Coffin of Tanakhtnettahat

By Yasmin El Shazly, The American Research Center in Egypt.

Date: Third Intermediate Period, Dynasty 21, 1070-945 BC

Provenance: Probably Thebes

Material: Wood, Pigment

Current Location: Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, acc. no. 1999.1.1.17 A-D

The 21st Dynasty (1070-945 BC) falls within the Third Intermediate Period (1070-664 BC), a time of political unrest and economic crisis. The lavish tombs of the New Kingdom disappeared and were replaced by simple, mostly undecorated burials. The elaborate decoration that was to aid the deceased in his/her journey to the afterlife was transferred to nested assemblages of anthropoid coffins. The early 21st Dynasty coffins are of a type known as ‘yellow coffins,’ with a yellow background, entirely covered with small scenes known as ‘vignettes.’ At that time cedar and other imported fine woods were in short supply. Local woods of lesser quality had to be used instead and to compensate for this the craftsmen often coated the coffins of this period with a thick layer of mud, modeling some of the details rather than carving them. The surface was then covered with a thin layer of white gesso or plaster, thus preparing it for the elaborate paintings with which it would be covered. The entire coffin was finally coated with a golden yellow varnish.

A fine example of a 21st Dynasty yellow coffin is the inner coffin of Tanakhtnettahat (Tahat for short). Tanakhtnettahat was a chantress (singer) in the temple of the god Amun at Karnak; a high rank in ancient Egypt. The coffin is currently housed in the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia (acc. no. 1999.1.1.17 A-D). It was previously displayed at the Niagra Falls Museum in Ontario and was among a number of coffins and mummies brought to Canada in the mid-19th century. The collection remained at Niagra falls for 150 years before it was moved permanently to its current location. 

The coffin contained the deceased woman’s mummy, which when scanned and X-rayed at Emory Hospital was found to have her internal organs intact, contrary to the customary removal of internal organs during that period. The reasons why the internal organs were not removed remains a mystery, but the poor state of the mummy indicates that the mummification process was hastily carried out. The mummy was covered with a mummy board, believed to be a development from the funerary masks of earlier periods, which looked like a shallow secondary lid and was popular during the 21st Dynasty.

The lid of the inner coffin and the mummy board both depict the deceased wearing a full wig, the lappets of which are gathered in bands of beads, and the top of her head is adorned with a fillet of lotus flowers and petals. She wears round earrings and a broad collar. The decoration on the coffin and mummy board consists of mythological scenes from the Book of the Dead, images of the coffin owner adoring various deities and different amuletic imagery for the protection of the deceased in her journey to the afterlife. 

The coffin is particularly interesting because close examination revealed that it had been reused by a woman named Ta-Aset. Parts of the coffin had been repainted and, in one case, the name of Tahat had been replaced with that of the new owner, Ta-Aset. Coffin reuse was common in this period of economic hardship and was practiced even by royalty.

This assemblage of inner coffin, mummy board, and mummy would have been placed inside an outer coffin, fragments of which may be in the Musée de Grenoble, France (back board MG 1997 and fragments MG 3759and MG 3760). The inscriptions and decoration on the Grenoble fragments have not been altered, which means that, unlike the inner coffin, the outer coffin was never reused, probably because it was already in poor condition in ancient times. According to the Grenoble museum website, the original provenance of the fragments was the Theban Necropolis. They were acquired in Egypt in 1842 by Louis de Saint Ferriol and donated to the museum by his son in 1916. The deceased elite woman was, therefore, most likely originally buried somewhere in the Theban Necropolis, which is expected for a woman who served as chantress of the supreme Theban god, Amun.

For more information, read the “Coffin Lid of Tanakhtnettahat/Ta-Aset,” at the Michael C. Carlos Museum Collections Online.

Model courtesy of David Anderson, Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse ( and