Egyptologists use hospital CT scans to find 3,000-year-old fingerprints on prehistoric coffins

By Ben Miller | 26 February 2016

Ancient Egyptians were obsessed by life and had an urge to ensure its perfect continuation. Cambridge is the go-to place for coffins illustrating how they did it

A photo of an Egyptian coffin held at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge
A full length view of the coffin from the set of Nespawershefyt (circa 1000 BC)© The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Few Egyptians were as scrupulously intent on having their job title correct at the time of their death as Nes-Amun, a priest who owned a set of incredibly beautiful coffins. One of them was sent for CT scanning last month, with radiologists at Addenbrooke Hospital – part of Cambridge University – reporting 3,000-year-old fingerprints inside, suggesting that craftsmen, working at workshops in Karnak, had to inscribe his new status as a supervisor of temple scribes over the top of the old coffins’ varnishes.

A photo of an Egyptian coffin held at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge
The inner coffin lid of Nespawershefyt in visible-light induced luminescence photography© The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Even while he was still alive, Nes-Amun (real name Nespawershefyt) wanted to ensure he was remembered properly once he’d gone, although his funereal legacy was never likely to go unnoticed given that these coffins are golden yellow, covered from head to toe in bright hieroglyphs and adorned with pictures in reds, greens and blues.

A photo of an Egyptian coffin held at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge
A winged scarab© The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
They were one of the first gifts, in 1822, to Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum, where a year later a seven-ton granite sarcophagus lid was presented to curators by Giovanni Belzoni, a prolific Italian explorer who managed to ship the tomb to the British Museum after dragging it ashore with the help of 130 men in a two-week feat of determination over sand and land.

A photo of an Egyptian coffin held at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge
This wooden box coffin belongs to a woman named Nakht© The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
“1822 was the year that Jean-François Champollion first announced his theories on the hieroglyphic script,” says Helen Strudwick, the co-curator of the museum’s new exhibition on death along the Nile, pointing to the birth of Egyptology.

A photo of an Egyptian coffin held at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge
A shabti box for a Priest named Hornefer and his wife, a chantress of Amun, named Taqa (circa 1290-1185 BC)© The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
“A coffin artisan in ancient Egypt had to deal creatively with many practical problems and sometimes restrictions on materials available because of the economic or political climate.

A photo of an Egyptian coffin held at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge
Upper cartonnage mummy cover with head and upper part of the torso of a man moulded in plaster over bandages and reeds (1-100 AD)© The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
“Objects always had to be tailored to cost, but the finish had to meet the high aspirations of the customer.”

A photo of an Egyptian coffin held at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge
Head with a beard from a coffin© The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
These coffins, she says, show the “skill and care” involving in Egyptian preparations for a satisfactory afterlife.

A photo of an Egyptian coffin held at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge
Son of Horus, jackal headed mummiform figure, standing, buried with Nakhtefmut (circa 923 BC)© The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
“To us, for whom death is a taboo subject, this seems like a morbid preoccupation. In fact, it was an obsession with life and an urgent wish to ensure its perfected continuation.”

A photo of an Egyptian coffin held at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge
Face from coffin with eyes and eyebrows inlaid, gilded (1186-1069 BC)© The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Some parts of Nes-Amun’s coffins are held together through the work of 19th century ironmongers. “The inner coffin box is made up of a multitude of pieces of wood, including sections from at least one older coffin,” she says of the sarcophagus under scrutiny at the hospital.

A photo of an Egyptian coffin held at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge
Coffin of a priest in Karnak, Nakhtefmut (924-889 BC)© The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
“Evidence of re-use includes cuts across old dowel holes, patching to change the profile of the coffin sides and a number of places where old mortise holes have been filled in and new ones cut beside them.

A photo of an Egyptian coffin held at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge
Lid from the coffin set of Nespawershefyt (circa 1000 BC)© The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
“Wood was a precious commodity and the craftsmen were incredibly skilled at making these complex objects from sometimes unpromising starting materials. The radiographs and scans also reveal how people tried to restore or preserve the coffins in the past.

A photo of an Egyptian coffin held at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge
Wedjat eye, Amulet (front)© The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
“Without these old repairs the coffins might not have survived so well, but they are quite intrusive on the original object and have rusted into the wood in places, causing damage.”

A photo of an Egyptian coffin held at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge
Apis bull, painted on board; foot board from a cartonnage coffin (745- 655 BC)© The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Coffin-makers made practice doodles on the underside of some of the boxes. They also undertook secret repairs under seemingly perfect finishes and fudged illustrations on the way to creating coffin paintings.

Curators have been able to identify the pigments and varnishes they used in decorations, with some of the loans coming from the British Museum and the Louvre. A live conservation area will also let visitors see the science behind the work as part of the exhibition.

  • Death on the Nile: Uncovering the Afterlife of Ancient Egypt is at the Fitzwilliam Museum until May 22 2016. Admission free.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Three places to explore Egyptology in

Two Temple Place, London
The major new exhibition, Beyond Beauty: Transforming the Body in Ancient Egypt, not only explores the day-to-day routines of ancient Egyptians, but also address the importance of appearance in the afterlife. Until April 24 2016.

Egypt Centre, Swansea
The largest collection of Egyptian antiquities in Wales. The museum officially opened in September 1998, and has over 5,000 items in the collection.

Weston Park, Sheffield
Bringing together 150 objects from animal and human mummies to ceramics and jewellery, the current Secret Egypt exhibition invites visitors to explore a range of fascinating archaeological evidence to revaluate what they understand about this remarkable civilisation. Until April 10 2016.
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