Coffin of Amenhotep I
By Nicholas Brown, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, University of California, Los Angeles.
In July of 1881, a large group of coffins were discovered in a secret hiding place on the West Bank of Thebes, modern-day Luxor. Today, it is known as the Deir el-Bahari Royal Cache, or Theban Tomb 320. Initially, Egyptologists believed that this cache was created in order to protect the burials of several New Kingdom pharaohs, their family members, and the High Priests of Amun. However, recent reanalysis of the archaeological and textual evidence paints a more nuanced-picture of the situation in ancient Thebes. At the end of the New Kingdom, Egypt was in the midst of social, economic, and political instability. So much so that the ruling powers at Thebes, the High Priests of Amun, were unable to have access to gold mines in the south and they lacked the ability to import precious raw materials, including wood. The Royal Cache was the result of the High-Priests of Amun’s systematic clearance of older tombs for these much-needed raw materials and gold. Yet, the whole operation was hidden under the guise of “restoring” and “protecting” the mummies of these pharaohs and their families, due to the rampant looting and theft of older tombs that was happening at the same time. This coffin was discovered within the Deir el-Bahari Cache, and was used in the re-burial of Amenhotep I during the 21st Dynasty (1069-945 BCE).
Across the top of the coffin’s lid over the chest is a hieratic (cursive hieroglyphs) text written in black ink (#1). This inscription is what Egyptologists call a docket: a record from the official caching that lists the contents of a coffin or mummy bundle, sometimes accompanied by a dated description of the activity carried out in connection with the reburial of the deceased. The docket from Amenhotep I’s coffin reads:
“Year six, fourth month of peret, day seven: On this day, the high priest of Amun-Ra king of the gods Panedjem (I), son of the high priest of Amun Panedjem (sic), son of Piankh commanded: Renew the burial of king Djeserkara, Son of Ra Amenhotep (I) Life, Prosperity, Health! By the Overseer of the Double Treasury Pa…”
This particular docket shares strikingly similar features to the hieratic linen docket discovered on the mummy of Thutmose II (CG 61066), including sharing a similar date of reprocessing. The hieratic docket from Thutmose II’s mummy gives us the full name of the treasurer commanded to carry out the reburial of these two royal mummies: Payneferher. Furthermore, what is interesting to consider is the fact that the coffin of Thutmose II (CG 61013) shares similar characteristics with this coffin of Amenhotep I. Two hypotheses can be proposed: that the two royal mummies were re-wrapped within the same workshop and/or at least the two coffins were processed together by the same group of craftsmen.
If this was the original burial container of Amenhotep I, it is likely that large sections or the entire surface was once covered in gold. This gilding would have been stripped by the ancient authorities who were systematically clearing the tombs of their predecessors. The decoration that remains today on the coffin of Amenhotep I is quite possibly a secondary application of decoration to this coffin after its initial decoration was removed. But, on this “wooden core” there is little evidence of tool marks that would indicate the removal of gold, making it difficult to know for certain if this piece was once gilded.
The coffin’s figure is shown wearing a black divine headdress with a wooden uraeus (cobra) attached with plaster to the forehead. The uraeus traditionally represents the goddess Wadjet, who is at the king’s brow ready to strike anyone who should do potential harm to the king. Along the top side of the headdress there is a kneeling figure of Isis depicted in yellow paint. She is paralleled at the foot-end of the coffin by a kneeling figure of Nepthys. These two goddesses are the sisters of the god Osiris, Lord of the Underworld, who the dead king was transfigured into after his death. Here on this coffin, these two goddesses are depicted to help protect the mummified remains of the king. Amenhotep I’s face is painted yellow and is meant to imitate gold, which was believed to be the skin of the gods. Additionally, it is likely that the king once wore a divine beard, which is now missing. These symbols, along with the divine headdress, helped to show the deceased Amenhotep I as a transfigured divinity in the afterlife.
On the chest there is a painted vulture pectoral, and underneath there are a series of transvers and longitudinal white bands with hieroglyphic texts. The inscriptions are part of the traditional offering formula for the deceased, the so-called “hetep-di-nisu” text (#2). The text names the prenomen, or throne name (#3) and nomen, or birth name (#4) of Amenhotep I.
The interior of this coffin is covered with a thick layer of black varnish or resinous material. This is not visible in this three-dimensional model of the coffin. However, along the exterior sides of the lid and case of the coffin, one can see the drips of fresh black varnish/resin as the two pieces were manipulated and moved to apply this material. Finally, along the sides of the case, there are wadjet eyes depicted at the shoulders, followed by three divine figures on the left and right sides of the case. These figures are likely meant to represent the Four Sons of Horus and the god Thoth. These are all heavily faded today, but see if you can spot them in the model! (Hint: the black corselets of the divine figures are the most obvious feature of these faded images).
It is unclear to Egyptologists whether this was the original burial-container of Amenhotep I, or (more likely) a private 18th Dynasty coffin that was re-processed and re-used for the king’s burial. The preserved decoration is paralleled on other known royal coffins (such as that of Thutmose I, reused for Panedjem I (CG 61025), making it difficult to use the decorative motifs as the only factor to determinate if this was a royal or private coffin. What is certain, however, is that this coffin was carefully processed over and re-worked by the ancient craftsmen in order to rebury the remains of Amenhotep I, a highly-respected predecessor who had become a patron deity of the West Bank of Thebes by the end of the New Kingdom.
The Coffin of Amenhotep I was part of the University of California, Los Angeles Coffins Project at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The project was directed by Kara Cooney and supported with funding from ARCE’s AEF grant.
Model courtesy of David Anderson, Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse (www.sketchfab.com/danderson4 and www.uwlax.edu/archaeology).