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Coffins in Context Conference 20 – 24 February 2024 by Sara Abed

4 minutes to read

Author: Sara Abed

I was involved with ‘Coffins in Context’ conference for a while before it started, helping with the organisation and logistics, but the more I got involved the more I was curious to participate and attend the sessions.

The reason for my curiosity doesn’t only go back to being Egyptian myself and my interest in learning more about my history, but also because I have been part of the Egyptian Coffins Project at The Fitzwilliam Museum since 2019, working with Helen Strudwick, Julie Dawson, Melanie Pitkin (now in Sydney) and the rest of the team. Through this project, which started in 2014, I have been exposed to the extensive research they have been carrying out and we have been exploring ways to engage the wider audience in the UK and Egypt with it. After a couple of years of doing pop-ups all around Egypt, and recently with a focus on Egyptian expats in the UK, I realised that coffins are more than just funerary objects to see in a museum and I understood there is so much we can learn about various aspects of life from them. And this paved the way to attending my very first Egyptology conference.

Despite being involved in the organisational bit of it, I was lucky enough to be able to attend most of the talks, listen to the intriguing discussions and have some interesting chats with presenters who came from different museums and research institutions around the world.

As much as my mind was filled with a lot of information, some of which was quite new to me, I was also left with endless questions about the way we look at coffins, how they are dated, the significance of the materials they are made of, how they reflect the social status of the dead person, the impact religion might have had on the making process, and many more questions that left me my mind whirling with coffins of all sorts!

I think I still need some time to digest the rich content of the presented papers and to discuss and read more, but what I am sure of is that it has changed forever the way I look at funerary objects, the making, significance and associated rituals. It very much seems like the more research is done, the more they reveal their stories, their journey from a planted tree to the hands of workers, to the making process, to being used, to sometimes being re-used, to the burial place and circumstances, to excavation, to conservation, to deciphering, to acquisition and ending up in a museum or a storeroom. It’s about the fore-life/ life / afterlife of a coffin, both metaphorically and literally.

Hence, it was very important to hear how the participants think about future research, and how challenges should be acknowledged and addressed, how interdisciplinary approach is encouraged, and an innovative, outside-the-box approach, or shall I say outside the coffin, is supported.

One of the key things Helen and Julie are always very keen on, and I certainly agree, is the importance of the involvement of Egyptian researchers. In my opinion, if we are to really address notions of decolonisation of Egyptology and museums then we ought to think that the most crucial part of decolonizing is inclusiveness, accessibility and exchange of research between Egyptian researchers and researchers in the rest of the world. It is very important not only to acknowledge the role of Egyptian Egyptologists and conservators, but also to address the challenges and encourage more collaborative research projects and studies. Another approach is, I believe, studying ancient Egyptian within a local context as I think it would also affect not only the way it is interpreted but also it would provide a deeper understanding of the continuity of ancient Egypt into modern Egypt. It would not only respond to notions of decolonisation, but it would also contribute to completing the missing pieces of the puzzle as everyone adds something of their experience, knowledge, and research.

One of the things I realised that added to the success of the conference was having a large number of speakers, attendees and students present in person, which always allows more exchange, discussions, opportunities for collaboration and networking. Yet, it was also very helpful to keep the hybrid option available, as well as making recordings of presentations available online. This allowed more people to be included, especially since travelling to conferences can be challenging for the simple reasons of acquiring visas, funding difficulties or simply personal inconveniences that can stop participants from joining in person.

Finally, I think the Coffins in Context conference not only succeeded as a conference connecting people and displaying different aspects of research, but it also maintained diversity, inclusiveness, exchange, decolonizing, communication, accessibility, opportunity and certainly broke the silence of death in ancient Egypt and very much brought it to life!

On a personal level, I consider the ‘Coffins in Context’ conference a turning point in my informal archeological education exploring the fun and fascinating world of coffins in ancient Egypt.

Enjoying tea after the conference with colleagues from Egypt

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