Tuesday, February 21, 2017


Helen Strudwick, Julie Dawson, Death on the Nile: Uncovering the Afterlife of Ancient Egypt. Cambridge; London: Fitzwilliam Museum in association with D Giles Limited, 2016. Pp. 256. ISBN 9781907804717. $70.00.

Reviewed by William H. Peck, Wayne State University (whpeck@yahoo.com)

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

Death on the Nile (with an acknowledgement to Agatha Christie's classic mystery of the same title) is the catalogue of an exhibition of Egyptian coffins, sarcophagi, and related material held at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, in 2016. The fifty-five numbered entries, some of which represent more than one object, such as nested coffins or related pieces from the same burial, are principally from the Egyptian collection of the sponsoring museum, with a few additions lent from the Louvre and the British Museum. The basic premise is simply to put the museum's extensive holdings of funerary artifacts into their historical context, but the discussions of materials and chronological and stylistic development take this work to an altogether higher level, as will be discussed below.

The first essay by Helen Strudwick deals with the history of the Egyptian collection in the museum. The large representation of Egyptian coffins, with examples covering a range of historic periods, Middle Kingdom to Roman, provides the basis for this exhibition. Its notable beginning was the important gift in 1823 of the stone sarcophagus lid of Ramesses III by Giovanni Belzoni, the Italian strongman adventurer. Strudwick then traces the contributions of travelers from the first object jointly given in 1835 by Barnard Hanbury and George Waddington, to the result of a visit of the Prince of Wales to Egypt in 1868, who distributed objects he had been given to English museums including the Fitzwilliam. Travelers aside, the majority of the objects in the exhibition were the product of excavation by some of the most notable British archaeologists of the nineteenth century including William Mathew Flinders Petrie, James Quibell, and John Garstang. In addition, extensive gifts and bequests from a number of donors including Edward Towry Whyte and R. G. Gayer-Anderson have enriched the collection over time.

The second essay is by Wolfram Grajetzki, an Egyptologist who specializes in the history and burial customs of the Middle Kingdom in Egypt (c. 2010-1630). In his contribution he deals with the development of coffins in the Middle Kingdom. After a brief summary of prior burial customs in the Prehistoric Period and the Old Kingdom (when coffin decoration was notably lacking) Grajetzki traces the evolution of the typical Middle Kingdom wooden box-shaped coffins that end up resembling miniature tombs. The decoration of these includes inscriptions with names and titles, offering lists and painted images of offerings, painted false doors and eye panels enabling the deceased to communicate with the world of the living, and even diagrammatic maps as guides to the Underworld as the Egyptians understood it. In addition to the elaborately enhanced decoration, a body of religious prayers and spells (The Coffin Texts) was included for the benefit and protection of the deceased. The Coffin Texts constituted a corpus of writings that preserve much that we know about Egyptian beliefs concerning death and the afterlife in the early second millennium. The rectangular, box-like, coffins were gradually supplemented by the introduction of the anthropoid coffin which at first was little more that a body wrapping.

In the third essay John H. Taylor, a specialist in the development and classification of Egyptian coffin types, continues the survey of coffins from the New Kingdom to the Roman Period, covering about one and a half thousand years beginning around 1550 BC. Although this seems like an inordinate length of time in the evolution of burial materials, it reflects a steady and uninterrupted progression. This involves not only the material changes in typology and style but also the underlying cultic reasons for these changes.

After the presentation of the history of the museum collection, the rationale for an exhibition and the survey of the history of coffins from the Middle Kingdom on, the fourth essay contains what seems to be the main subject of the exhibition and the catalogue, the physical construction and decoration of coffins as represented in the Fitzwilliam Museum, with a few additions to complete the story. This important contribution on materials, construction and decoration is the product of a group effort by Julie Dawson, Jennifer Marchant, and Eleanor von Aderkas, with contributions from Caroline R. Cartwright and Rebecca Stacey. It discusses the advanced scientific techniques used in the examination of the objects, the choices of wood available in ancient Egypt, painted decoration of the coffins, as well as the specific and different methods of construction for box and anthropoid coffins and the use of cartonnage. This section ends with a brief commentary, "Connecting with the craftsman," pointing to the fact that technical examination and study of craft methods can often bring the modern observer close to the human act of production, complete with planning steps, intermediate stages, and even the inevitable mistakes that can still be seen in a finished product. This section is followed by the catalogue of the objects in the exhibition, many with detailed photographs and additional technical information.

This book is more than an exhibition catalogue: it is a contribution to the history of technology, particularly to the craft of woodworking and the art of decorative painting in ancient Egypt. The careful attention to the analysis of woods and pigments is entirely in line with current emphasis on a science-based approach to the examination and understanding of ancient artifacts. The pioneer work of Alfred Lucas in the early twentieth century provided much of the basis for continued scientific study. Analysis of woods and the ongoing work on carpentry and the cabinet-making techniques of Geoffrey Killen have added greatly to our knowledge about Egyptian craftsmen and their methods. The publication in 2000 of Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology, written by a number of specialist scholars and scientists and edited by Paul T. Nicholson and Ian Shaw, provided a summation of the state of research to that date. This concerted study of coffin- making techniques is a welcome addition.

The work is beautifully presented in a large format with color illustrations and useful details, enabling the reader to examine the material in a manner that is not always possible in the more usual small-scale black-and-white photographs. The quality of the photography has seldom been equaled in similar studies. The authors and researchers are to be commended for a careful, detailed record of an exhibition that is more than a catalogue but rather a lasting reference and a useful tool for further study.

Table of Contents

Director's Forward (Tim Knox)
Curators' Acknowledgements (Julie Dawson and Helen Strudwick)
Egyptian Coffins at the Fitzwilliam Museum: The Formation of the Collection (Helen Strudwick)
Coffins of the Middle Kingdom: Their Origins and Development (Wolfram Grajtzki)
Coffins from the New Kingdom to the Roman Period (John H Taylor)
Egyptian Coffins: Materials, Construction and Decoration (Julie Dawson, Jennifer Marchant, and Eleanor von Aderkas; with Caroline R. Cartwright and Rebecca Stacey)
Picture Credits
Map and dates
Catalogue (Helen Strudwick and Julie Dawson)

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