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THE MUMMY AND COFFIN OF MERESAMUN

Egypt
Third Intermediate Period
Dynasty 22, ca. 950 B.C.
Cartonnage, Human remains
160 cm H, ca. 40 cm W
Purchased in Egypt, 1920
OIM 10797

The mummy and coffin of Meresamun are excellent examples of the skill of the ancient embalmer and coffin maker of Dynasty 22, about the year 950 B.C. The mummy and coffin were purchased in Egypt by James Henry Breasted, the founder of the Oriental Institute, in 1920. Where Meresamun lived and died is unknown, although the style of the coffin suggests that she was originally from the Theban (modern Luxor) area.

Meresamun's form-fitting sheath-like coffin is made of cartonnage, a type of papiér-mâché, composed of layers of fabric, glue and plaster. It is 63 inches (1.6m) long. Cartonnage coffins were formed over a temporary inner core made of mud and straw. After the coffin shell was completed, the wrapped mummy was inserted into the case through the back, and the back seam was then laced up. The separate footboard was laced on, the entire case covered with another layer of thin white plaster and then painted. The colored areas of the coffin were painted with a final layer of protective varnish which has turned slightly yellow with age.

This type of mummy case was normally part of a more complex set of coffins. It would probably have been placed within a wooden anthropoid (human-shaped) coffin, or even in a series of two or three nested coffins, all of which would have been painted with religious scenes.

The Decoration of the Coffin

The coffin is painted with scenes which allude to life after death. They were intended to ensure Meresamun's successful rebirth. The head of the coffin is decorated with a headband of flower petals with wings of a protective vulture by each cheek, and a small vulture head on the forehead. This type of headgear is worn by queens, priestesses and goddesses. Over the chest are layers of wide floral necklaces. Not only were flowers beautiful and sweet smelling, but they were considered to symbolize regeneration.

Below the floral collars, right and left, are two pairs of gods who were entrusted with the protection of the internal organs that were removed during the mummification process. These gods also appear on the lids of canopic jars, the containers in which the embalmed viscera were stored. Here the gods appear as wrapped mummies. To the right are the hawk-headed god, Quebehsenuef, who guarded the intestines, and the jackal-headed Duamutef, who guarded the stomach. To the left is the human-form Imseti, who guarded the liver, and the ape-headed Hapy, who guarded the lungs.

Between and slightly below these gods is a large representation of the falcon god Horus (or, perhaps, Re), with the sun's disk on his head, clasping a round shen ("eternity") sign in each talon. A feather fan, a symbol of divinity emerges from each shen sign. The solar Horus, as a symbol of the eternally reborn sun, signified rebirth.

On either side of the central band on the leg area of the coffin are wedjat eyes, also called the "Eye of Horus," which symbolized health and regeneration. Behind the eyes are winged serpents with sun disks on their heads. They symbolized protection. The serpent to the right hovers above the hieroglyphs for eternity, life and dominion. Below the serpents are rams which functioned on several different levels. They may be a pun for the word "soul" (both the word "soul" and "ram" sounded the same in the ancient Egyptian language). The ram may also be the god Khnum, one of the primary creator gods, or Banebdjed, who was associated with the soul of Osiris, one of the deities of the Afterlife.

Larger scale hieroglyphs cover the lower leg area. To the far right is the symbol for the west, the area of the setting-or dying-sun, which was associated with the land of the deceased. Between that sign and the central band of hieroglyphs is the djed pillar, which symbolized the backbone of the god Osiris, the main deity of the Afterlife. The djed indicates the deceased's association with Osiris in the Afterlife.

On the opposite side of the central band of hieroglyphs is the tiet (so-called "Isis knot"), a symbol with broad meaning, generally associated with health and well-being. To the left of the tiet is the symbol for the east, the realm of the reborn sun, hence the land of the living. It is paired with the djed, the symbol of the god Osiris, the husband/brother of Isis, to create a balanced composition.

Two images of the jackal god Wepwawet, protector of the necropolis, decorate the upper surface of the feet. The footboard of the coffin is decorated with a leaping bull, a symbol of fertility.

The inscription down the front of the coffin is a prayer which calls upon gods to give Meresamun offerings in the Afterlife: "A gift which the king gives to Re-Horakhty-Atum, Lord of the Two Lands and Heliopolis [and to] Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, Lord of Shechet, and Wennefer (a form of Osiris), Lord of the Sacred Land (ie: the Necropolis), the Great God, Lord of Heaven that he [the king] may give funerary offerings to the Osiris, the Singer in the Interior of the Temple of Amun, Meresamun, the One Beneficial to Amun, justified."

Who was Meresamun?

Both the inscription and the style of coffin indicate that it was made for a woman named Meresamun ("Amun Loves Her"). According to the inscription, she held the title "Singer in the Interior of the Temple of Amun." Women who held this title were the elite in a complex bureaucracy of many other women who held the title "Singer in the Temple of Amun." We assume that these other women performed music during certain temple rituals on a part-time basis. In contrast, many of the women like Meresamun, who held the more exalted title "Singer in the Interior of the Temple," were known to come from the finest families of Thebes. Some of them served as valets or stewards to members of the ruling family. It is not known exactly when Meresamun lived, and so we do not know which royal administration she may have served.

The coffin has never been opened and the mummy has never been unwrapped. In 1989, a preliminary study of the mummy within the coffin was done with x-rays. Three years later, the mummy of Meresamun was examined at the University of Chicago hospitals by CT scans (computed tomography or "CAT").

During that study, the radiologist suggested that, on the basis of her teeth and bones, Meresamun may have been about 30 years old at the time of her death. This was not considered to be an old age for an upper class woman of the period; however we do not know the cause of Meresamun's premature death. Radiologists could also determine that she had, at some point in her life, been injured, for her left jaw (fig.4) and left arm had been fractured. However, those injuries were completely healed at the time of her death. A swelling on her neck may be a goiter or tumor, however this cannot with any certainty be associated with her death. A preliminary study of the CT scans suggest that Meresamun never bore children. This finding is not necessarily associated with her role in the temple bureaucracy, for other Singers in the Interior of the Temple of Amun were known to have born children.

Meresamun was slightly under five feet tall.

The Style of Mummification

During the CT examination, researchers learned much more about the way that Meresamun was mummified. As was normal for mummification during most of Egypt's history, the brain was removed by breaking through the ethmoid sinus behind the nose. No material was introduced into the cranium (fig.2). CT scans show that small objects, perhaps oval stones or pieces of faience, were placed under each eyelid to restore a fuller, lifelike appearance (fig.4).

Meresamun was mummified with her arms extended, her hands crossed over her pubic area. The embalming incision was made on her left abdomen to remove her internal organs (fig.3). A considerable amount of fabric was stuffed into the embalming incision, and packets of some unidentified material were inserted directly into the abdomen. Her fingers and arms were encircled with linen bandages before they were wrapped close to her body. This extra effort and lavish use of wrappings is a sign of a superior mummification process, suggesting that Meresamun came from a family that could devote considerable resources to her funeral arrangements. The heart, which was often left in the chest during mummification because it was considered to be the seat of thought, is not visible on the CT scans. No amulets or jewelry were left within the wrappings.



Written by Emily Teeter, Ph.D. Assistant Curator, The Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago, 1995.

Photograph by Jean Grant. CT images and digital radiographs courtesy of the University of Chicago Hospitals.



Suggestions for Further Reading

Carol Andrews, Egyptian Mummies (Cambridge, 1984).

James E. Harris and Edward F. Wente, An X-Ray Atlas of the Royal Mummies (Chicago, 1980).

Richard Wilkinson, Reading Egyptian Art (New York, 1992).


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Revised: November 12, 1997
Copyright 2006 Oriental Institute, University of Chicago
http://oi.uchicago.edu