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Gilded Egyptian Coffin Acquired by Metropolitan Museum

October 2, 2017.   GOLD COFFIN OF NEDJEMANKH NOW GRACES LILA ACHESON WALLACE GALLERIES

An ancient Egyptian object has received a celebrated place in a great US museum. Despite a history of demands from the source country for repatriation of virtually all artifacts, the acquisition is a rare occasion in which no claim has come from Egypt. On September 12, 2017, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art announced that it had acquired an intricately decorated gilded mummiform coffin from the Late Ptolemaic Period – around the first century B.C. The lid of the cartonnage coffin is now displayed prominently in the Museum’s renowned Lila Acheson Wallace Galleries for Egyptian Art (gallery 138).

The coffin’s provenance is well documented:

The coffin was exported in 1971 from Egypt with an export license granted by the Antiquities Organization/Egyptian Museum, Cairo. It belonged to the stock of Habib Tawadrus, a dealer active since at least 1936, with a shop Habib & Company in Cairo opposite Shepheard’s Hotel, and was exported by the representative of the Tawadrus’ heirs to Switzerland. An official translation of the export license was provided by the German embassy in Cairo in February 1977 for the use of the representative and now [unnamed] owner in Europe. The coffin has remained in the family of that owner until its acquisition by the Metropolitan Museum in 2017.

In a press release, the Met’s President and CEO Daniel H. Weiss stated, “This beautiful and unusual coffin is extremely rare, and we are honored to welcome it to the Museum’s collection.” He went on to say that the “[Coffin] is an extraordinary work of art that will give our visitors the opportunity to appreciate a fascinating period of Egyptian history.”

Coffins in ancient Egypt were often nested one within the other and were decorated with symbols, color, and spells designed to aid the person in the transition to the next world. The new addition to the Met’s collection was designed for a high-ranking priest named Nedjemankh, who was under the service of the ram-headed god Heryshef of Herakleopolis. According to the Curatorial Interpretation on the Met’s website, Nedjemankh’s titles also included royal priest and sameref priest, as well as “one who adorns the divine image.” Though no mention is made of Nedjemankh’s father, his mother is said to be the housemistress, Banebes. On his coffin lid he is identified as a divine being or sah. Nut, Anubis and Isis all are depicted in gold or silver gesso relief in their tasks of guiding Nedjemankh to the afterlife.

Gilded Egyptian coffins were rare and reserved for the wealthy and upper class. Gold and silver, in which the interior lid is lined, represented several things to the ancient Egyptians. The press release states, “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, who Nedjemankh served.”

“Even more remarkably, the long inscription on the front of the coffin’s lid explicitly connects gold and “fine gold” (electrum) with 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.” This rare example of a fully gilded coffin adds to our knowledge of the symbolism used in ancient Egyptian funerary practices.

Nedjemankh’s coffin now joins one of the finest, most visited and comprehensive collections of Egyptian objects in the world with its new residence at the Met.

(See also Were over 32,000 Egyptian Artifacts Mislaid? , Neglect of Egypt’s Antiquities Bigger issue Than Theft and Mummies Are Not Enough. Why Doesn’t Egypt Get it? )

Lid of a coffin of the priest of Heryshef, Nedjemankh, Date: 150–50 BC Medium: Cartonnage, gold, silver, gesso, resin, glass, wood; Accession: 2017.255b; On view in: Gallery 138, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

 

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