Cartonnage – made of layers of linen, sometimes papyrus, and plaster – was a common material for making funerary containers throughout the Pharaonic period.
This example dates to around 750-600 BC and exhibits a distinctive set of iconographic traits that directly reference coffins of more than a thousand years before, during the Middle Kingdom. The blue headdress, broad collar and long false beard are all markers of divinity. Contrary to what is often asserted, the dazzling white colouring does not represent the bandages of the mummy – rather the mummy emulates a ‘sah’, an impervious god-like effigy that was the goal of mummification and burial.
This coffin was found during excavations led by Flinders Petrie at the site of Lahun, famous for the Middle Kingdom town serving the construction and cult of the pyramid of Senusret II. Such sites, however, were intensively reused for later burials – and perhaps provided inspiration for later artisans. It is no surprise that a still-prominent pyramid attracted the attention of later generations, who might have derived benefit from being buried in its vicinity.
An outer wooden coffin gives the name ‘Horudja son of Iau’, and perhaps it is to this individual the cartonnage should be attributed. In common with other cartonnage containers of the type, inscriptions were placed on the base – but sadly this is where cartonnage is most susceptible to damage. Only an ‘ankh’ sign survives.
Associated with the cartonnage coffin is a large amount of linen – three large boxes’ worth – but what exactly happened to the body inside is unknown.
Dr Campbell Price is Curator of Egypt and Sudan at Manchester Museum, part of the University of Manchester. He is also Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Egypt Exploration Society and an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Liverpool.