The distinction between the three terms for containers to protect a mummified corpse is conventional. Coffins may be made of wood, metal, or pottery; sarcophagi are usually understood to be objects made of stone; and cartonnages are made of several layers of linen pasted together and covered by a thin layer of plaster.

The most important cemeteries of the ancient Egyptians lie on the western side of the Nile, the side of sunset and of the world of the dead; this explains several characteristics of the Egyptian tomb and its decoration. The deceased lies on the left side, with the head facing north so that it may look toward the east, where the bereaved approach bearing offerings. The eastern face of the coffin and the coffin chamber is therefore reserved primarily for the offering motif, while the western face displays scenes showing the burial and the tomb equipment. A pair of eyes is painted on the eastern side of the coffin, through which the deceased can watch the offerings, gaze on the rising sun, and participate in the diurnal journal of the sun god. The desire of the deceased to leave the coffin chamber freely and return at any time is made possible with the help of the false door façade which is often used to decorate the long, narrow sides of the coffin; this can be reduced to a simple false door on the eastern face alone, near the pair of eyes. Another essential idea is that of protection, ensured by the coffin itself and the preservation of the corpse; the repulsion of dark forces is guaranteed through apotropaic gods, which are listed in vertical lines on the coffin.

The Egyptian word for coffin is ḳrsw; the same root, whose meaning is unclear, forms the basis for the words for “tomb” and “tomb equipment.” The coffin is also sometimes euphemistically called “Master of Life.” Inner coffins are distinguished as wt šri or wsḫt, and outer ones as wt ʿʒ or ḏbʒ.

Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom.

The question of whether the royal tombs of the Old Kingdom were situated in Saqqara or in Abydos is still unanswered. Therefore, the first clearly established royal coffins date from the third dynasty. Stone coffins (sarcophagi) of kings from the Old Kingdom and the Middle Kingdom have been preserved. Some are very plain in form—a simple rectangular coffin with a flat cover—and some are more elaborate in design, with vaulted lids and crosspieces. The royal sarcophagi are sparsely decorated, the main motif being the false-door façade along the perimeter of the coffin. Bands of hieroglyphs are rare. These sarcophagi are notable for their precious materials, such as calcite (Egyptian alabaster), granite, or quartzite. They seem to have had little influence on the decoration of the coffins and coffin chambers of nonroyal individuals, perhaps because the king was able to equip his tomb with all the objects necessary in the underworld. Private people were more limited, for financial reasons and no doubt by decorum, so they sought other ways of ensuring access to these desired objects, which were then painted on the coffin and on the interior walls of the tomb. By Predynastic times, the Egyptians enshrouded corpses in mats or furs and enclosed them in pots, baskets, or clay coffins. In some areas a wooden scaffold was constructed around the body; this may be considered a precursor to the later coffins. At this time, the dead were usually buried in a crouching position—a practice clearly maintained in the first wooden coffins, which are only long enough to accommodate a flexed body. By the second and third dynasties, however, coffins display some of the typical characteristics of the later stone and wooden coffins—they have vaulted lids with crosspieces and are decorated with false doors.

Coffins and coffin walls are decorated from an early date. The main motifs are initially the false door and false-door façade, which first appear on wooden coffins of the second and third dynasties, and later on royal and private sarcophagi of the Old Kingdom. A new phase in development took place in the transition from the fifth to the sixth dynasty, when Unas was the first king to decorate the interior walls of the tomb chamber in his pyramid with Pyramid Texts and false-door façades. As a consequence of this innovation, private individuals of that period also began to decorate the interiors of their subterranean tomb chambers, but they developed their own elements of decoration. In Giza, the walls were decorated with scenes of offering, agriculture, boating, music, and other activities, similar to the decorations in the aboveground tombs. During the Old Kingdom, typical friezes show containers and vessels, first on the walls of the tomb, while the coffins remain relatively plain and devoid of decoration. At most, coffins have a pair of eyes and a horizontal band of hieroglyphs on the outside; and on the inside, a false door, list of offerings, and bands of hieroglyphs.

During the Middle Kingdom, the traditions of Giza and Saqqara developed into the Upper and Lower Egyptian styles. The Lower Egyptian style extends from the Nile Delta to Thebes, while the Upper Egyptian reaches south from Asyut. Development of burial practices among private individuals during the Old Kingdom was led by the highest officials of the kingdom, and at the beginning of the Middle Kingdom we find decorated tomb walls exclusively in the tombs of the highest officials of the Theban eleventh dynasty. During the subsequent period, mostly wooden coffins were decorated. Because the tombs of nobles were conspicuous, they were often prey to tomb thieves, so very few of their wooden coffins remain. The few preserved examples show, however, that while the decoration of these coffins is elaborate, they are in other respects basically the same as those of lower officials.

Lower Egyptian and Upper Egyptian styles.

The Lower Egyptian style, also known as “standard class coffins,” is relatively homogeneous compared to the variable Upper Egyptian style. In the eleventh dynasty, the coffin is positioned in a north/south direction, allowing the deceased within to observe ceremonies at the offering site above ground. The interior eastern wall of the coffin is often decorated with a painted false door through which the dead can step out to the offering site. The pair of eyes painted on the outside is intended to enable him to see the activities at the offering site. Osiris is mentioned in the offering spell on the outer eastern side, followed by a plea for offerings to the dead. On the inside are painted offerings and a list of offerings, in lieu of a depiction of the offering ceremony. The western side of the coffin is decorated with the burial scene, where the god Anubis is included in horizontal bands of hieroglyphs, followed by a plea in which the dead expresses desire for a beautiful burial. During the eleventh dynasty, the frieze of objects is shown on the western side and on the narrow sides of the coffin. The objects shown are mostly those which the dead person carried in life, such as jewelry, rods, weapons, and clothing. Coffin Text spells, originally written on papyri, were copied onto the interior sides of the Lower Egyptian style coffins and are generally not restricted to a specific side of the coffin. Such specific references, however, do occur, for example in a group of coffins from Asyut with Coffin Text Spells 589–606. The most significant innovation of the twelfth dynasty is the transfer of friezes of objects onto the east side of the coffin and the addition of vertical lines on the exterior sides. During this period more objects are shown in the friezes, and even entirely new classes of objects, such as amulets or royal attributes.

The Upper Egyptian style exhibits strong local characteristics, although they are more difficult to date. All coffins of this style are decorated mostly on the exterior sides and have freely rendered representations of the human figures, in contrast to the Lower Egyptian style. Cities and towns such as Asyut, Akhmim, Thebes, and Gebelein develop their own distinctive styles. The coffins from Akhmim are decorated in a very simple fashion: the main motif is the food offering; below the offering spell on the east side, which asks for the habitual offering to the dead, a pair of eyes is shown to the right and a list of offerings to the left.

In Asyut, almost all coffins have vertical as well as horizontal bands of hieroglyphs on the exterior sides. In general, bands of hieroglyphs from this period consist of a single line; in Asyut, however, we find two or three lines. In addition to the offering spell, the lines often contain Coffin Text Spells 30, 31, 32, 345, and 609. Coffins from Asyut are easily recognized by these characteristics. Salve containers, offerings, weapons, fabrics, and other objects are painted in the rectangles between the vertical and the horizontal lines. On each narrow side of the coffin appear images of two children of Horus.

Sarcophagi in Thebes from the eleventh dynasty are decorated in an especially beautiful and careful manner. Most notable is a scene showing a cow being milked while the calf next to it receives no milk; this scene is sometimes also set in a papyrus thicket. Often a female tomb owner is shown holding a mirror while being attended by her maids. On Gebelein coffins, the most noticeable difference is the representation of scenes from the burial ritual. The deceased is shown resting on a stretcher surrounded by maids. Scenes depicting the brewing of beer also seem to be popular in this location.

Other styles.

In addition to the Upper and Lower Egyptian styles, there exist two other Middle Kingdom types, both richly decorated. One of these appears only in Asyut. It is characterized by interior paintings whose arrangement is in contrast to the standard style. Here we find a theme of food offerings on the western side, while the frieze of objects is on the eastern side. The objects of the frieze are usually arranged in horizontal registers, but in Asyut the longitudinal side of the coffin is divided into laterally arranged rectangles within which the objects are painted. The second type is represented only by four coffins originating from Thebes, Gebelein, and Aswan. They too are decorated on the inside and are exceptional because they all contain the same group of Coffin Text spells, whose significance—and this is rare for this period—is emphasized with ornamental designs.

Aside from the types and styles described above, there is the court style, which was reserved primarily for members of the royal family. Court coffins are decorated exclusively with bands of hieroglyphs, in a very simple style. On some coffins the corners and bands of hieroglyphs are embellished with gold leaf. The thirteenth dynasty coffins from Thebes whose outer sides are painted in black constitute another separate group. Horizontal and vertical bands of hieroglyphs are painted on the black ground; these hieroglyphs are mutilated in a characteristic fashion, in which only the upper bodies of all birds and snakes are shown.

Anthropomorphic forms.

The main coffin shapes used in Egypt are rectangular and anthropomorphic. In the Old and Middle Kingdoms, the body is usually placed in a rectangular coffin; there are, however, attempts to wrap the body itself and to imitate its outline. This development leads to the anthropomorphic (or “anthropoid”) coffin. Early on, the body is wrapped in strips of linen soaked in various solutions for preservation. Representations of the face and other body parts are then painted onto these strips. Another technique is modeling of the body—or in some cases, only the head—in gypsum. This may have been the origin of the custom of creating separate cartonnage masks which were then placed on the corpse. The next phase in development occurs in the twelfth dynasty, when we find the first indications of separate anthropomorphic coffins into which the body is laid. These become more frequent during the transition to the thirteenth dynasty. They are placed, like the mummy, into a rectangular coffin, lying on the left side so that the dead can look through the pair of eyes painted onto the outer coffin. In the seventeenth dynasty the anthropomorphic coffin is separated from the rectangular coffin and becomes the sole container for the body. The lids of these coffins are decorated with a feather pattern and are called rishi, from the Arabic word for “feather.” They mostly originate from Thebes and are also used for kings.

Coffins, Sarcophagi, and Cartonnages

Coffins, Sarcophagi, and Cartonnages. Drawing of a ḳrsw-type coffin from the Third Intermediate Period. It is now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. (Courtesy Günther Lapp and Andrzej Niwinski)

Eighteenth Dynasty through Greco-Roman Times.

The elaboration of coffin styles continued during the New Kingdom. Single coffins, particularly those made of cheap materials like pottery or reeds, indicate the low social status of the owner, although exceptions—richly equipped mummies buried in single cartonnage or wooden coffins—are known. Double, triple, or quadruple sets of coffins, one placed inside the next, are typical of middle-class and upper-class burials. These coffin ensembles utilize various combinations of materials and shapes: one cartonnage and two anthropomorphic wooden coffins, anthropoid coffins in rectangular sarcophagi; or cartonnages in stone sarcophagi. The materials for stone sarcophagi include quartzite, used in most royal sarcophagi of the eighteenth dynasty; red granite, typical in the Ramessid era; gray or black granite and basalt, from the twenty-sixth dynasty to Ptolemaic times; Egyptian alabaster (calcite), employed in the sarcophagus of Sety I; green serpentine; and limestone. The finest wooden coffins are made of cedar, and others of sycamore or acacia. Solid gold and silver were reserved for kings, while gilding or silvering of a coffin or its parts may indicate the owner's relationship with the king's or high priest's family. In all periods, coffins vary in quality of execution, having originated from various workshops. Even the best of these produced both custom-made coffins, on which the name and titles of the owner were inscribed during the making, and less expensive anonymous coffins.

Many wooden coffins, and some stone sarcophagi as well, bear evidence of usurpation. In some cases the coffin of an earlier pharoah was usurped as a powerful amulet; for example, the coffin of Thutmose I was reused for Pinudjem I, and the sarcophagus of Merenptah for Psusennes I. In most instances, however, usurpation was clandestine, perhaps because wood was in short supply; craftsmen employed in the coffin workshops arranged the changes. To adapt a coffin for a new possessor, craftsmen had to alter the names and titles of the first owner, and sometimes the general appearance of the anthropoid lid; for example, the characteristic traits of a twenty-first dynasty man's coffin (striped wig, ears, beard, and clenched hands) could easily be changed into those typical for a woman's coffin (monochrome wig, earrings instead of ears, lack of beard, and open hands). Gilded coffins were tempting to robbers, and the surface of many has been chipped off. The coffins belonging to King Pinudjem I, his sister, and his wife were damaged in this way, but some gilded figures and texts were left untouched, perhaps for religious reasons.

Theological meaning.

Cartonnages or inner mummiform coffins represented the deceased person during the burial ceremony of the Opening of the Mouth, often depicted in tomb paintings and funerary papyri. In these the coffin is shown in a vertical position, which explains the solid foot-boards of anthropomorphic coffins and cartonnages. When positioned horizontally, the mummyshaped container resembles the dead Osiris awaiting resurrection. The figures of Isis and Nephthys are often represented on both extremities of the coffin, behind the head and under the feet, evoking the ritual of the Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys over their dead brother. These figures also recall a vignette in chapter 151 of the Book of Going Forth by Day (Book of the Dead), entitled “Spell for the mysterious head” (i.e., the mummy mask). The iconography and text of Spell 151 relate to the burial assemblage, and the mask accompanied by wig and collar is the most representative decorative element of anthropomorphic mummy containers.

The frieze of cobras and the feathers of justice of the goddess Maat on the upper edges of some coffin-cases, squatting divine figures (often armed with knives), and the judgment scene are typical elements of the figural decoration of coffins and sarcophagi. They evoke the Hall of Maat—the Double Truth—where the fate of the deceased in eternity is decided: the coffin thus plays the role of the Hall of Maat. After the judgment, the deceased took on the role of Osiris, the king of the underworld. Royal coffin lids reflect this idea in portraying the deceased as Osiris, with his typical scepters held in crossed hands. On private coffins, carved or painted representations of hands crossed on the breast have the same function. The coffin or sarcophagus, being a “residence” of the deceased identified with Osiris, was a theological counterpart of the Osirian kingdom.

The iconographic repertoire painted on the interior of mummy containers is also to be understood in cosmological terms. The deceased is placed between the figure of a ḏd-pillar (often painted on the bottom of the case, inside or outside) and that of the goddess Nut, represented on the lid, and thus between earth/underworld and sky, a position corresponding to that of Shu in the scene of creation. The coffin is thus cast in the role of the universe. In the twenty-first dynasty, this is corroborated by cosmological compositions placed on both shoulders of the coffin cases, representing the lower, Osirian part and the upper, solar part of the created world. The fourth dimension is alluded to by numerous scenes of the eternal solar circuit, scenes from the Book of That Which Is in the Underworld (Amduat), figures of the “goddesses of hours,” or the Uroboros—the serpent biting its own tail. Numerous cosmogonic symbols (scarabs, bnw-birds, lotus flowers, etc.) made the coffin a symbol of the primeval hill on which the Creation took place; the deceased was identified with the solar creator god. The word for the inner coffin; wšt, means “egg,” which evokes associations with the Creation myth of the cosmic egg.

Finally, according to another theological conception, the mummy container decorated with the principal figure of Nut and inscribed with a prayer to her played the role of the sky, which swallowed the sun every evening, became pregnant, and gave birth to it at the next dawn; this created a mythic model of the future rebirth of the deceased.

Historical development.

The different workshops undoubtedly varied in their respect for tradition and interest in novelty, so various forms of mummy containers often existed contemporaneously. This is particularly true for the intermediate periods of Egyptian history; by contrast, periods of political stability are characterized by more standardized shapes, colors, and iconography of coffins throughout the country.

Eighteenth dynasty.

The rishi-coffins and rectangular chest-coffins, still decorated with the motifs of the Middle Kingdom tradition, were used sporadically until the reign of Thutmose III, but meanwhile a new type of anthropoid coffin spread in Thebes to become the most characteristic form of the early eighteenth dynasty. These wooden coffins—called “white” because of their predominant ground color—reproduce, in a sense, the mummy that in previous periods had been provided with a cartonnage mask and collar. An inscribed vertical band is painted in the middle of the lid and descends to the edge of the feet, and four transverse bands are painted on both sides of the lid and case of the coffin, in imitation of mummy bandages. Texts on these bands contain the common formulae ḥtp-dἰ-nsw (“a gift that the king gives”), ḏd-mdw-ἰn (“words said by the king”), and ἰmʒhy ḫr (“revered before”), evoking the names of Osiris, Anubis, and the Sons of Horus. Figures of these mythical protectors of embalming and burial are sometimes painted in the panels between the texts, but the most typical iconography of the “white” coffins shows various burial motifs: the transport of a mummy, mourners, offering rituals, and so on. On the lid, at breast level, a figure of a protecting goddess (Nekhbet or Nut) is usually painted.

Once political conditions stabilized, Theban carpenters quickly mastered the technique of constructing and shaping mummiform coffins. The finest examples of their craftsmanship are the atypically large (over 3 meters/10 feet high) cedarwood coffins made for the queens Ahmose-Nefertari, Ahhotep, and Meritamun. These coffins accurately render the shape of the upper body, with portrait mask and arms crossed on the breast, while the gilded pattern of feathers covering the lower mummiform part reveals a link with the rishi-coffins. This type of adornment was in use for royal tomb equipment until the end of the eighteenth dynasty, including Tutankhamun's coffins, and probably also in the Ramessid era and twenty-first dynasty (e.g., the silver inner coffin of Psusennes I).

The complete nested set of Tutankhamun's coffins suggests what other royal burial equipment in the New Kingdom probably comprised. The mummy, provided with a golden mask and golden inscribed bands imitating bandages lay in three mummiform coffins; the innermost is made of solid gold, and the other two of wood covered with sheet gold. Figures and hieroglyphs impressed in the gold are inlaid with colored paste, glass, and semiprecious stones such as lapis lazuli and carnelian. In the New Kingdom, a set of anthropomorphic coffins was laid into a rectangular or cartouche-shaped stone sarcophagus, which in turn was surrounded by several chapel-like wooden structures, gilded and covered with religious texts and motifs. Of these funerary ensembles, only that of Tutankhamun survives intact; only the stone sarcophagi remain of others. Their iconographic repertoire comprises figures of Nut on the top and under the lid, Nephthys and Isis at the head and foot ends, and Anubis and the Sons of Horus on the walls of the case. Inscribed bands envelope the lid and case. Sarcophagi after the Amarna period also have figures of four winged goddesses carved at the corners of the case.

In the nonroyal sphere, from the reign of Thutmose III a new color scheme predominates in wooden coffins: figures and texts are gilded or painted in yellow on a black ground. The iconographic repertoire of these “black” coffins is constant: a winged figure on the lid, the Four Sons of Horus, and Thoth and Anubis on the walls of the case. This type of coffin is also attested outside Thebes, in Memphis and the Faiyum. The richest ensembles of “black” coffins—such as those of Yuya and Tuyu, Amenhotpe III's parents-in-law—comprised several objects: the cartonnage mask and collar; the “network” of bandage imitations lying on the mummy; two or three anthropomorphic coffins; and an outer rectangular coffin, shaped like a chapel and set on runners, which served for transport during burial.

Nineteenth and twentieth dynasties.

In the post-Amarna period, there developed a new type influenced by the coloring of royal coffins. These “yellow” wooden coffins are attested from Thebes and Memphis. Figures and texts are painted in red and light and dark blues on a yellow ground; the yellow varnish that covers the exterior makes the blue appear green. In the coffin ensembles (e.g., that belonging to Sennedjem), the outer receptacle is still a chapel-like rectangular case on runners; the one or two inner coffins are anthropoid, with carved forearms crossed on the breast. On men's coffins, the hands are clenched and hold sculpted amulets, while those of women are open and lie flat on the breast. The mummy is covered with a wooden or cartonnage “false lid” or “mummy board,” usually imitating the shape of the lid. These mummy covers consist of two pieces: the upper one represents the face, collar, and the crossed arms, while the lower piece, often made in openwork technique, imitates the network of mummy bandages, with figural scenes filling the panels between the bands.

In the early nineteenth dynasty a new type of mummy cover and lid was used. It represents the deceased as a living person, dressed in festive garments, with the hands either placed on the thighs (men's coffins) or pressed to the breast and holding a decorative plant (women); the naked feet are also sculpted below the costume. The wigs of men are of either the Ramessid duplex type or of the traditional tripartite, vertically striped type; women's wigs are richly ornamented with curls and plaits. Both the male “Osirian” lid and the “living effigy” type were also fashioned in stone for the anthropomorphic sarcophagi of high officials. The innermost coffins of some royal sarcophagi are anthropomorphic (e.g., the alabaster case of Sety I), but others are cartouche-shaped.

In the twentieth dynasty, the royal sarcophagi were buried in crypts cut into the floor of the burial chamber and were covered with massive granite lids. Osirian effigies of the kings sculpted in high relief decorate the exterior of the lid, while the goddess Nut is sculpted on the lid's underside. Besides the traditional repertory, there appear scenes and texts from royal funerary books. The repertory of nonroyal coffins is enriched with vignettes and texts from the Book of Going Forth by Day (e.g., chapter 17) and with solar motifs (bark of Re, scarab, etc.). In most instances, however, only the traditional scheme is used, continuing the repertory of the “black” coffins. This pattern is repeated on pottery coffins of the lower classes discovered in the eastern Nile Delta, at Tanis and Tell el-Yehudiyya.

Twenty-first dynasty.

Only anthropomorphic coffins are known from this period, mostly from Thebes, similar in form and coloring to Ramessid examples. Only wooden mummy covers are yet attested; these are made in one piece and are usually of the “Osirian” type. The last decade of Ramesses XI's reign brought revolutionary changes in iconography. The old motifs (e.g., the Four Sons of Horus, Isis and Nephthys as mourners, or the Nut figure on the lid) are never entirely abandoned, but a great number of new scenes are introduced. New motifs derive from the Book of Going Forth by Day (e.g., the vignettes from chapters 30, 59/63, 81, 87, 125–126, 148, 186), as well as from newly created compositions. The latter focus on cosmological deities such as Geb and Nut or the Serpent on ṯnṯʒt scenes that illustrate the god's activities during the journey through the underworld, the revivication of a mummy, the triumph over the Apophis serpent, the Osirian myth, and the eternal circuit of the sun. Each scene includes both solar and Osirian elements, illustrating the solar-Osirian unity as the theological principle of the period. This extensive repertoire is supplemented by numerous offering scenes covering every surface of the coffin except the exterior of the bottom. Texts comprising rather simple formulae are of secondary importance. Most of the figures are represented in small scale in an attempt to fill all empty spaces.

In the late twenty-first dynasty new iconography appeared on coffins as a consequence of the royal status gained by the high priest Menkheperre. This includes excerpts from the Book of That Which is in the Underworld and some other elements of royal iconography (e.g., scenes of the sed-festival). The pattern for an ensemble of royal mummy containers is furnished by the tomb of Psusennes I at Tanis. A two-piece golden mummy cover lay on the king's mummy, deposited in the innermost anthropomorphic coffin made of silver. This was placed in a reused Ramessid anthropomorphic granite sarcophagus, which was enclosed in another sarcophagus, rectangular in form, that had belonged to King Merenptah.

Coffins, Sarcophagi, and Cartonnages

Coffins, Sarcophagi, and Cartonnages. Inner lid to a coffin from the twenty–first dynasty. It is now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. (Photo by Andrzej Niwinski)

Third Intermediate Period (twenty-second to twenty-fifth dynasties).

The early years of Libyan rule in Egypt exerted no visible impact on coffins, and the “yellow” type persisted in Thebes until the reign of Osorkon I. The frequent usurpation of these wooden coffins suggests illicit dealings. This may have influenced the introduction, under Osorkon I, of one-piece anthropomorphic cartonnage mummy containers. The multicolored, varnished decoration on a white or yellow ground utilizes such motifs as a winged, ram-headed vulture, a falcon with spread wings (both surmounted with solar disks), the sacred emblem of Abydos, and the Apis bull with a mummy on its back (painted on the only wooden piece, the foot-board).

The political chaos of the middle and late Libyan period generated multilineal development of forms and decoration schemes. Richly painted one- or two-piece cartonnages (the latter also decorated inside) coexisted with variously shaped and decorated wooden coffins, originating from different workshops. First, there are coffins of traditional anthropoid form, with a case deep enough for the mummy, and covered with a flat or convex lid. Second, there are mummy-shaped coffins consisting of two equal parts, a shallow lower case and an upper lid, joined at the level of the mummy lying inside; a rectangular pedestal under the feet served as a base for the coffin in vertical position; and the back of the lower part projects slightly (the so-called dorsal pillar). A third type is the rectangular coffin reproducing the ḳrsw form, with vaulted roof and four posts in the corners. A richly varied iconography accompanies this plurality of forms.

This complexity increased in the turbulent times of the eighth and seventh centuries BCE, when a trend toward archaizing revived motifs of the Middle and New Kingdoms. In this troubled period, a scarcity of skilled craftsmen resulted in the widespread production of crude coffins, particularly in Middle Egypt and the Memphite region.

During the period of stability in the reign of Taharqa, however, coffins became more uniform. The inner coffin of a typical ensemble of this time is of the mummiform type with a pedestal; the “dorsal pillar” has a large ḏd-column depicted on it. On the lid, below the winged Nut figure on the breast, appear scenes of the judgment and the mummy on its bier. On both sides of the lid are small figures of protective deities. The inside of the coffin contains excerpts from the Book of Going Forth by Day, often accompanied by the figure of Nut. The outer coffin of the typical twenty-fifth dynasty ensemble is of ḳrsw form decorated with solar scenes on its vaulted roof and the Four Sons of Horus on the side walls. A sculpture of a recumbent Anubis is placed on the roof, while small figures of falcons surmount the posts. Little royal material of the period is known; kings in Tanis were buried in usurped stone sarcophagi, but the falcon-headed silver coffin of Sheshonq is remarkable.

Late period (twenty-sixth dynasty and later).

During the Saite period, the highest officials used rectangular and anthropomorphic stone sarcophagi. The former resemble the royal sarcophagi of the New Kingdom, with effigies of the deceased sculpted in high relief on the lids. The latter, usually of gray granite or basalt, are in general form and decoration replicas of the wooden “pedestal” coffins, though with a preponderant lid. Wooden coffins of this period have similar shapes. The flat lower part of the coffin serves merely as a support, not a container, for the mummy, because it is now covered with much more convex lid. Figural representations become less numerous, replaced partly or totally by long texts—excerpts from the “Saite version” of the Book of Going Forth by Day—written on the lid in vertical columns. Some wooden coffins of the Saite or post-Saite periods have carved decoration.

Innovations include the gilded cartonnage mask and painted coverings, consisting of several pieces, regularly laid on mummies. Figures of bound enemies now appear under the feet of the mummy on a separate cartonnage piece. The “bulging” coffin was prevalent in the Late period, alongside other types. The stone sarcophagi of the archaizing twenty-ninth and thirtieth dynasties used for inspiration not only royal compositions of the New Kingdom but even the much earlier Pyramid Texts. Types of coffins and a “new generation” of complete cartonnages appeared, reproducing very old patterns.

At the present stage of research, exact dating of this late funerary material is risky. On the other hand, welldated burials of the Roman period have been excavated in various spots in Egypt, including Thebes, the Faiyum, and Marina el-Alamein. These discoveries reveal the variety of mummy containers then in use: wooden coffins resembling the old ḳrsw form, with vaulted roof and corner posts; wooden anthropoid coffins with hands and portrait masks made of plaster and attached to the lid (these first two types of coffins have painted decoration with traditional iconography and hieroglyphic inscriptions); cartonnages “living effigies” of the deceased, in Roman dress; and mummies, bandaged in characteristic manner following a rhomboid pattern, and provided with portraits painted in encaustic on wooden panels (the so-called Faiyum portraits).



  • Chassinat, Émile. La seconde trouvaille de Deir el-Bahari (sarcophages). Vol. 1, fasc. 1. Leipzig, 1909.
  • Daressy, Georges. Cercueils des cachettes royales. Cairo, 1909.
  • Edgar, C. C. Graeco-Egyptian Coffins, Masks, and Portraits. Cairo, 1905.
  • Gauthier, Henri. Cercueils anthropoides des prêtres de Montou. 2 vols. Cairo, 1913.
  • Maspero, Gaston, and Henri Gauthier. Sarcophages des époques Persanes et Ptolémaïque. 2 vols. Cairo, 1914, 1939.
  • Moret, Alexandre. Sarcophages de l'époque Bubastite à l'époque Saite. 2 vols. Cairo, 1913.
  • Niwiński, Andrzej. La seconde trouvaille de Deir el-Bahari (sarcophages). Vol. 1, fasc. 2. Cairo, 1996.

General Works

  • Andrews, Carol. “Coffins and Sarcophagi.” In Egyptian Mummies, pp. 42–51. London, 1984. Short introduction with numerous illustrations; besides coffins, outlines mummies, funerals, and tombs.
  • Brovarski, Edward. “Sarkophag.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 5: 474–485. Excellent outline of history of stone sarcophagi, with rich reference to the literature.
  • Buhl, Marie-Louise. The Late Egyptian Anthropoid Stone Sarcophagi. Copenhagen, 1959. A nearly complete collection of source material.
  • Donadoni-Roveri, Anna Maria. I sarcofagi egizi dalle origini alla fine dell' Antico Regno. Rome, 1969.
  • Egner, Roswitha, and Elfriede Haslauer. Särge der Dritten Zwischenheit I. Corpus Antiquitatum Aegyptiacarum, Kunsthistorische Museum Wien. Mainz, 1994.
  • Hayes, William. Royal Sarcophagi of the XVIII Dynasty. Princeton, 1935. One of the most important studies.
  • Hoffmeier, J. K. “The Coffins of the Middle Kingdom: The Residence and the Regions.” In Middle Kingdom Studies, edited by Stephen Quirke. Kent, 1991.
  • Lapp, Günther. Typologie der Särge von der 6. bis 13. Dynastie. Studien zur Archäologie und Geschichte Altägyptens, 7. Heidelberg, 1993.
  • Lapp, Günther. “Die Entwicklung der Särge von der 6. bis 13. Dynastie.” In The World of the Coffin Texts, edited by Harco Willems. Leiden, 1996.
  • Niwiński, Andrzej. “Sarg NR-SpZt.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 5: 434–468. A survey of history and decoration of coffins and cartonnages from the New Kingdom to the Roman period, with ample bibliography.
  • Niwiński, Andrzej. “Zur Datierung und Herkunft der altägyptischen Särge.” Bibliotheca Orientalis 42 (1985), 494–508. A supplement to Verner, 1982.
  • Niwiński, Andrzej. 21st Dynasty Coffins from Thebes: Chronological and Typological Studies. Mainz, 1988.
  • Niwiński, Andrzej. “Coffins from the Tomb of Iurudef—a Reconsideration: The Problem of Some Crude Coffins from the Memphite Area and Middle Egypt.” Bibliotheca Orientalis 53 (1996), 324–363. A critical review presenting an alternative view of the dating and interpretation of coffins excavated in 1985 in Saqqara, published in Raven, 1991.
  • Polz, Daniel, and Hubert Roeder. “Särge (Kat. Nr 70–82).” In Liebighaus-Museum Alter Plastik: Ägyptische Bildwerke, vol. 3: Skulptur, Malerei, Papyri und Särge, pp. 302–389. Frankfurt am Main, 1993.
  • Raven, Maarten J. The Tomb of Iurudef, a Memphite Official in the Reign of Ramesses II. Leiden and London, 1991. Includes a chapter by J. Taylor on coffins from secondary burials in the tomb, which the author maintains should be dated to the late twentieth and twenty-first dynasty; cf. Niwiński, 1996.
  • Taylor, John H. Egyptian Coffins. Shire Egyptology, 11. Aylesbury, 1989.
  • van Walsem, René. The Coffin of Djedmuthiufankh in the National Museum of Antiquities at Leiden. Leiden, 1997. First part of a recent study of the early twenty-second dynasty coffin type, with imitation leather mummy braces on the coffin lid.
  • Verner, Miroslav. Altägyptische Särge in den Museeun und Sammlungen der Tchechoslowakei. Corpus Antiquitatum Aegyptiacarum. Prague, 1982.
  • Willems, Harco. Chests of Life. Leiden, 1988.

Günther Lapp and Andrzej Niwiński