Ancient Egypt Glossary #1 – Coffins etc.

Today’s post is by Becca from the Visitor Team at Manchester Museum. We are not experts, but we are people with a passionate interest in the museum and its objects. We each bring our own insight into Manchester Museum and its collections.

For more about Egyptology, please visit the Curator’s blogEgypt at the Manchester Museum.


This is the first in a series of glossary posts, exploring and explaining some of the subject-specific terminology and jargon that we often use. In the coming weeks and months watch out for more, which we hope will become both fun and informative points of reference! 

Ancient Egypt Glossary #1 – Coffins etc.

Right, this time there will be no nasty surprises for you or my colleagues, this blog is actually supposed to be about dead stuff!

In my last blog I covered how to make a mummy but I neglected to tell you what to do with your newly desiccated friends …

Egyptologists use many different terms relating to coffins and funerary equipment, so in this post I’m going to define a few of the most common for you.

Human Remains

Before I get into where you should put your mummy there is one key thing; a mummy has preserved skin tissue covering the underlying bone (see Asru), a skeleton is the exposed bone with no soft tissue over the top. Some mummies can become skeletons (through poor preservation) but skeletons cannot become mummies.

A mummy can be wrapped, when the linen bandages are still intact, and when there are no wrappings, this can either be because the body has been unwrapped (although of course this is not something that the ancient Egyptians ever intended to happen to their dead), or tissue preservation has occurred through ‘natural mummification’ (particularly evident in prehistoric Egypt, but this is by no means limited to the Egyptian culture).

Nikki Elvin of the British Museum, London with Gebelein Man B, a Predynastic Period, naturally mummy. Picture: Fiona Hanson for The Telegraph.

So you’ve got your mummified body, now you need something to put it in – and you’ve a variety of options, so lets get cracking.

Coffins etc.

The boxes that have been found containing the Egyptian dead have generated a lot of different words, in various attempts to distinguish the between the different shapes, sizes and particularly materials in which they have been made.

Pot burial: Towards the end of the prehistoric period in Egypt, rather than simply being buried in the sand, bodies began to be given protection. There are particularly good examples from  Badari, where huge pots made of Nile clay have been found holding human remains. There is a magnificent pot burial on display at Bolton Museum.

Pot burial from Memphis with the bones of the deceased. S. 15813? Museo Egizio, Turin

Reed coffin: Reed coffins are exactly what the name suggests, they look like large lidded baskets but they were used during the Early Dynastic period to bury the dead (in the flexed position), just like the pot burials, providing the body with protection from scavengers.

Reed Coffin
Early Dynastic coffin made of woven reeds, from Tarkhan, Egypt. No.: 5470, Ancient Worlds, Manchester Museum

The first wooden coffins were used for elite burials, with the body still curled up, but by the end of the Old Kingdom, Egyptian coffins were looking more like, well, Egyptian coffins!

Box coffin: Box coffins are decorated non-anthropoid (human shaped) rectangular wooden coffins. These coffins were the first layer of protection for the mummy, and were often decorated with false doors (through which the soul could leave and enter), eyes (so the deceased could see out) and hieroglyphic inscriptions, including the deceased’s name and lists of food offerings.

box coffin
Wooden outer coffin of Khnum Nakht, from the ‘Tomb of the Two Brothers, Deir Rifa, Egypt. No.: 4725.a-b, Ancient Worlds, Manchester Museum

The Two Brothers have box coffins that acted as a receptacle for the anthropoid coffins.

Body / anthropoid coffin: This type of coffin first appeared in the Middle Kingdom, and as the name suggests, it is in the shape of a human body. The mummy is placed into this coffin, which in turn can be placed into a box coffins. The anthropoid coffin usually has a stylised, serene, young-looking face; and not only a receptacle for the body, these wooden vessels had the special function not only as a receptacle for the body, but could function as a substitute for the body. In the case of the two brothers the coffins have very similar decorations apart from the differences in false beards.

Anthropoid coffin
Wooden inner coffin of Khnum-Nakht. No.: 4740, Ancient Worlds, Manchester Museum

Nested coffins: During the New Kingdom, the burials of the very wealthiest people included multiple, nested coffins. These coffins are anthropoid in shape and sit one inside the other, like Russian dolls, our mummy Asru has two nested coffins.

Funerary assamblage of Djeddjehutyiuefankh, priest of Montu Lord of Thebes. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Most coffins of this type are made of wood – unless you are looking at the coffins of royalty where you see gilded wood or pure gold as in the case of the innermost coffin of Tutankhamun.

The coffins are typically decorated with hieroglyphics and traditional funerary scenes which represented the Egyptians views of the world.

Sarcophagus: Now this is a word you hear a lot when people talk about mummies, the thing is, not all Egyptian coffins are sarcophagi. This word comes from Greek, and translates literally as ‘flesh eating stone’, usually referring to a type of limestone thought to dissolve the body (and you thought my guide to mummification was gross!), therefore the term sarcophagus specifically refers to a coffin, either box or anthropoid in shape, that, importantly, is made from stone.

Granite sarcophagus of King Ramesses III from his tomb of the Valley of the Kings. Musee du Louvre, Paris

Sarcophagi date back to the Old Kingdom, and by the New Kingdom, anthropoid coffins would be placed inside the sarcophagus as a final layer of protection for the mummy. The sarcophagus would be covered in hieroglyphic inscriptions and depictions of the gods both inside and outside, and the anthropoid sarcophagi would have a portrait carved head of the person inside.

Mummy masks: Undoubtedly the mummy mask we are all most familiar with is the golden mask of Tutankhamun, these masks are usually idealised images of the person beneath. The use of gold on the masks represents the golden skin of the Gods also as gold doesn’t tarnish it was also associated with eternal life. Due to these beliefs gold was almost exclusively reserved for royalty and the higher nobility.

From Harry Burton’s photos of the Tomb of Tutankhamun, displayed at Museu Egipci, Barcelona

“In contradistinction to the general dark and sombre effect, due to these unguents, was a brilliant, one might say magnificent, burnished gold mask or similitude of the king … The beaten gold mask, a beautiful and unique specimen of ancient portraiture, bears a sad but calm expression suggestive of youth overtaken prematurely by death.” – Howard Carter

Those who couldn’t afford to have their masks made of solid gold had to make do with mask created from cartonnage. If you could afford it, you could have your mask gilded (by applying gold leaf) so your mask would also represent the skin of the Gods – at a slightly less extortionate cost.

Cartonnage: Now I mentioned ‘cartonnage’ just then, this is a term used to describe layers of papyrus, linen or other fibres that were plastered and moulded into a variety of shapes. when the cartonnage was dry it provided an even surface suitable for intricate decoration. There were a variety of uses for cartonnage including; mummy masks (which could then be guided or painted), slippers as seen in mummy 1770, and foot cases as seen on the two Roman mummies on display at Manchester Museum. This material was also used for mummy cases, which are often simply referred to as ‘Cartonnages’, these are typically the innermost coffins of elite burials, especially during the Third Intermediate Period.

Mummy and cartonnage case of the lady Meresamun. AN1960.1288, The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Faiyum portrait mummies: By the Roman Period of Egyptian history, coffins had lost their significance, and the mummy-shape was achieved by the use of resin and elaborately designed and constructed patterns of wrappings, but most recognisable by the very Roman-looking and individual portraits, rather than the stylised and idealised depictions of the Pharaonic period.

Portrait Mummy
‘Faiyum portrait mummy’, Ancient Worlds, Manchester Museum

There you have it, that’s coffins and such covered!

Stay tuned for the next instalment, where we find out where the Egyptians buried their dead … And I’ll let you into a secret – it’s not just pyramids!

Rebecca Horne

For more about Egyptology, please visit the Curator’s blogEgypt at the Manchester Museum.

More Egyptology posts from the Visitor Team:
Mother’s Day Special: How to make a Mummy
Being Human # 3: Experimental Archaeology – Egyptian Stone-working
Amelia B. Edwards – A Thousand Miles up the Nile
The Gods and Their Makers
Encountering Corpses


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