appropriative actions. Some coffin reusers inscribed a new name. Others put in a new name and redecorated parts of the coffin lid. Others went further and redecorated all surfaces, over the old plaster and paint. Some went the extra step to scrub away old plaster and paint before starting new decoration, but they retained the old modeling in the wood. Some, I suspect, scrubbed the coffin down, dismantled it, and started a new coffin from scratch, using only the wood and thus giving away no trace of an older coffin visible except by means of further scientific examination.

Inner coffin of Nysupernub showing how a new wider striped headdress was added to the older blue wig. The hands and face were also stolen after interment. Photo: Neil Crawford.

When we are confronted with the reuse of funerary arts, it may seem a troubling practice – morally and emotionally. We are left wondering if such activities were disconcerting for the ancient Egyptians as well. How and why could human beings be capable of taking from the dead to serve the living? How could they be capable of erasing the names of ancestors so that the freshly dead’s name could be put in its place and how could they display the dead in a coffin that everyone could see was produced a generation before its time?

Funerary reuse essentially involves the reappropriation of ideologically charged objects, and in the case of 20th and 21st Dynasty coffins, this reuse occurred in the context of economic and social crisis. It is always best to get an explanation from the source community itself, but the Egyptians did not directly communicate how they justified or negotiated monument reuse and appropriation. They only openly discuss the practice of reuse in very negative terms – like the Tomb Robbery Papyri that document the torture and interrogation of men accused of stealing coffins or reusing temple wood to make coffins, or as we see in tomb curses which condemn anyone who harms the monument to a horrible end.

A coffin was essentially meant to make a functional link between the thing and the person – to transform the dead into an eternal Osirian and solar version of him or herself. The coffin was believed to ritually activate the dead. Thus, the wood, paint, and plaster were meant to provide an inviolable, idealized, permanent depiction of the person inside. This fetishization is why coffin reuse is so disturbing to us. These objects have faces and hands and feet, and thus they seem to be human. The ritual spells inscribed on the surface imply that the human stakes were very high: nothing less than providing an eternal afterlife for the dead. Thus, removing a body from the inside and redecorating it for another seems profoundly wrong to us – because we have created an inherent value for that object.

Profoundly, during the 21st Dynasty (and probably during many other time periods), the Egyptians were able to de-fetishize these objects. They were able to separate the coffin from the essence of one dead body and modify it for another.  It is difficult to understand how the ancient Egyptians were able to break the link between the person and this sacred thing. I suspect there were magical spells and rituals involved to keep the dead at peace before and after they were removed from the container, but the Egyptians did not leave any such information preserved for us.

Dr. Kathlyn Cooney in discussion with Guillemette Andreu of the Louvre Museum, Versailles. Photo: Remy Hiramoto.

The motivation to acquire a coffin seems to have been so great that reuse rates skyrocket in Dynasty 21 as access to resources plummets. Much of this was ideologically driven: The dead needed ritual transformation, and the elite Egyptian mindset demanded materiality to create that transformation through a complicated set of funerary rituals that included the Opening of the Mouth ceremony. But the reuse was also economically driven. Access to high quality wood from the Lebanon or elsewhere was impossible, and people had to look elsewhere for this most basic coffin resource. Social drivers were also essential: Funerary rituals took place in a public or semi-public forum, inviting an intertwined socioeconomic agenda. The families of the dead wanted to display their social place to the world, and they needed funerary materiality to do it.

Some Egyptologists may consider coffin reuse to be an immoral crime that happened rarely, but the ancient Egyptians may have considered the non-performance of ritual transformation for those who had just died to be an egregious cultural and social failure. Coffin reuse was a creative negotiation of this economic-social-religious crisis. In other words, it was not the reuse of a coffin that was aberrant; if anything was aberrant, it would have been refusing to provide the recently deceased with transformative ritual activity by means of funerary materiality, just because there was no access to wood that had not been previously used.

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