What are the yellow coffins?

Yellow Coffins

Yellow coffins are a specific class of artefact that appeared in Thebes at the end of the New Kingdom ('proto-yellow' type) and were used for more than a millennium peaking during the 21st Dynasty (1069-945 BCE ca.).

Called "yellow" due to the colour of their background,  which was intended as an imitation of gold, they are anthropoid in shape, with a detailed rendering of the human face and hands and with elements which can display the sex of the person for whom they were built. It is indeed easily recognisable whether the coffin was intended for a female or male individual based on the presence of specific gender markers: the vulture headdress painted over the wig, breasts, earrings, and open hands are all criteria used to indicate the female sex, while beards and closed hands are instead characteristic of male coffins.

This type of coffin was crafted in wood and used in nested funerary assemblages comprising one or two coffins with their lids and cases: a larger outer coffin (wt-aA) containing the inner coffin (wt) that hosted the mummy of the deceased. The 'assemblage' of yellow coffins included also a third element, the mummy board, a flat and small version of the lid placed directly onto the mummy, which represents the distinctive part of the ‘yellow’ coffin type.

Yellow coffins display a coating of varnish over a rich multicoloured decoration - characterized by a marked sense of horror vacui (a complete filling of all the empty spaces) - which covers both the external and the internal parts of the coffin. While the pictorial areas on the coffins show a high degree of iconographic autonomy, they are combined into a  layout that forms a carefully planned "topography". In the Third Intermediate Period (1069- 664 BCE ca.) the pictorial and textual tradition of the tomb walls finds its way onto the coffins, which came to simultaneously perform the function of the tomb and the temple, thus replacing the burials of earlier periods. We are therefore witnessing what van Walsem calls the "architectonization" of the coffin. This entails the coffin becoming a small universe, at the centre of which there is the deceased himself, who becomes the source of his own regeneration and rebirth. It is for this reason that the coffins also include protective texts and imagery about rebirth, including the journey of the sun god, Osiris who was reborn in the afterlife, the Hathor cow emerging from the western necropolis, or the Judgment Scene of the deceased in the Duat. 

The development of this type of coffin has been - and it is still being - extensively studied thanks to the coffins found in the 19th century in the Bab el-Gasus Cache and that are now stored in several museums around the world.

Technical Aspects

The yellow coffins are the final results of a very elaborate system of production and of a complex layering process where each material interacts with the other. Thanks to the Vatican Coffin Project and the collaborative and combined work undertaken by the disciplines of Egyptology, Museology, Conservation Science, and Technical Art History, we now have more information today on the materials that were used for building and decorating the coffins, from the composition of pigments used to the binding media and the varnish. 

Wood

The most common wood species used to build yellow coffins were: Ficus sycomorus L., Faidherbia albida, Acacia cf. nilotica (L.), Acacia sp., Tamarix type tetragyna, Tamarix sp. 

The coffins were constructed from planks of wood - cut by sawing down the length of the trunk - and pieces of wood, i.e., for the face and hands which were carved separately and then attached to the main structure. To connect the planks and the different parts, carpenters used a large variety of joints i.e., mortise and tenon to lock together the case and lid, or tubular dowels to fix the hands and mask to the main structure.

Linen was generally applied over wood joins to bridge any plank irregularities and to better fix the layers where the paint was then applied.

Plaster

The main assembled wooden structure was generally covered by several layers of plaster, all different in terms of their granulometry (grain size) and composition:

1. Ground layer. A thick layer of a coarse brown-grey paste (formed by clay, fragments of stone, and vegetal fibres bound by a mixture of plant gum) to smooth out any major irregularities but it was also used to build up free-form body features (ears, face, breasts).

2. Preparation layer. A finer, white paste layer was generally formed by two layers:

  • layer 1 consisting of clay, fragments of stone, and vegetal fibres
  • layer 2 mainly calcite (calcium carbonate) bound by a mixture of plant gum and also used to create the reliefs on the lid.

Paint & Varnish

Yellow coffins take their names from the background colour of their inner and outer surfaces. The ancient Egyptians used two different yellow pigments: yellow ochre, presumed to be native to Egypt (named sti) and orpiment, an arsenic sulfide, a more expensive and imported pigment (named qni, qniw or qnit), which created a reflective and glittery surface evocative of gold. Due to the cost of importing the orpiment, the two pigments were sometimes mixed or used in different areas of the coffin.

The palette for yellow coffins was composed of: red ochre and black carbon (which were also used for the underdrawn layer) white calcite, Egyptian green and Egyptian blue colours, with the latter of these two regarded as the oldest known artificial pigment. Compared to other pigments, the blue was applied in thick layers. It cannot be ground too finely with the risk of losing the depth of its hue, or even its colouring power. Studies have shown that the painter can play with the grain size to obtain a more or less light shade. Its particle size being larger than that of other colouring materials requires an application in thick layers, which also allows the material to maintain all its intensity.

The choice of the pigments and their application corresponded to specific aesthetic choices. The painters applied these colours in a precise order beginning with the first colour for all the surfaces, then moving to a second colour to better define the volumes, and gradually increasing up to the smaller details such as the eyes of the figures represented in the scenes.

The painting was then enhanced by a glossy coat of varnish over parts of the surface. Most of these coffins have been varnished with a mastic resin, a sticky and water-resistant substance from the Pistacia tree.

Ancient Reuse

A recent study by Kathlyn Cooney shows that more than 60% of yellow coffins were reused in ancient times and that the usurpation of coffins was a fairly widespread practice in Egypt during the Third Intermediate Period (1069-664 BC) especially across the 21st to 22nd dynasties.

Compared to the previous era, access to wood from Lebanon or other geographical areas was impossible. Trade routes to the north were practically closed and civil wars channelled resources (i.e., wood and local resins) towards new priorities such as producing weapons, shipbuilding, and transportation, rather than for funerary practices. In other words, wood was scarce, but the demand for coffins remained high. For this reason, it seems to have become customary to reuse older coffins.

As Cooney has suggested, the reuse of earlier coffins was considered justifiable in the case of family members, illegal in the case of robbers, or that these coffins were "Parish coffins" that functioned as rental objects, easily assigned and reassigned as time and money demanded, as the multiple traces of ancient reuse on the outer coffin of Djedmutiuseankh (inv. n. 8546) in the 'Museo Egizio' di Firenze show.

Coffins could be reused in various ways: reuse with no modification; complete rewriting of inscriptions on the coffin to include of the name of the new deceased individual; partial modification of the lid and case; and finally, the most destructive, dismantling of the coffin for the reuse of ots wood. However, reuse also included the replacement, removal and/or the addition of specific elements on the coffins, such as gender markers.

Gender modification was a common part of coffin re-use and it could consist of repainting the lid to camouflage or disguising it along with limited decorative changes (i.e., modification of the breasts, hands, and/or beard) according to the sex of the new owner.

Selected Bibliography

  • Amenta, Alessia, and Hélène Guichard, eds. Proceedings First Vatican Coffin Conference: 19-22 June 2013. Edizioni Musei Vaticani. Vol. I. Città del Vaticano, 2017.
  • Amenta, Alessia, Ulderico Santamaria, Fabio Morresi, and Giovanna Prestipino. ‘“Vatican Coffin Project”. Alnalisi per Immagini Nel Campo Spettrale Dell’ultravioletto e Dell’infrarosso’, 359–65, 2010.
  • Asensi Amorós, Maria Victoria. ‘The Wood of the Third Intermedite Perod Coffins: The Evidence of the Analysis for the Vatican Coffin Project".’ In Proceedings of First Vatican Coffin Conference: 19-22 June 2013, edited by Alessia Amenta and Hélène Guichard, I:45–50. Città del Vaticano: Edizioni Musei Vaticani, 2017.
  • Aston, David A. Burial Assemblages of Dynasty 21-25: Chronology - Typology - Developments. Contributions to the Chronology of the Eastern Mediterranean 21. Wien, 2009.
  • Bettum, Anders. ‘Faces within Faces. The Symbolic Function Od Nested Yellow Coffins in Ancient Egypt’. PhD dissertation, University of Oslo, Faculty of Humanities, 2012.
  • Cooney, Kathlyn M. ‘Ancient Egyptian Funerary Arts as Social Documents: Social Place, Reuse and Working towards a New Typology of 21st Dynasty Coffins.’ In Body, Cosmos and Eternity. New Research Trends in the Iconography and Symbolism of Ancient Egyptian Coffins, edited by Rogério Sousa, 45–66. Archaeopress Egyptology 3. Archaeopress Egyptology, 2014.
  • ———. ‘Changing Burial Practices at the End of the New Kingdom: Defensive Adaptations in Tomb Commissions, Coffin Commissions, Coffin Decoration, and Mummification’. Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 47 (1 January 2011): 3–44.
  • ———. Coffin Commerce: How a Funerary Materiality Formed Ancient Egypt. Edited by Gianluca Miniaci, Juan Carlos Moreno García, and Anna Stevens. Elements in Ancient Egypt in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108913881.
  • ———. ‘Coffin Reuse: Ritual Materialism in the Context of Scarcity’. In Proceedings of the First Vatican Coffin Conference: 19-22 June 2013, edited by Alessia Amenta and Hélène Guichard, I:101–12. Città del Vaticano: Edizioni Musei Vaticani, 2017.
  • ———. The Cost of Death: The Social and Economic Value of Ancient Egyptian Funerary Art in the Ramesside Period. Leiden: Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten, 2007.
  • Dawson, Julie, and Helen Strudwick, eds. Ancient Egyptian Coffins: Past – Present – Future. 1st edition. Oxford ; Philadelphia: Oxbow Books, 2019.
  • Gehad, Basem, and Anita Quiles, eds. Proceedings of the First International Conference on the Science of Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technologies (SAEMT). Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale, 2022. https://www.academia.edu/76262237/BASEM_GEHAD_ANITA_QUILES_EDS_Proceedings_of_the_First_International_Conference_on_the_Science_of_Ancient_Egyptian_Materials_and_Technologies_SAEMT_.
  • Giménez, Javier. ‘Egyptian Blue and/or Atacamite in an Ancient Egyptian Coffin’. International Journal of Conservation Science 6, no. 4 (2015): 747–49.
  • Hatton, Gareth, A. Shortland, and M.s Tite. ‘The Production Technology of Egyptian Blue and Green Frits From Second Millennium BC Egypt and Mesopotamia’. Journal of Archaeological Science 35 (1 June 2008): 1591–1604. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2007.11.008.
  • Jaksch, H., Wilfried Seipel, K.L. Weiner, and A. El Goresy. Egyptian Blue - Cuprorivaite. A Window to Ancient Egyptian Technology. Vol. 70, n. 11. Die Naturwissenschaften, 1983.
  • Naumova, M. M., and S. A. Pisareva. ‘A Note on the Use of Blue and Green Copper Compounds in Paintings’. Studies in Conservation 39, no. 4 (1994): 277–83. https://doi.org/10.2307/1506588.
  • Niwiński, Andrzej. 21st Dynasty Coffins from Thebes Chronological and Typological Studies. Theban, V. Mainz: Philipp von Zabern, 1988.
  • Pagès-Camagna, S., and S. Colinart. ‘The Egyptian Green Pigment: Its Manufacturing Process and Links to Egyptian Blue*’. Archaeometry 45, no. 4 (2003): 637–58. 
  • Pagès-Campagna, Sandrine, and Hélène Guichard. ‘Coloured Materials of the Theban Coffins Produced around the “Yellow Coffin” Series from the Louvre Collections’. In Proceedings of the First Vatican Coffin Conference: 19-22 June 2013, edited by Alessia Amenta and Hélène Guichard, I:357–60. Città del Vaticano: Edizioni Musei Vaticani, 2017.
  • Prestipino, Giovanna. ‘The Vatican Coffin Project: Observations on the Construction Tecniques of Third Intermediate Period Coffins from the Musei Vaticani’. In Proceedings of the First Vatican Coffin Conference: 19-22 June 2013, edited by Alessia Amenta and Hélène Guichard, II:397–406. Città del Vaticano: Edizioni Musei Vaticani, 2017.
  • Re, Alessandro, Paolo Luciani, Alessandro Lo Giudice, Marco Nervo, P. Buscaglia, Paolo Luciani, Matilde Borla, and Christian Greco. ‘The Importance of Tomography Studying Wooden Artefacts: A Comparison with Radiography in the Case of a Coffin Lid from Ancient Egypt’. International Journal of Conservation Science 7, no. 2 (2016): 935–44.
  • Sousa, Rogério. ‘Building Catalogues. The Concept of “Architectonisation” and the Description of Coffins of the 21st Dynadty’. In Proceedings of the First Vatican Coffin Conference: 19-22 June 2013, edited by Alessia Amenta and Hélène Guichard, II:515–20. Città del Vaticano: Edizioni Musei Vaticani, 2017.
  • ———. Gleaming Coffins. Iconography and Symbolism in Theban Coffin Decoration (21st Dynasty): The Sheltering Sky. 1st edition. Vol. I. Coimbra: Imprensa da Universidade de Coimbra / Coimbra University Press, 2018.
  • ———. “Yellow” Coffins from Thebes: Recording and Decoding Complexity in Egyptian Funerary Arts (21st – 22nd Dynasties). BAR Publishing, 2020. 
  • Sousa, Rogério, Alessia Amenta, and Kathlyn M. Cooney. Bab El-Gasus in Context. Rediscovering the Tomb of the priests of Amun. Antico Egitto 4. Roma: L’ERMA di Bretschneider, 2021.
  • Strudwick, Helen, and Julie Dawson, eds. Death on the Nile: Uncovering the Afterlife of Ancient Egypt. Cambridge (GB) London (GB): GILES, 2016.
  • Taylor, John H. ‘Coffins from the New Kingdom to the Roman Period’. In Death on the Nile: Uncovering the Afterlife of Ancient Egypt, edited by Helen Strudwick and Julie Dawson, 49–73. Cambridge (GB) London (GB): GILES, 2016.
  • ———. ‘Patterns of Colouring on Ancient Egyptian Coffins from the New Kingdom to the XXVI Dinasty, an Overwiew’. In Painting in Ancient Egypt, edited by William Vivian Davies, 164–81, 2001.
  • ———. ‘The Development of Theban Coffins during the Third Intermediate Period: A Typological Study. Vol. I’. PhD, University of Birmingham, 1985.
  • ———. ‘The Vulture Headdress and Other Indications of Gender on Women’s Coffins in the 1st Millennium BC’. In Proceedings of the First Vatican Coffin Conference: 19-22 June 2013, edited by Alessia Amenta and Hélène Guichard, II:541–50. Città del Vaticano: Edizioni Musei Vaticani, 2017.
  • ———. ‘Theban Coffins from the Twenty-Second Dynasty to the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty: Dating and Synthesis of the Development’. In The Theban Necropolis: Past, Present, and Future, edited by Nigel Strudwick and John H. Taylor, 164–81. London: British Museum, 2003.
  • Weiss, Lara, ed. The Coffins of the Priests of Amun . Egyptian Coffins from the 21st Dynasty in the Collection of the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden. Papers on Archaeology from the Leiden Museum of Antiquities (PALMA) 17. Leiden: Sides

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