The KV55 Coffin
By Nicholas Brown, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, University of California, Los Angeles.
Date: New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, reigns of Akhenaten and Smenkhkare, ca. 1337- 1323 BC
Provenance: Valley of the kings, KV55, the “Amarna Cache”
Excavated by E. Ayrton for T.M. Davis in 1907
JE 39627 (Coffin Lid) and TR 2/12/15/2 (Gold Sheets and Inlays from Coffin Trough, not pictured.)
Material: Wood, Gold, Semi-Precious Stones and Glass.
In 1907, a tomb was discovered in the Valley of the Kings during excavations by Edward Ayrton on behalf of the wealthy American lawyer Theodore M. Davis. This uninscribed tomb was subsequently numbered KV55 and is one of Egyptology’s biggest enigmas, as its contents and occupant have stimulated much debate and confusion over the last century. Given the style of the objects found inside, it seems that the tomb was a result of caching several different funerary items from the Amarna Period that were reused for the burial of a single individual, whose identity remains uncertain to this day. Official seal impressions from the tomb’s entrance bore the seal of the necropolis (a crouching jackal above nine captives) in addition to seal impressions with the name of Tutankhamun. This strongly suggests that the cache was created some time during his reign, likely on the orders of the king to transfer the remaining royal burial(s) at Amarna south to the Valley of the Kings for safekeeping.
The coffin found within KV55 was originally created for a female member of the royal family during the Amarna Period, but was subsequently altered for the burial of a royal male instead. This is obvious from the altered hieroglyphic inscriptions throughout the lid and trough, some that still have a feminine “t” ending or the female pronoun of a seated woman from the original inscriptions. There is much debate as to whom the coffin was originally intended for: earlier scholarship suggested Queen Tiye, Meryetaten, or (erroneously) Akhenaten himself; there is even the possibility that the coffin was created for Nefertiti when she was ruling as Akhenaten’s queen. Today, however, most Egyptologists would agree that the coffin was created for Kiya, a secondary wife of Akhenaten. Based on the spelling of the Aten’s name from this coffin, as well as Kiya’s canopic jars that were also found in KV55 (such as: Met 07.226.1), her funerary equipment was started sometime before Year 9 of Akhenaten’s reign. Yet, for unknown reasons Kiya disappears from official records sometime after Year 12, and her monuments were usurped by other women of the royal family and her funerary equipment was reused for the KV55 burial.
With all these movements, of the deceased and the funerary objects found within KV55, it is difficult to identify with certainty who was buried within this unused tomb that was not intended for anyone of the Amarna royal family. Initially, the skeletal remains (CG 61075) found inside this coffin were identified as those of Queen Tiye, whose name could be found on several objects found within KV55, including the large gilded shrine panels (JE 57175). However, this identification was soon discredited when a second examination by Elliot Smith showed that the remains were those of a young male who died in his early 20s. During the 1960s, Ronald Harrison proposed a kinship relationship between the KV55 skeleton and the mummy of Tutankhamun based off of similar anthropological features. In 2010, Zahi Hawass and a team of experts reexamined the remains and concluded that they were of a male who died between the ages of 35-45 years old. The DNA results of their examination suggested that the KV55 skeleton was a son of Amenhotep III and the father to Tutankhamun, making either Akhenaten or Smenkhkare as likely candidates for the identification of the individual buried within the coffin. One thing is clear however: it was considered important for this Theban family, led by Tutankhamun at least in name, to bring back their ancestors to the rightful place of rule, to safeguard and connect with them.
The figure on the KV55 coffin lid is depicted in mummiform shape with just the head and hands exposed. The deceased wears a Nubian-style wig, which was usually associated with Queen Kiya during the Amarna Period. On the forehead is an attached ureaus in gilded bronze that is inscribed with the names of the Aten. The face of the figure was once covered with a thick gold-sheet mask, most of which was hacked away in antiquity. However, from the preserved right eye and eyebrow, it is clear that some features of the face were once inlaid with blue glass (to outline the eyes and eyebrows) as well as other semi-precious stones or glass inlays for the eyes. Beneath the chin, a false beard of blue glass inlays with gilding is attached. The curved end of the beard is a representation of the divine beard, often associated with the god Osiris, but during the Amarna Period was meant to show the deceased as a transfigured, deified being instead.
The deceased wears a broad wesekh collar over the chest, with intricate inlays of feathers and natural plants. Below, there are the crossed arms and exposed hands of the individual that once held the royal insignia of a crook and flail. This is evident from the three preserved thongs of the flail that were found with the coffin (these are displayed on the coffin lid’s right side). The rest of the mummiform figure is covered in a rishi-design (the Arabic word for “feather”), which by the 18th Dynasty became an exclusive royal prerogative for coffin decoration. Over the chest and upper torso, the inlays are shaped like overlapping naturalistic feathers (sometimes referred to as the “Horus Feathers”), while over the lower torso and legs of the figure stylized feathers are depicted using chevron inlays. The KV55 coffin shares many similarities to the second (middle) coffin of Tutankhamun (JE 60670), as they are both gilded and covered with colorful glass and semi-precious stone inlays in a rishi-design.
Dividing the lower torso and the two legs is a gold band with a hieroglyphic inscription in colored inlays. The most striking characteristic of this inscription is the hacked-out cartouche. This vertical inscription translates to: “The perfect ruler, symbol of the sun, king of Upper and Lower Egypt, living in truth, Lord of the Two Lands [missing cartouche]. The perfect little one of the living Aten, who shall be alive continually forever, correct in the sky and on earth.” On the underside of the lid’s feet are seven lines of hieroglyphic text (the remaining five continue onto the trough’s feet, which is not shown here). In the uppermost line, a cartouche was deliberately removed in antiquity, while in other sections the inscription was altered from the original feminine text to accommodate the later male burial. The altered text on the foot end of the coffin’s lid reads: “Recitation by [missing cartouche], justified. May I breathe the sweet air that comes from your mouth. May I see your beauty daily. My wish is that I hear your sweet voice of the north wind, that my body may grow young with life for love of you. May you give me your arms with your life-force, that I may receive it and live. May you call on my name continually, without it having be sought [in your mouth] …”. This text is a reflection of the new religious doctrine under the reign of Akhenaten, which repudiated the traditional afterlife based on the myth of Osiris, and instead favored transfiguration and rebirth through the rising of the Aten every day.
Model courtesy of David Anderson, Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse (www.sketchfab.com/danderson4 and www.uwlax.edu/archaeology).