Wm. Max Miller,
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Background Image: Wall scene from the tomb of Ramesses II (KV 7.) From Karl
Richard Lepsius, Denkmäler (Berlin: 1849-1859.)
The Coffins of Nestanebtishru
The well-preserved mummy of Nestanebtishru was found in her original double coffin set in end chamber F of DB320 (TRC, Plan 09.) Her burial appeared to be undisturbed by thieves, a fact which convinced Reeves that DB320 was her original place of interment. (DRN, 189.) However, although Nestanebtishru’s mummy and coffins had not been plundered by tomb robbers, the outer coffin is often described as “damaged” because it is very unevenly coated with a tarry black material that obscures most of its inscriptions and decorations. (See C.E.S.R.A.S. photo of outer coffin lid below left.) The inner coffin and coffin board, to a lesser degree, have also been blackened by this substance.
Although mostly hidden by the black material, certain decorative features of Nestanebtishru’s two coffins remain discernable. Both coffins display feminine style wigs, and the wig of the inner coffin appears to be carved with a finely braided pattern used in burials of high-status 21’st Dynasty women. The black substance makes it difficult to determine whether the wig of the outer coffin had also been depicted as braided, but its original appearance had probably been similar to the wigs that appear on the coffins of Neskhons and Isiemkheb-D. Disc-shaped gilded earrings appear on either side of the portrait masks, and the gilded hands on both coffins display the fingers fully extended. These features provide further examples of gender-markers traditionally employed on the coffins of females during the 21'st Dynasty and into the 22'nd Dynasty. The decorations on the upper and lower sections of the outer coffin lid are difficult to see because of the remaining black varnish but appear to consist of complex representations of various deities along with winged scarabs. These are arranged in registers down the length of the coffin lid in a style characteristic of 21’st Dynasty “Yellow” coffins. The type of funerary collar depicted on Nestanebtishru's outer coffin is very difficult to determine because of the obscuring black material. However, the manner in which the forearms and elbows are portrayed on the design of the coffin lid might indicate that the collar extends below them and is slightly longer than funerary collars depicted on earlier 21’st Dynasty coffins. The transverse position of the gilded hands tends to confirm this. In a later stage of coffin development, the hands on coffins were positioned diagonally and appeared to emerge from the longer funerary collars that became fashionable toward the end of the 21’st Dynasty. (GCSS, 61. cf. the inner coffin of Djedptahiufankh.)
Over the years, various theories have been formulated to account for the presence of the black material that overlays and obscures the outer coffin's decorations. One explanation proposed that Nestanebtishru had planned on donating her coffins for use by another person, and they had been in an early stage of preparation when she herself had died. The tarry material could have been placed on the coffins to serve as a kind of base for a fresh coating of gesso upon which new inscriptions and symbolic motifs would have been painted for a different owner. Nestanebtishru's unexpected demise would have halted such preparations for donating the coffins since she herself suddenly needed them. However, it is difficult to understand why no attempt would have been made at this point to "tidy things up" by redecorating the coffins in an aesthetically pleasing manner for their original owner.
Edward Loring considered the possibility that the black material had been applied to the coffins and coffin board in an attempt to consolidate and preserve their decorations after they sustained water damage (TRC, 73.) Loring believed that such water damage could not have occurred in DB320, and argued (contra Reeves) that Nestanebtishru had originally been buried elsewhere. (He states that Nestanebtishru's shabti boxes had also been damaged in a way that could not have occurred in DB320.) The foot end of the coffin shown in the C.E.S.R.A.S. photo above left appears unusually faded and washed out and looks as though it could have been exposed to water. If Nestanebtishru had initially been interred in her own tomb, perhaps water had entered through a crack in the ceiling like the one that had developed in KV55 and dripped down onto her coffin. Perhaps this (rather than the plundering of her original burial) had necessitated her relocation to DB320.
Another explanation conjectured that the black material is a discolored and hardened residue left by funerary oils that had been poured over the coffins at the time of Nestanebtishru's funeral. Howard Carter encountered a similar hardened layer of funerary oils inside the coffins of Tutankhamen and had a difficult time contending with it in his attempts to remove the boy king's mummy. Perhaps the same kind of oil had been poured over the coffins of Nestanebtishru and then dried, hardened, and discolored over the passage of many centuries into the layers of tar-like material visible on them today. This explanation assumes that the solidification and blackening of the substance had been unforeseen byproducts of the oil’s long, slow decomposition which adversely effected the appearance of the coffins in a way that had never been intended by those who originally applied the oils.
There are good reasons, however, to question this assumption, a significant one being that some coffins from the slightly later 22’nd Dynasty period have been intentionally coated with a black substance like that which appears on Nestanebtishru’s coffins. Dr. Kate Fulcher recently examined a number of 22’nd Dynasty coffins at the British Museum which had been coated with “a complex organic mixture of plant products (oil, resin), beeswax, and bitumen.” (KF, The British Museum .) Since bitumen was one of its original components, this once-viscous coffin “varnish” was already black when it was freshly applied and had not slowly acquired its black coloration through a centuries-long process of chemical decomposition. All the coffins treated with this substance displayed hardened black coatings which had been quite deliberate and had been applied to the coffins (very skillfully in some cases and haphazardly in others) for both decorative and ritualistic purposes. Dr. Fulcher points out that this practice “occurs occasionally throughout the New Kingdom (c.1550-712 BC) and into the following period.” (KF, ibid.)
Dr. Kara Cooney, who examined Nestanebtishru’s burial equipment, states that Dr. Carrie Arbuckle MacLeod called her attention to reed brush impressions in the black material on the outer coffin lid. (See C.E.S.R.A.S. photo at right showing brushstrokes. Click to enlarge.) She reports that “the ancient reeds from the reed brush are still embedded in the black varnish.” (KC, personal communications, Nov. 12-13, 2019.) This confirms that the black substance had been intentionally painted onto Nestanebtishru’s coffins. Dr. Cooney points out that Nestanebtishru’s burial had been one of the last to occur in DB320 and believes that the black coating on her coffins is a 21'st Dynasty anticipation of a ritualistic decorative style that became more commonly used in the following dynasty. She argues that this may explain the crude manner in which the black material appears to have been applied to Nestanebtishru’s burial ensemble: the individuals who painted the coffins were not yet proficient at using the new technique. (KC, ibid.)
The practice of coating beautifully painted and often expensively gilded coffins with an opaque layer of black varnish strikes contemporary tastes as being aesthetically unacceptable. But the ancient Egyptians who coated the coffins were probably more concerned with the symbolic significance of the black varnish than they were with its aesthetic effect. In ancient Egypt, the color black possessed connotations markedly different from those it has acquired in modern Western cultures. The Egyptians viewed black as a very positive color because of its close connection with a recurrent and extremely vital seasonal change. The black alluvial silt deposited annually on the riverbanks when the Nile’s cyclical flooding receded provided fertile soil for the germination and nourishment of life-sustaining crops. In a civilization surrounded by barren desert wastelands, this yearly deposit of rich soil was seen as a gift from the gods and its distinctive black color became a symbol of rebirth.
The color black and the concept of germination were given prominent roles in Osiris cult symbolism. Osiris, the god of rebirth and the Underworld, was referred to in funerary texts as “the black one” and was often depicted with black skin in artistic representations (Gay Robbins, AGS, 58, 60.) He was also closely associated with the process of germination and plant growth, and Osiriform seedbeds filled with black Nile river mud and sown with germinating seeds were sometimes included with the funerary equipment of New Kingdom burials (MiAE, 120.) Rogerio Sousa notes that Osirian symbolism became more frequently used on coffins during the latter half of the 21’st Dynasty (GCSS, 161.) The black varnish on Nestanebtishru's burial equipment and on the later 22'nd Dynasty coffins probably reflects this growing Osirian preoccupation. It may perhaps be a transference of the germination themes associated with the older Osiris beds onto the coffins and mummies themselves. The black varnish poured and painted onto coffins may have replaced the Nile mud that once filled the Osiris beds, and the mummies within the blackened coffins may have been viewed as seeds awaiting germination in the Afterlife inside womb-like cradles of symbolic Osirian soil.
Given that Dr. McLeod and Dr. Cooney have established that the black material was intentionally painted onto Nestanebtishru’s coffins in antiquity, this still leaves room for questions about possible subsequent damage which the original black coating might have sustained. Such damage, which may conceivably have occurred in modern times, could explain the battered appearance which the outer coffin now displays. Dr. Fulcher reports that the black substance used to coat some of the coffins she examined at the British Museum had become “flakey” and had “come off in large sections.” (KF, personal communications, Nov. 19’th, 2019.) Detail photos of Nestanebtishru's outer coffin lid taken by C.E.S.R.A.S. show numerous small uncoated areas, and the edges of the black material that still surrounds them appear broken and sharp. This indicates that the black coating had originally covered these areas and had cracked off after being subjected to some kind of stress. It is conceivable that, during Emile Brugsch's hasty clearance of DB320, sections of the black coating on Nestanebtishru's outer coffin could have become detached due to rough handling, especially when it was hoisted up the deep entrance shaft of the cache tomb. This could at least partly account for the extremely dilapidated appearance of the outer coffin lid today.
Another possibility that could explain the coffin's current appearance is that, at some time after it’s arrival in Cairo, well-intentioned museum conservators may have attempted to remove its black coating in order to “restore” the coffin and reveal its underlying decorations and inscriptions. Kate Fulcher states that the removal (or partial removal) of black coffin coatings was common up until the 1970’s “because people are more interested in reading inscriptions and seeing polychrome decoration.” (KF, personal communications, Nov. 19’th, 2019.) Dr. Cooney points out that the face of Nestanebtishru's outer coffin had, at some time, been subjected to poor-quality restoration work (KC, ibid.) and it is conceivable that the rest of the coffin lid might have received similar poorly executed restoration efforts. This could also explain the curious fact that no photograph of Nestanebtishru's outer coffin appears in Georges Daressy's Cercueils des cachettes royales. Daressy had taken a photo of Nestanebtishru's inner coffin, and it seems rather odd that he would have neglected to capture an image of the outer coffin from her nested set. Daressy had photographed many coffins that appeared to be in less than perfect condition, so it is highly doubtful that he would have omitted Nestanebtishru's outer coffin simply because of its shabby appearance. Perhaps, when Daressy was conducting his photographic work, Nestanebtishru's outer coffin was unavailable for inclusion in his photographic record because it was undergoing a botched restoration which included the partial and largely unsuccessful removal of its black coating. (Source Bibliography:
AGS, 58, 60; CCR, #61033; DRN,
189, 257; GCSS, 61, 161; KC, personal communications, Nov. 12-13, 2019; KF, The British Museum & personal communication, Nov. 19'th, 2019; MiAE, 120; TRC, 73.)
Source Abbreviation Key
CESRAS closeup of the outer coffin's upper portion.
Nestanebtishru's outer coffin on display at the Cairo Museum.
Photo by Bastet on Ameba .
Another view of Nestanebtishru's outer coffin on display.
Photo by Bastet on Ameba .
Black and white photo of Nestanebtishru's inner
coffin lid from Georges Daressy's Cercueils des
cachettes royales (Cairo, 1909.) Click to enlarge.
CESRAS photo of the outer coffin containing inner coffin.
CESRAS close up photo of the portrait mask on the inner coffin.
The Center for Egyptological Studies of the Russian Academy
of Sciences (CESRAS) maintains an extensive collection of
online images available for public use on Flickr and has posted large size
scans of many of the photographic plates from George Daressy's historically
important 1909 work, Cercueils des cachettes royales, which are featured on this page. The above images of the
coffins of Nestanebtishru provide a valuable photographic record of these fascinating
objects, currently on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. More close up images of these coffin's decorations and
inscriptions may be seen by going to the
Return to 21’st Dynasty Coffins Menu.