Saturday, January 26, 2013

Rishi Coffins in the Met

A number of rishi coffins are in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. These coffins are made of low quality wood and were made by inferior craftsmen, but they do fit to the "standard" pattern that these coffins took and can be used to illustrate our discussion.
Figure 1- 17th Dynasty rishi coffin

These coffins were anthropoid in form and the lid of the coffin is decorated with wings stretching from the chest down to the feet. Between the wings is a line of hieroglyphs called a "hotep di nisw" formula (which means, "A gift given by the king..."). This formula states that the king and one or more gods have granted offerings to the deceased and the coffin owner's name and titles are typically included in the text. However, some of these coffins were clearly stock coffins made by local undertakers and the place where the name of the deceased should have been added is sometimes left blank.

Figure 2 - Seventeenth Dynasty rishi coffin 
Often (usually?) the deceased is shown wearing a Nemes headdress which is decorated in very unusual ways. Often the lappets of the headdress are have horizontal stripes of unequal size, while the crown of the headdress is either decorated with feathers (figure 2) or with a representation of a vulture (figure 1). 

Below the lappets of the headdress the deceased is usually seen wearing a broad collar that often has a vulture and / or a cobra in the bottom center (figure 2).
Figure 3

Figure 4 - early 18th Dynasty
The decoration of these coffins is usually done by applying stucco to the coffin and then painting over the stucco. This is a lower cost way of decorating of the coffin than would be used in the 18th Dynasty.

Figure 4 is a rishi coffin that may belong to the early 18th Dynasty,  unlike the other coffins illustrated here, which almost certainly date to the 17th Dynasty. You can see differences starting to appear with the beginnings of a new, and more prosperous, era in Egyptian history. Notice that the hands of the coffin owner are shown crossed on his chest, the headdress is no longer a nemes and the workmanship is significantly better than it was in the preceding dynasty.

There are several other coffins of this type at the Met and you can see pictures of them at these links:

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