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Melanie Pitkin reports on her visit to Cairo and Mansoura

19 Oct 2018

Melanie Pitkin

Between 9-18th October, I travelled to Egypt with the support of a Marlay Travel Grant to share the latest research for the Fitzwilliam Museum’s Egyptian Coffins Project and soft launch the project’s new online resource. Particular focus was placed on the findings of two coffin sets from the Museum’s collection - the 21st Dynasty yellow coffin set of Nespawershefyt and the 25th Dynasty coffin set of Pakepu, in order to highlight the types of discoveries that we have made by taking a collaborative and interdisciplinary approach to the study of ancient Egyptian coffins. That is, one that brings together advanced imaging techniques, such as Computed Tomography (CT) scanning and X-radiography, with a range of subject specialists, including Egyptologists, conservators, a pigment specialist, an expert in ancient woodworking techniques, an expert in historical painting techniques and a consultant radiologist.

The coffin sets of Nespawershefyt and Pakepu were selected as focal points for this particular outreach initiative for several reasons. Firstly, the coffin set of Nespawershefyt survives as perhaps one of the best-known examples of a 21st Dynasty yellow coffin set. It was also among the very first ancient Egyptian objects to be acquired by the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1822. The coffin set of Pakepu, on the other hand, comprises a very unique inner coffin which bears an unusual cartonnage-like decorative layer adhered to the wooden carcass. While similar coffins are known, the detailed technology of this material had not been investigated prior to the current project. We are calling this type of a coffin a ‘pseudo-cartonnage’.

During my visit, I presented five lectures in Cairo and Mansoura*, reaching more than 300 people, including students of Egyptology, Museum Studies, Conservation and Tourism Studies, University lecturers, colleagues at foreign institutes (NVIC and The Amarna Project) and staff from the Ministry of Antiquities, the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization (NMEC), the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) and the Egyptian Museum Cairo, among others. A breakdown of these lectures appear as follows:

Venue Date Number of attendees
Egypt Exploration Society, British Council 11/10/2018 40
Mansoura University 15/10/2018 (2 lectures - all day event) 170
Helwan University 16/10/2018 70
Egyptian Museum Cairo 17/10/2018 30

The lectures and soft launch of the new online resource (which, at the time of my visit, was an advanced work-in-progress) were enthusiastically received. There was great interest in our interdisciplinary research methodologies which triggered peoples’ interest in seeing and thinking about the ancient Egyptian coffins that they work with in completely different ways. Coffin studies is an area that has been growing in popularity in recent years and, at least anecdotally, continues to be a subject of many Egyptian Masters and PhD theses. Subsequently, a number of students took great interest in finding out more about our approach to describing coffins and their iconography, particularly in regard to terminology, and modes of presentation, and how they can feed this more traditional, one dimensional approach to coffin studies into the wider context of coffin production, the funerary industry and attitudes to the afterlife. We certainly hope the contents of our online resource will serve as a new model to other scholars’ research. While the transparency and accessibility of our research, including imaging data, was also greatly appreciated, there was some rather expressive feedback about the need for free high resolution imaging for publication purposes - an issue which extends beyond this project and is very much at the behest of institutional policy. Many people also questioned the future of the project and the potential to expand it to other coffin collections housed internationally. While there is indeed scope for this, it is funding dependent, so in the interim our focus is to continue making our research on the Fitzwilliam Museum’s Egyptian coffins collection available online and free for all.

A particular highlight of the trip was my time spent at Mansoura University and I would like to my extend heartfelt thanks to everyone who facilitated my visit, especially Professor Ashraf Suweilem, Dr Ayman Wahby, Dr Maha Al-Sejaini, Dr Nehal Kamal and Dr Randa Baligh. I felt very humbled by the reception I was given here and thoroughly enjoyed delivering two lectures (with an Arabic translation made possible by Dr Baligh), on the Fitzwilliam Museum’s coffins research and an aspect of my PhD thesis on the art of stelae in the First Intermediate Period. The impact of these lectures have been profound, and I continue to be contacted by students seeking advice for their own research projects and how they can become better researchers.

Finally, the trip provided an opportunity to publicise the Museum’s latest publication - ‘How to make an Egyptian Coffin. The construction and decoration of Nespawershefyt’s coffin set’ written by the Museum’s Head of Conservation, Julie Dawson. Complimentary copies were distributed amongst University libraries and Departments, as well as individual researchers, but it is planned to make the book freely available online as a PDF some time in the New Year. Further copies will be distributed to other institutions in Cairo, Minya, Luxor and Aswan in the coming months.

Cairo and Mansoura were the only venues for this particular trip owing to budget constraints.

Created: 19 Oct 2018 Category: news cairo coffins mansoura

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