This Egyptian coffin, carved from a hollow tree trunk and inlaid with obsidian eyes, was created to hold the body of a twenty-fifth dynasty noble or priest. The inscription at the base of the coffin reveals the name of the person entombed as Horankh and invokes Osiris, the Egyptian god of the afterlife. Green, a color identified with Osiris, covers the face at the top of the coffin, further connecting Osiris and the deceased.
During the twenty-fifth dynasty, Egypt was controlled by Nubia whose leaders encouraged Egyptian craftsmen and artists to seek inspiration from the styles of Egypt’s distant past. The smooth shape of the Coffin of Horankh with its lack of ornate decoration resembles a coffin from Egypt’s Middle Period (2030-1640 BC).
In addition to the invocation at the base of this coffin, several features on this coffin associate Horankh, the man entombed within, with Osiris, Lord of the Underworld and god of resurrection. The nemes (the striped headdress worn by pharaohs) and the long false beard are attributes of Osiris, and the green color of the face, symbolic of the rebirth and the afterlife, is also associated with the god.
The coffin is carved from a single tree trunk and has various materials that were significant to the Egyptians. Obsidian and calcite, for instance, were used to make the eyes because of the life-like quality of their reflective surfaces. The smooth outer surface of the coffin is meant to resemble a body wrapped in linen, which reflects the mummification process used to preserve corpses in Egypt.
Mummification and the Afterlife
The ancient Egyptians believed that the preservation of the body was essential for eternal life. To mummify bodies of the deceased, Egyptians first removed the brain and viscera of the body and preserved them in vessels called canopic jars. They then dried the body with a substance known as natron, added artificial eyes, applied oils to the skin to restore its suppleness, and wrapped the corpse in linen bandages. Inside of these linen bandages, they wrapped magical protective amulets to ward off anyone attempting to harm to the body.
Mummified bodies were then placed in coffins and entombed. The coffins frequently bore realistic, lifelike faces like that of the Coffin of Horankh.
Tombs also contained objects considered necessary for the afterlife. Furniture, money, and goods were placed into tombs while hieroglyphic images of food were carved into the tomb walls to symbolically represent provisions useful for the dead in the afterlife.
The nesting coffins of Tutankhamun, 18th Dynasty, fit neatly inside one another.
In Ancient Egypt, the god Osiris was believed to be the god of rebirth and judge of the dead in the afterlife. Osiris appears frequently in Egyptian burial art where he is often portrayed as a green or black-faced figure with a crown, a crook, and a flail. Osiris is the brother of Set, god of storms and chaos; the husband and brother of Isis, goddess of motherhood and fertility; and the father of Horus, god of the sky and war.
The Egyptians were a polytheistic people who believed that their many gods and goddesses controlled the forces of the human, natural, and supernatural world. The fundamental principle governing the Egyptians’ belief system was the abstract concept of maat (represented by the goddess Maat) which is often translated as truth, justice, and cosmic order. To maintain maat, the living had to constantly worship and make sacrifices to pacify the deities and spirits of the afterlife.
Ancient Egyptians believed that if a person were properly prepared for the afterlife, his/her soul was immortal. The soul, known as ka, accompanies an individual throughout life, and then after death it leaves the body to enter into the realm of the dead. The person’s ka could not exist without his or her body. The preparation for death, which included tomb building, mummification, and funerary ceremonies, was meant to protect the body and the soul for the afterlife.
The Egyptian pantheon was composed of many gods and goddesses often arranged in family groups of three consisting of a mother, father, and child. Each god or goddess was linked to one or more places where monumental temples were built to house their images. Gods and goddesses in Egypt took many different forms. Many were portrayed in Egyptian art with both human and animal features. Horus, god of the sky, war, and protection often appears with the body of a man and the head of a falcon. Others were portrayed as divine humans. For instance, Osiris, who judges the dead in the afterlife, was portrayed as a man with a face that is either black (referring to the rich Nile soil) or green (representing new life). Many Egyptian gods were also associated with attributes, or objects with which they perform their divine duties. Isis, goddess of magic and motherhood, for instance, was often shown holding an ankh or a lotus.
In Egyptian society, the highest position was occupied by the pharaoh who was believed to be semi-divine and who was credited with mediating between humans and the gods.
The twenty-fifth dynasty in Egypt is a period marked by the rule of a series of Nubian kings. Following King Piye’s successful invasion of Egypt around 712 BCE, Nubian kings placed themselves in the divinely ordained position of ancient pharaohs by promoting traditional Egyptian art and values.
The Coffin of Horankh, which is carved with the severe and unornamented appearance of a coffin from Egypt’s Middle Kingdom, is characteristic of this period. The twenty-fifth dynasty ended around 657 BCE when the Nubians were forced, by a series of Assyrian invasions, back to their homeland.
Though there is evidence of settlers along the Nile River dating from almost 120,000 years ago, the history of ancient Egypt is generally divided into three major periods of stability: the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom. These were separated by intermediate periods of political instability and followed by the Late Period.
The Old Kingdom, beginning in the 3rd millennium BCE is considered Egypt’s first great period of prosperity and political stability. The pharaohs of the Old Kingdom, assisted by a system of efficient administrators, commissioned a number of large-scale irrigation projects which led to surpluses in food and commerce. They also created a bureaucracy responsible for collecting taxes and administering a sophisticated justice system, and they commissioned a number of pyramids and other large-scale building projects. The Old Kingdom ended c. 2200 BCE after a series of droughts and political strife that led to the collapse of Egypt’s government.
Following nearly two centuries of political stagnation and economic instability known as the First Intermediate Period, Egypt’s Middle Kingdom marks another period of great prosperity. Beginning around 2030 BCE, the pharaohs of the eleventh dynasty, following a series of successful military campaigns to secure their power, promoted irrigation projects around the Nile that created great economic prosperity. Along with this prosperity and greater disbursement of wealth, high-ranking Egyptians outside the pharaoh’s immediate family demanded access to the afterlife. As a result, a number of Egyptian nobles and priests were mummified and entombed during the period. The Middle Kingdom ended around 1650 BCE after a series of insufficient crops weakened the power of the pharaoh.
The Second Intermediate Period, marked by a series of weak and foreign rulers, was followed by Egypt’s New Kingdom. New Kingdom pharaohs ushered in a period of prosperity by promoting diplomatic alliances with their neighbors. The New Kingdom ended after a series of military defeats and internal unrest that weakened the power of the pharaoh, who was replaced by the growing power of the priesthood.
The Third Intermediate Period was another period characterized by foreign rulers, wars, and political strife. It was followed by the Late Period when Egypt served as a vassal to several different foreign rulers.
1. What makes this object look "Egyptian"? How do you know what Egyptian things look like?
2. Discuss what you already know about Ancient Egypt. How does what you know help you better understand the significance and meaning of Coffin of Horankh? Share one question you would ask about this object to learn more about it and the ancient Egyptians.
3. Many features of Egyptian coffins were created to be lifelike. What do you think looks lifelike on this coffin? Why was this important to the Egyptians?
4. How are important public figures mourned in our society? How do we choose which public figures merit large public funerals? What does this say about the priorities and values of our society?
5. The ancient Egyptian culture and the people who lived during that time have been the source of conversations, plays, books, movies, and music for centuries. Why do you think so much attention has been given to this ancient culture? What do you love about Egyptian culture? Why do you think people are interested in the life and death of this pharaoh?
1. Imagine traveling back in time to ancient Egypt. Research a dynastic period in Egypt and create a travel brochure for someone visiting Egypt during that period. Include a drawing of a work of art that comes from that period and consider the following topics in your brochure:
· What might the traveler see or do?
· Where might he or she want to go?
· What kind of money or currency is used there?
· What clothes are fashionable to wear?
· What are the landscape and weather like?
On this coffin, the color green symbolizes the renewal of life, resurrection, and immortality. What does the color green symbolize in the Olmec artwork, Seated Ruler in ritual pose
? Compare and contrast the look, materials, and significance of Coffin of Horankh
with Seated Ruler
. Then, pick several colors and describe the associations you have with them. Write an account of where these associations come from.
3. The Egyptians took great care in preparing for death and life after death through the building and decoration of tombs, mummification, and funerary rituals. Research the burial rituals of another ancient culture. Write an essay that compares and contrasts the two cultures, highlighting the beliefs, rituals, and practices associated with death and burial.
|Listen to Professor Aditi Samarth discuss Osiris and other ancient Egyptian gods. |
|Listen to Professor Aditi Samarth discuss burial practices and entombment in ancient Egypt. |
|Watch Curator Anne Bromberg discuss her travels in Egypt.|
|Watch Curator Anne Bromberg discuss burials and afterlife in ancient Egypt.|
Bonnet, Charles and Dominique Valbelle. The Nubian Pharaohs: Black Kings on the Nile. Cairo; New York: American University in Cairo Press, 2006.
Bromberg, Anne. “Ida M. and Cecil H. Green,” Dallas Museum of Art: 100 Years. Dallas, 2003.
Bromberg, Anne and Karl Kilinski. Gods, Men, and Heroes: Ancient Art at the Dallas Museum of Art. Dallas: The Museum, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996.
Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection. Dallas, 1997. Page 21.
Mummies and Magic: The Funerary Arts of Ancient Egypt. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1988.
O’Connor, David. Ancient Nubia: Egypt’s Rival in Africa. Philadelphi: University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania, 1993.
Walker, Roslyn A. The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009. Catalog no. 62, pages 184-185.
Books for Students:
Crimi, Carolyn. Manders, John. Where’s My Mummy? Cambridge: Candlewick Press, 2008.
Germer, Renate. Life after Death in Ancient Egypt. Prestel, 1997.
Hart, George. Eyewitness Ancient Egypt. New York: DK Publishing, 2008.
Pateman, Robert. Cultures of the world – Egypt. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1999.
Streissguth, Tom. A Ticket to Egypt. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, Inc., 1999.
Tyldesley, Joyce. Egypt. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for young readers, 2007.
Explore Egyptian monuments, beliefs, and dynasties through games and timelines.
On this page, you can find explanations about how ancient Egyptians faced death and afterlife.
Learn more about the ancient Egyptians, their daily life, their writing, and the archaeological discoveries made during the twentieth-century through multimedia resources.
Explore Egyptian civilization through a variety of connections, including interactive resources, timelines, and maps.
Prepare for the afterlife with the Museum of Science’s interactive website.
The Louvre collections contain many Egyptian works of art, including several sarcophagi from Egypt’s Middle Period.
This resource discusses the importance of Osiris among the ancient Egyptian gods, and shows other artwork connected to the god.
This timeline gives a brief history of ancient Egypt.
Learn more about the pharaohs that lived and reigned during the New Kingdom period with interactive features, such as “Virtual Egypt” and decoding hieroglyphics.
Many works of art seen in museums have a religious or ceremonial significance that may not be readily apparent or easily understood. Because many of the beliefs, values, and traditions associated with these objects are complex or unfamiliar, teaching about these objects can be challenging. In a diverse and global world, it is important to maintain a high level of cultural sensitivity in the classroom and to promote cultural literacy. Presented here are several guidelines for teaching about the beliefs, values, and traditions related to these works of art in a sensitive and respectful manner.
- Consider the Museum Setting
Remember that these objects were not originally intended to be displayed in museums and many served utilitarian as well as aesthetic functions. Some objects were never meant to be preserved and others were only supposed to be seen by a small, elite group within the source culture. These issues make it all the more important for educators to provide relevant contextual information surrounding these objects. Older students can consider the ethical implications of the placement of these objects in museums, from the colonial expansions that encouraged their acquisition to the educational benefits of publicly accessible art.
- Provide Context and Narrative
When discussing works that carry a religious or ceremonial significance, it is important to consider the original context in which the object would have been used. Where appropriate, emphasize that many of the ceremonies and religions studied are living traditions that are still practiced today. Additionally, providing a narrative through contextual storytelling engages students in learning about a culture or religion different from their own in a nonthreatening way.
Equally important to context is geography. Emphasize the diversity of the continents and encourage students to remember that Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas are made up of many countries and cultures. A great starting point is to locate where students live on a world map and then locate the country or region from which the artwork comes.
- Use Inclusive Language
Use language that is inclusive, and avoid indicating your own cultural or religious biases. By remaining neutral, all backgrounds can be respected and no one treated like an outsider. Avoid setting up a dichotomy of “us” and “them” when discussing these cultures and arbitrary categories such as “western” and “non-western.” Instead, be specific, and categorize the objects by country or religion. Specificity steers students away from the trap of oversimplifying diverse continents such as Asia or Africa into homogenous regions that serve as the “other” of the “western” world.
- Carefully Select Vocabulary
When discussing works of art with cultural and religious significance, avoid terms that carry a derogatory tone or that have typically been used to disparagingly describe works of art from other cultures. Avoiding loaded terms will discourage a value hierarchy between cultures and encourage both unbiased accuracy and sensitivity. Examples include: idol, myth, tribe, artifact, fetish, primitive, non-western, etc. This list is in no way exhaustive or without exception, and it is important to select words carefully when referring to various cultures or religions.
Insensitive vocabulary is sometimes compounded by the fact that there may not be English equivalents for the names of religions, belief systems, or peoples from other cultures (i.e. many of the belief systems practiced by various peoples throughout Africa).
- Avoid Decontextualizing Activities
Remember that religious and ceremonial objects have a very specific purpose and their own cultural context. Avoid the inclination to design open-ended, “make your own” exercises where the objects are directly appropriated and removed from their context. (i.e. make your own Hindu god or African spirit) Keep in mind how certain activities could be viewed as disrespectful or even blasphemous by peoples from the culture being studied.
- Find Common Connections
Humans throughout time and all over the world share a fundamental unity of experiences that reflect common concerns, instincts, and desires. We all seek to understand the world and our place within it. Universal themes and commonalities may be found among diverse peoples. Invite students to search for meaningful connections between the culture studied and his/her own. While honoring a common human experience, also encourage students to embrace particular nuances and maintain the integrity of differences of each culture or religion. Understanding both similarities and differences between cultures allows students to be more compassionate, culturally sensitive, and literate.
- Consider the Study of Cultures
In the last century, scholarship regarding Asian and African cultures and their associated religions and practices has expanded immensely. Information that was once scarce or obscure is now more accessible than ever and can provide greater understandings about the art and culture of these peoples. European and American art making and record keeping mostly emphasize the individual artist or artistic movement. This may differ from standards in African and Asian cultures. Consider the role art plays in various cultures, why makers may or may not be identified, how record keeping varies, and why some cultures emphasize certain aspects of objects and their history over others.
Breuilly, Elizabeth, and Joanne O’Brien, Martin Palmer, Martin E. Marty. Religions of the World: The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, and Festivals. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005.
Eck, Diana L. On Common Ground: World Religions in America. Columbia University Press, 2006.
Mbiti, John. African Religion and Philosophy (African Writers), 2nd sub edition. Hinemann, 1992.
Nash, Robert. Teaching Adolescents Religious Literacy in a Post-9/11 World. Information Age Publishing, 2009.
Prothero, Stephen. God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter. Harper One, 2010.
Prothero, Stephen. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-- and Doesn’t. San Francisco: Harper, 2007.
Ray, Benjamin. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community, 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979.
“A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools”