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2,400-year-old Egyptian coffin with amateurish images

Rare scenes on ancient Egyptian coffin reveal influence of Persian Empire occupation

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A coffin from ancient Egypt has been revealed decorated with rare and unusual art that is not typical of the Egyptian style, demonstrating how much is lost when a civilization loses its most highly qualified and skilled artists.

Ancient Egyptian art is instantly recognizable. The hieroglyphic inscriptions and stylized designs on tombs and monuments typify the culture and reveal societal, spiritual and historical details which shape our sense of the ancient civilization. However, the high level skills of painting, sculpting, and building declined, especially once Egypt was brought under the control of the Persian Empire. This decline can be seen in examples such as a 2,400-year-old Egyptian coffin decorated with unconventional art.

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According to LiveScience, a coffin sporting odd and amateurish Egyptian designs has been brought to light by a collector. Examined by Gayle Gibson, an Egyptologist at the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada, the paintings on the coffin reflect an untrained hand. The heads of the four Sons of Horus are described as “goofy”, with bugged eyes and rudimentary faces. Attempts at drawing falcons - symbols of the god Horus - resulted in fishlike creatures. The coffin owner, an antiquities enthusiast and collector, Mike Sigler has shared photos of the artifact showing small details scratched out by the original artist in an effort to fix a mangled pattern. To the expert, these misrepresentations and errors tell of an amateur who may have been well intentioned, but was lacking training.

Lady Meresimen, Singer of God Amon, giving presents to Osiris and the Four Sons of Horus

Lady Meresimen, Singer of God Amon, giving presents to Osiris and the "Four Sons of Horus". Egyptian panel depicting the Four Sons of Horus (at left), typically stylized. 25th dynasty, ca. 715-656 BC   Public Domain

The paintings were so suspicious to Egyptologists that the coffin was subjected to radiocarbon dating. Results showed it was from the Persian period. The wood used is sycamore, frequently found and used in ancient Egypt, and the Egyptian Blue paint pigments support its authenticity.

Coffin Panel with Paintings of Funerary Scenes

Coffin Panel with Paintings of Funerary Scenes : This panel is from a human-shaped coffin ensemble generally used for the priests of Amun at Thebes, who ruled there during the 21st Dynasty. The designs are typical of the time. Both the interior and exterior of coffins were decorated with amuletic symbols, short texts, and small, highly colored scenes that covered every inch of the surface. Public Domain

The British Museum writes that in 525 B.C. Cambyses, King of the vast Persian Empire (centered in modern day Iran, and extending across the Middle East), invaded and seized Memphis. Egypt became a province of Persia with a new official language and administrative system. Egyptians were forced to pay tax and tribute to their new King. Ancient texts told of Cambyses’ contempt for the Egyptian people and their traditions. He and successive Kings deported native Egyptian artists, and few masters were willing to work for the occupiers, resulting in a breakdown of the training required for novice students.

Cambyses II of Persia capturing pharaoh Psamtik III. Image on Persian seal, 6th century B.C.

Cambyses II of Persia capturing pharaoh Psamtik III. Image on Persian seal, 6th century B.C. Public Domain

Gayle Gibson told LiveScience, “Many of the best artists in Egypt were taken by the Persians back to Persepolis and Susa as POWs and war booty — you can see their work in those places. There seems to have been a dearth of masters for some time, so that fewer and fewer artists got proper training.”

The extent of the Persian Empire shifted over time. This a map of the Achaemenid Empire, showing its greatest extent.

The extent of the Persian Empire shifted over time. This a map of the Achaemenid Empire, showing its greatest extent. Wikimedia, CC

The coffin contains no mummy, but the woman for whom the coffin was made was named Denit-ast, or Dent-ast, and she lived during the Persian occupation of Egypt, notes LiveScience.

The coffin may be donated to a museum in the future, and it is hoped that further examples of the uncommon imagery will be found. The paintings represent a period of difficulty in Egyptian history that repeats across different cultures and times; the images reveal how a civilization’s heritage and identity can suffer when its artists are gone.

Featured Image: 2,400-year-old Egyptian coffin with “amateurish” images. Credit: Photo copyright: Mike Sigler

By Liz Leafloor

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