Death on the Nile: Uncovering the Afterlife of Ancient Egypt (Review)

A Coffee Table Book on the Making of Egyptian Mummies

Tomb of Tutankhamun, Ancient Egyptian, 18th Dynasty, c1325 BC.
Tomb of Tutankhamun, Ancient Egyptian, 18th Dynasty, c1325 BC. Print Collector/Getty Images / Getty Images

Death on the Nile: Uncovering the Afterlife of Ancient Egypt. Edited by Helen Strudwick and Julie Dawson. ISBN 978-1-907804-71-7. 256 pp; 200 color illustrations; April 2016. D. Giles Limited, London

The Brooklyn Museum's 2013 Soulful Creatures: Animal Mummies in Ancient Egypt focuses on the Egyptian view of animals in the afterlife and was intended to supplement a traveling exhibition. A similarly luxurious coffee table volume named for a famous Agatha Christie mystery, Death on the Nile: Uncovering the Afterlife of Ancient Egypt covers the burial materials used for human remains, focusing especially on two millennia of construction methods for Egyptian mummies.

Explaining the changes over time, the authors base heavily illustrated articles on Egyptian mummy coffin collections at Cambridge University's Fitzwilliam Museum and other museums. Modern technology such as stereo-microscopes, fiber optic reflectance spectroscopy and CAT scans reveal details not completely understood before.

Death on the Nile is divided into a section of basic information and a catalogue. Four chapters written by scholars give the reader an overview and insight, while the catalogue displays annotated photographs of items in the collections. Reading through the chapters you will quickly realize that the term "Egyptian mummy" means little without more detail, such as the dynasty from which the mummy came. You will also gain an immense appreciation for the skill of the artisans; and you may find yourself marveling at linen's versatility. Should you not care to read it, but prefer to skim photographs and their captions, you should still be impressed.

Coffins at the Fitzwilliam

The first chapter, "Egyptian Coffins at the Fitzwilliam Museum", by Helen Strudwick, Egyptologist at the Fitzwilliam Museum, describes the history of the museum from the start of the discipline of Egyptology. The museum started in 1816, only six years before Champollion published his theories about the Egyptian script, based on the Rosetta Stone.

The following year, the museum received the New Kingdom's pharaoh Ramses III's sarcophagus. As travellers to Egypt continued to take mummies out of Egypt, the museum continued to acquire artefacts. The museum did not fund excavations directly, but it did help support Flinders Petrie. He not only excavated, but founded organizations which together provided more material for the museum's collection. By 1925, Egypt sought to limit the export of its treasures and so thereafter, the world's museums' collections grew mainly through gifts.

Wolfram Grajetzki, who has excavated in Egypt and taught Egyptology at Humboldt University in Berlin, wrote the second chapter, "Coffins of the Middle Kingdom". He begins with a history of burial customs in Egypt, from prehistoric holes in the ground to mudbrick-lined underground chambers by about 3500 B.C. The earlier bodies were simply wrapped in a mat or animal skin, but by the early dynastic period, they were wrapped in linen and placed in wooden boxes. By the fourth and fifth dynasties (Old Kingdom), pyramids were being constructed. The interior rooms housed plain coffins with a few vessels, but the bodies were prepared, with their internal organs removed.

When the underworld god Osiris became important in Egyptian society, the burial chambers began to receive concentrated focus. Religious texts were inscribed on the interior walls of the rooms of rulers' pyramids. Officials' tombs bore writings and pictures stressing the importance of proper mummification rituals. Standards for coffins included decorations stressing proper performance of rituals and provisioning for the afterlife. By the First Intermediate Period, burials included mummy masks with wigs and beards made of cartonnage (layers of linen soaked in glue or gum).

Later Style Changes

By the Middle Kingdom, governing non-royals emulated the kings in their burials. Many of their coffins were looted early on or in the heyday of Egyptian mummy mania in the early twentieth century. Identification of the deceased with Osiris filtered down to private individuals.

During this period, the use of anthropoid coffins placed within an outer rectangular coffin, emerged. By about 1870 B.C., the local governors lost power, and accordingly, their burials became more modest. By the Second Intermediate Period, officials might simply be buried in the ground; but the highest echelons were buried in anthropoid coffins decorated with a feather design known as rishi (from an Arabic word), and lacking an outer box. The coffins might be carved out from a single log. By the start of the New Kingdom, both rectangular and rishi coffins were used.

Following the chapter on Middle Kingdom coffins comes one on those from the New Kingdom through the period of Roman occupation, written by John H. Taylor, assistant keeper at the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum. By the New Kingdom, Egypt had become a major world power. The rulers' burials reflected their success. Amun-Re, king of the gods, now shared Osiris' burial importance. Instead of pyramids built atop burial chambers, there were passages and rooms carved into the rock of the Valley of the Kings. Kings were buried within multiple layers, as could be seen when the intact tomb of Tutankhamen was found.

New Kingdom and Roman Period Coffins

Early New Kingdom anthropoid coffins were predominantly white with a blue wig, but by the rule of Tuthmosis III, the white background gave way to black, adorned with gold or yellow paint. Bands of text that had been used on rectangular coffins were now fitted to the curved surfaces of the anthropoid ones. Decoration focused on magical protection and resurrection. With the heretic king, Akhenaten, came changes, most short-lived, but he seems to have permanently affected the colors used on Egyptian coffins: the background was now yellow (for the sun) with multicolored decorations. By the 21st Dynasty, Egypt was suffering financially and kings took gold from the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Coffins were recycled; decorations painted over. The living could no longer expect to remain in their coffins after death.

Bodies once covered with mummy boards were now covered with cartonnage, which couldn't be reused.

The Roman Period brought further innovations, including making mummification available to more people. Masks or headpieces in Greco-Roman style adorn the mummies. Wooden panels show Roman encaustic portraits of the deceased. Such mummies might be inside wooden coffins or not. Finally, by the third century A.D., the Christian Church enforced austerity, putting an end to this colorful, changing tradition.

Making an Egyptian Coffin

The fourth chapter, "Egyptian Coffins: Materials, Construction and Decoration", written by Julie Dawson, Jennifer Marchant, Eleanor von Aderkas, and others, makes one appreciate the skill of the Egyptian craftsmen. Most of the coffins were made of wood, including the local Sycamore fig, an easily carved medium susceptible to insect infestation. Paint or placement of the fig in the coffin’s interior partially thwarted the pests. Acacia was another coffin wood, but is more twisted and knotty. For high status coffins, the cedar of Lebanon was available in much-prized large planks. Its odor is said to deter insects. Tomb paintings, a wooden model from the tomb of Khety (2010-1910 B.C.), and miniature tools suggest how the woodworkers crafted the coffins. Although some coffins were made of full length planks of cedar or fig, many were patched and pieced together from irregularly-shaped, damaged, and re-used pieces. The craftsmen used dowels to connect parts, along with mortise and tenon joints. They made patches of linen or paste to cover holes and knots in the wood.

Artists made visible guidelines to know where to paint the texts and decorations. They also painted freehand with brushes made of reed, frayed wood, or other fibers. Egyptian blue and Egyptian green, both made from copper and other materials, were the earliest manufactured pigments, beginning about 2640 B.C. Paint came from many different minerals and, in time, came from the Greeks and Romans. The paints were covered with varnish from resins which were also used as adhesives. The variously colored resins were not only aromatic but had antibacterial properties. 

The Catalogue, and a Bottom Line

The Catalogue gives the reader another look at various topics covered perhaps too quickly by the four chapters and many more examples of the marvelous skill of the Egyptian craftsmen. As in the earlier sections, the Catalogue illustrates how mummies changed from one period to the next.

Death on the Nile is clearly for serious students of ancient Egypt, but it also grabs the attention of modern woodworkers, and with reason, since their ancient Egyptian predecessors' work is so impressive.

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