Skip to main content

Coffins workshop in Cairo

02 Jul 2019

Melanie Pitkin

Between 15-22nd June, six members of the Fitzwilliam Egyptian coffins team travelled to Cairo to undertake the second phase of a knowledge transfer project (generously funded by a grant from the Global Challenges Research Fund) to work with curators and conservators at the Egyptian Museum Cairo on their internationally significant collection of ancient Egyptian coffins (for phase one of the project, see here). The members of the team were Helen Strudwick, Julie Dawson, Geoffrey Killen, Elsbeth Geldhof, Daniel Pett and Melanie Pitkin. This phase of the project focused on the successful delivery of a 4-day coffin making workshop where 27 participants from the Egyptian Museum Cairo had the opportunity to learn (in a very hands-on fashion!) aspects of ancient Egyptian woodworking, painting, coffin identification and methods for their interpetation and analysis.

Day 1 of the workshop was themed ‘Building Coffins’ and commenced with an introductory overview to the objectives of the workshop by coffin project leads, Helen Strudwick and Julie Dawson. This was followed by a short presentation delivered by Julie on ‘Techniques for examining and identifying coffin construction - a brief introduction’, which acquainted participants with the different types of imaging techniques (for example, Computed Tomography/CT scanning and X-radiography) and how they can be useful in coffin studies. Local Professor of Conservation at Cairo University, Nesrin El-Hadidi, also gave a talk on the different properties and characterstics of wood used in ancient Egyptian coffins, before Dr Geoffrey (Geoff) Killen, expert in ancient Egyptian woodworking, led the remainder of the day by focusing specifically on woodworking and construction techniques.

Geoff opened with an illustrated lecture supported by practical demonstrations on the different types of tools, tool marks and joints used in ancient Egyptian carpentry (the craft replica tools used in this workshop were made by a local Egyptian craftsman to Geoff’s drawings and specifications). This included clear examples of coffins from the Fitzwilliam Museum’s collection, which offered a way of training the workshop participants’ eyes in knowing what to look for when examining different coffins. But, the pièce de résistance to the first day was the opportunity for participants to put on their goggles, roll up their sleeves and try using some of the tools for themselves! This highlighted just how much elbow grease was required for some tools, while others required much less effort than expected (particularly in the case of the bow drill). We also rotated this activity with the opportunity to walk through the Museum’s galleries where we looked at some coffins firsthand.

Day 2 was themed ‘Decorating Coffins’. Julie Dawson delivered the opening lecture ‘Techniques for examining and analysing decorated surfaces on coffins: a brief introduction’ before Elsbeth Geldhof, specialist in historical painting techniques, delivered a similar series of tandem lectures and practical demonstrations, which concentrated on building decorated surfaces and preparing and making replica pigments, pens and brushes. In fact, participants revelled in creating their own designs on small blocks of wood coated with animal glue, linen and calcite paste using pens and brushes they had made themselves. As you will see from the images below, some people enjoyed writing hieroglyphic text, drawing motifs such as the Eye of Horus or just experimenting with different strokes and patterns. There was also an opportunity to learn how to make ancient varnish using heated pistacia resin.

Day 3 focused on the role digital technology can play in coffin studies. Workshop participants were captivated by Daniel Pett’s session on photogrammetry where they learned how to create their own digital 3D model of a Late Period bronze ibis figure. Running in parallel to this was a session in Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) delivered by Elsbeth Geldhof.

The final day of the workshop brought together everything participants had learned about coffin construction and decoration, alongside more traditional curatorial approaches to studying coffins (namely - through hieroglyphic translation and examination of the iconography) to provide a holistic way of looking at coffins in a museum context. This included a checklist for curators and conservators which encouraged them to think about the different types of questions they should be asking when first encountering a coffin. There was also a group exercise where participants studied a number of coffins housed in the Egyptian Museum’s conservation workroom. The event concluded with an informal quiz and award presentation ceremony.

A very special treat which also took place during the workshop was an afternoon reception at the British Embassy at the generous invitation of the British Ambassador to Egypt, Sir Geoffrey Adams. Workshop participants and organisers received a special guided tour of the premises, some light refreshments and the opportunity for a group photo under a rather blazing hot, Egyptian summer sun!

The team would like to thank the Egyptian Museum Cairo and the Global Challenges Research Fund for helping to make this workshop possible, especially Mrs Sabah Abdelraziq, Director of the Egyptian Museum Cairo and Dr Moaman Othmann, Head of Conservation, Egyptian Museum Cairo. We would also like to extend special thanks to Professor Nesrin El-Hadidy, Professor of Conservation at Cairo University, Dr Mai Rifai, Assistant Professor of Conservation at Cairo University and Dr Nour Badr, Conservator at the Grand Egyptian Museum for helping to organise and oversee the production of the replica tools and source many authentic materials for the painting activity.

Created: 02 Jul 2019 Category: news GCRF Cairo Egyptian Museum coffins workshop training professional development knowledge transfer capacity building

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on LinkedIn
University of Cambridge logo The British Academy Logo Isaac Newton Trust logo GCRF Logo Leverhulme Trust logo
University of Cambridge Museums logo Designation scheme Logo Accredited Museum status logo Cambridge City Council Logo Arts Council England Logo Research England logo