Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Good, the Bad and the Truly Ugly

If you ever visit the Metropolitan Museum in New York City you will find some spectacular artifacts in the Egyptian collection. Off to the side of the main exhibits, the Met has some groups of small and often rarely visited objects called study areas. One of these study areas contains objects from the Met’s excavations in the Seventeenth Dynasty cemetery at Thebes. The mummiform coffins found in these excavations are quite spectacular. Spectacularly ugly that is!

These coffins are called “rishi” from the Arabic word for feathered. This is because the primary decoration of these coffins is a feathered pattern which often shows a pair of wings extending down the length of the coffins’ lid. Rishi coffins are known from the Second Intermediate period through the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty, with the best known examples coming from the tomb of Tutankhamen.

The examples from the Seventeenth Dynasty are particularly unattractive, as the attached photos will show. The coffins are carved from sycamore logs rather than from high quality cedar wood imported from what is now Lebanon. They are poorly crafted, the faces are badly carved and the painted decoration is unattractive. Often, a line of text which runs from the waist of the coffin down to the feet, contains the names and titles of the deceased. Sometimes the name of the deceased does not appear in the inscription; there is a blank space for it but the “undertaker” never bothered to fill it in.

Other decorative devices include an overly large painted “collar” worn around the neck of the coffin's lid and extending down over the chest (for some nice examples of real collars of this sort you can again look at the ones found in the tomb of Tutankhamen). Above the inscription there is often a painted representation of the goddess Nekhbet (sometimes accompanied by Uadjet).

The Seventeenth Dynasty was a period of political unrest and of declining artistic standards. Thebes was a provincial center which was possibly paying tribute to the “Hyksos” pharaohs who ruled northern Egypt. These coffins display the declining artistic standards of the period quite clearly and serve to remind us that there is more to ancient Egyptian culture than the huge statues and golden jewellery of the Pharaohs.