Documenting "Yellow" Coffins from Bab el-Gasus

Jun 24, 2021

Written by Rogério Sousa, Professor of Egyptology and Ancient History at the Centre for History of the Faculty of Humanities, University of Lisbon. Gate of the Priests Project.

Egyptian anthropoid coffins are fascinating objects for a variety of reasons. Regardless of the perspective through which we see them, they stand out as unrivalled sources for research, either in terms of craftsmanship materials and techniques or in design, iconography, and texts. 

Fig. 1 – Bab el-Gasus, next to the enclosure wall of the Temple of Millions of Years of Hatshepsut. 

When in 2009 I was entrusted with the mission of producing a catalogue of the coffin sets of the so-called "Eighth Lot of Antiquities" from Bab el-Gasus (Sousa 2017), I could hardly imagine that this would be a turning moment of my life as a researcher (Fig. 1). This collection had been given in 1893 by the Egyptian authorities, just two years after its discovery. Bab el-Gasus was discovered by Eugène Grébaut and Georges Daressy, containing the undisturbed burial sets of 153 priests and priestesses of Amun who lived during the 21st Dynasty. Due to the sheer size of the find, a decision was made to offer some of these antiquities to Egypt's countries with diplomatic relations. In 1893, when the young khedive Habas II Hilmi was crowned, 17 lots of antiquities were prepared and shipped to the respective countries. The Portuguese Lot was entrusted to the Sociedade de Geografia de Lisboa (Fig. 2). It included five anthropoid coffins (four inner coffins and one outer coffin), three mummy covers, and a sample of shabtis. Like most other lots from Bab el-Gasus, this collection remained in the Museum's storerooms and unpublished.

Fig. 2 - The Hall of Portugal in the Sociedade de Geografia de Lisboa. The antiquities from Bab el-Gasus are kept along the upper balustrade, currently used as a storeroom. 

When Carlos Ladeira carried out the photographic survey of these objects in the Sociedade de Geografia de Lisboa, I immediately realized that a drawing method should be developed to extend the documentation of these objects. Most of the coffins from the Eighth Lot presented severe challenges that could not be overcome by simply using a photographic record. Some of these problems were related to the darkened surfaces and the modern use of wax to consolidate the wooden structures. Both made the perception of the original decoration extremely difficult. Fig. 3 presents the outer coffin of Henuttaui, which is covered by a heavy layer of dust, showing how difficult is the perception of the decoration in the photographs. Nevertheless, the drawing succeeds in clearing out the iconographic program of the object.

Fig. 3 – Outer coffin of Henuttatui. Photo by Carlos Ladeira (Sociedade de Geografia de Lisboa). Drawing by the Author.

The fragmentary state of the decoration detected in some of the coffins also prevented effective documentation of the objects if the photographic record was to be used as the only documentation tool. For example, most of the decoration of the inner coffin of Henuttaui collapsed a long time ago – perhaps during its shipment to Portugal – and as a result of that, I found loose fragments of the decoration inside the outer case of Henuttaui during the photographic survey of the objects.

Fig. 4 illustrates the contrast between the data provided by the photograph and the drawing of the inner lid of Henuttaui. The severe deterioration that affects this object seriously impairs the reading of the decoration through photographic records. Still, the drawing gives complete visibility to the remaining fragments displayed in their original setting. Moreover, a number of details that would remain unnoticed in the photograph are fully visible in the drawing, such as the decoration of the lips, the pattern used in the floral necklace and diadem, the decoration of the hair, the heart-shaped amulets worn on the chest, among many other motifs.

Fig. 4 – Inner coffin of Henuttatui. Photo by Carlos Ladeira (Sociedade de Geografia de Lisboa). Drawing by the Author.

Thus, when I first envisaged the use of drawings in the documentation of the coffins from Lot VIII, I had only in mind the purpose of clearing out the details that would be difficult to perceive in the photographic record, while at the same time providing the original location of the fragments that were found detached from the coffins. 

However, as I was getting progressively engaged in the study of these coffins, I began to realize that drawing could perform a much bolder role than that I had first imagined. The reason for this was to be found in the very conceptual framework that I chose to guide my work in the description of these objects. The coffins from Bab el-Gasus belong to the "yellow" corpus, a type of anthropoid coffins produced in Thebes from the late 20th to the early 22nd Dynasty. Unlike the previous models of anthropoid coffins, the "yellow" type not only has an extremely complex scheme of decoration, as it shows dynamism and evolution unattested before. These features make the "yellow" coffin a unique corpus, one that requires a careful assessment of the conceptual framework underlying our work of description and interpretation. Frequently, researchers use untold concepts that end up having a bold impact on the way objects are perceived, described, and understood.

Regarding coffins, in particular, most of the previous works assume an untold association of anthropoid coffins with the concept of "statue," which for most of the coffin types produced prior to the Ramesside period is not particularly harmful. However, when applied to the "yellow" coffins, this association is very inadequate. That often dictates the neglect of its complex pictorial decoration, which risks being perceived as a meaningless and loose juxtaposition of details. 

The theoretical framework put forward by René van Walsem deeply challenged this view. The concept of "architectonisation" (Walsem, 1997: 358-359) assumed that during the 21st Dynasty, coffins were designed in such a way to create a sacred space around the deceased. In this view, the coffin is seen as a "building," i.e., a heterogeneous object in which decoration serves the purpose of creating several "places" within the object. In this way, coffins display a symbolic "topography" composed of spatial units or sections, each governed by its principles of composition.

This concept allowed us to see coffins as "buildings." As such, the methods used on epigraphic surveys seemed to us as the most consistent with accomplishing the description of 21st Dynasty coffins. Against the usual procedure used in catalogues, coffins should not be merely described as "hollow statues". Each object should be understood as a meaningful assemblage of pictorial compositions, each of which provided its meaning and purpose.

A fortunate coincidence further enhanced the methodological implications of this perception. During my first season of work in Egypt (in the Fall of 2009), I accidentally got in contact with the work of the Epigraphic Survey of the Oriental Institute, the University of Chicago in the Theban area. The fruitful discussions with Susan Osgood and Krisztián Vértes, Senior Artists of the Chicago House, stimulated me to develop my own approach to document "yellow" coffins using a combined system of drawings and photographs. 

The combined use of drawings and photos proved to be highly effective in enhancing the perception of each pictorial setting as a whole. In fact, the curved surfaces of the coffins often make it impossible to present a complete reading of the decoration of a given pictorial setting in one single image. This is particularly clear in the documentation of the lids, which sometimes are deeply convex, demanding at least three different photos to cover each composition fully. In contrast, drawings provide in one single image the whole perception of the composition. 

Moreover, drawing allows to isolate the pictorial sections and read them as tableaux, i.e., pictorial compositions, each one of them designed with its layout aiming at conveying specific messages. The drawing turns the apparently loose assemblage of motifs into coherent visual tableaux, thus enhancing the awareness of the principles of composition that guide their design. It is crystal clear that this shift brings important consequences for research, allowing the recognition of different phenomena, such as the organization of labour involved in each type of composition, the planning of coffin's design and layout, the significance of diversity of coffin decoration, the methods used to create variability within a given composition, among many other aspects. 

The use of drawing thus changes remarkably the way coffin decoration is understood. When used as a scientific tool, drawing plays a proactive role in research. Photography is, of course, important, but it should be seen as the "raw material" that will be processed and eventually transformed into drawing and text.

As a research tool, drawing requires the critical mediation of the scientist behind the artist. When reproducing an object, what kind of "things" should be drawn? The answer to this question is, in my opinion, dictated by our own scope of research. Since my research was focused on coffin decoration, my drawings only reproduce this thin pictorial layer. If this layer is cracked or collapsed, the drawing ignores the wooden structure as if it is invisible, highlighting the pictorial work in situ. This is important due to avoid creating further visual burden in heavily detailed pictorial compositions. 

Perhaps the most important decisions are those concerned with how the visual information is displayed. It goes without saying that the presentation of "samples" of selected images from a particular composition, as it is so often seen in catalogues of "yellow" coffins (Niwiński 1999), should also be avoided, precisely because it prevents the perception of the composition as a whole. Therefore, each drawing should not be presented simply to illustrate a particular image or detail. Each drawing reflects the author's perception of the pictorial composition as a whole. It is fundamental to enhance the awareness of its role within the global economy of coffin decoration. In other words, we will never understand the meaning of coffin decoration if we fail to acknowledge the integrity of the compositions created on the coffin's surface. It is the definition of the different pictorial sections that rules the creation of each drawing. 

To accomplish this documentation effort, the artist must cope with several challenges. Perhaps the most difficult one lies in rendering on a two-dimensional surface the composition displayed on a three-dimensional object. Turning a convex volume into a two-dimensional surface requires the redefinition of space. In a way, this is a challenge similar to that faced by cartographers when designing a world map. In the same way that a mapa mundi is always a recreation, the drawing of a lid needs to be read as a cartography of a three-dimensional object (Fig. 5).  

Fig. 5 – Central section of the lid of Shedsutauepet. Photo by Carlos Ladeira (Sociedade de Geografia de Lisboa). Drawing by the Author.

Since my goal as an artist/scientist is to produce a cartography of the coffin, I intentionally remove all the visual effects that could be created with perspective. The image thus created is wholly hypothetical – precisely in the same way that a world map is speculative - and of course, it cannot be seen by the photos of the object even though it is always elaborated through the combined use of several images. 

From a technical perspective, my drawings are produced manually using a transparent sheet placed over photographs (Fig. 6). Given the previously mentioned aspects, each drawing results from several photos prepared in advance to produce the expected outcome. Each drawing is focused on a single section of the coffin. I normally use a scale of 1:2. First I reconstruct the selected composition using pencils. As a rule, only the contour of the figures is represented leaving aside any indication of colour. More recently I started to include indications of volume, applying the same principles used in the epigraphic documentation of reliefs. When the pencil sketch is ready, I trace a new and definitive one using black ink. Regarding the face of the deceased portrayed over the headboard I never use shadows to highlight the volumes to be consistent with the bidimensional character of the remaining drawing. Nevertheless, to highlight the exceptional character of the face, I paint in black the cosmetic lines of the eyes, eyebrows, and beard, which I find a simple and effective way to enhance the impact of the face. 

Fig. 6 – Drawing the floorboard of Henuttaui (Staatliches Museum Ägyptischer Kunst in Munich).

However, intending to enhance the holistic reading of coffin decoration, I usually include integrative images of the complete decoration of the lid to display the decorative program of the object as a whole (Fig. 7). These images are digitally processed by using the drawings produced manually.

Fig. 7 – Anonymous outer coffin (Museo Egizio in Florence). Drawing by the Author.

Another problematic area to document is the interior decoration of the case, which is usually poorly photographed due to the difficulty imposed by the narrow walls. When the documentation is based on photographic records alone, the viewer is forced to read each division of the case in an isolated way. By drawing these elements, the interior decoration of the case can be fully displayed in one single image giving the reader an intuitive perception of the space as a whole (Fig. 8).

Fig. 8 – Interior decoration of the inner case of Henuttaui (Sociedade de Geografia de Lisboa). Drawing by the Author.

As for the inscriptions, due to our criteria of fidelity, inscriptions are presented as close as possible to the original, thus avoiding the use of automatic computer fonts or "normalized" handwriting calligraphy to present the texts. 

The documentation method briefly described above had essential consequences in my research as I keep using it in the documentation of other coffins from Bab el-Gasus, namely in the documentation of the Italian and the Danish Lots (Sousa 2018a). But perhaps more importantly, this method allowed me to develop a topographical view of coffin decoration which was revealed to be decisive to carry out comparative studies on the "yellow" coffins (Sousa 2018). 


Niwiński, Andrzej (1999) – Catalogue Général des Antiquités Égyptiennes du Musée du Caire, nº 6069-6082: The second find of Deir el-Bahri (Coffins). Cairo: Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt, Institute of Archaeology of the Warsaw University & Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology in Cairo.

Sousa, Rogério (2017) – Burial assemblages from Bab el-Gasus in the Geographical Society of Lisbon. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers. (Order from here!)

Sousa, Rogério (2018) – Gleaming Coffins: Iconography and symbolism in Theban coffin decoration (21st Dynasty). Coimbra: Coimbra University Press. (Order from here!)

Sousa, Rogério, ed. (2018a) – The Tomb of the Priests of Amun: Burial Assemblages in the Egyptian Museum of Florence. Gate of the Priests Series 1. Leiden-Boston: Brill Publishers. (Order from here!)

Walsem, René van (1997) – The Coffin of Djedmonthuiufankh in the National Museum of Antiquities at Leiden. Leiden: Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten.

4 comment(s)

SJ Wolfe

Jun 24, 2021

Absolutely fascinating!

Aug 5, 2021

Dear SJ Wolfe, thank you very much for your comment and kind words! It means a lot to us to get your compliments for Dr Sousa's excellent article ! I hope you'll enjoy our other articles as well and please, keep checking back for more interesting case studies in the future! All the best, Krisztian Vertes

SJ Wolfe

Jun 24, 2021

I am the director of the EMINA (Egyptian Mummies in North America) Project and I am trying to learn as much about coffins as I can.

Aug 5, 2021

Also, I wish you good luck with your work, and let us know if we can be of any help or would like us to consult regarding any aspects of your research! All the best, Krisztian Vertes

María Antonia Moreno

Jun 30, 2021

Very interesting work. Congratulations !!!

Aug 5, 2021

Dear Cristina, thank you very much for your compliments in the name of our excellent guest author, Dr. Rogério Sousa! I hope you'll enjoy our other articles as well and please, keep checking back for more interesting case studies in the future! All the best, Krisztian Vertes

gary byers

Apr 10, 2022

Thanks for your good work

May 2, 2022

Thank you very much for your compliments!

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