Coffin of Ramses II

By Nicholas Brown, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, University of California, Los Angeles.

Date: New Kingdom, 18th/19th Dynasties, ca. 1337-1213 BC

Provenance: Deir el-Bahari Royal Cache, TT320 

Excavated by E. Brugsch for the Antiquities Service, 1881

Material: Wood, Paint

Current Location: Egyptian Museum, Cairo, Egypt (CG 61020)

The coffin of Ramses II is one of the most-striking royal coffins discovered from ancient Egypt. Though stripped of its original embellishments, this late 18th Dynasty coffin is of the highest quality imported wood and was carefully reprocessed for the reburial of Ramses II at the end of the New Kingdom. The coffin and its occupant were discovered within the Royal Cache at Deir el-Bahari (TT320) in 1881. At first, Egyptologists believed that the cache was created in order to protect the burials of several New Kingdom pharaohs, their family members, and the High Priests of Amun. However, recent reanalysis of the archaeological and textual evidence paints a more nuanced-picture of the situation in ancient Thebes. At the end of the New Kingdom, the ruling powers of Thebes (the High Priests of Amun) had limited access to gold mines in the south and lacked the ability to import precious raw materials, like wood, from the north. This was caused by Egypt’s social, economic, and political instability at the time. As a result, the Royal Cache was the product of the High Priests of Amun’s systematic clearance of older tombs for these much-needed raw materials and gold. Yet, the whole operation was hidden under the guise of “restoring” and “protecting” the mummies of these pharaohs and their families, due to the rampant looting and theft of older tombs that was happening at the same time.

There are three texts written in hieratic on this coffin, which Egyptologists call dockets, or records of the official caching that list the contents of a coffin or mummy bundle. These dockets also attest to the various movements of a coffin and its occupant in antiquity before its final interment within the Deir el-Bahari cache. Painted in black ink on the lid of the coffin are two large cartouches, which give the nomen (the birth name) and prenomen (the throne name) of Ramses II. Underneath this are two additional texts written on the upper legs: the initial text is now heavily faded and partially erased and part of this inscription is overwritten by a later text. Lastly, there is the large, dated inscription at the back of the head on the lid. This text is quite visible and it is apparent that it was written while the coffin was laying on its back. It is from all three of these texts that Egyptologists can reconstruct the route that the mummy of Ramses II took from his initial resting place (KV7) to the Deir el-Bahari cache (TT320). Initially, Ramses II’s mummy was removed from his original tomb and moved to the tomb of his father, Seti I (KV17). The body of Ramses II remained in his father’s tomb for over 80 years before the KV17 cache was moved to the tomb of Ahmose-Inhapi. This latter tomb was used as a hidden cache for just over 40 years before the mummies’ final transfer to the Royal Cache at TT320 in year 11 of Shoshenq II’s reign.

The king is depicted wearing a nemes headdress and is shown with crossed arms that carry a crook and flail, the latter which have decorative details painted on in red and blue paint. The headdress along with the emblems he holds are all insignia meant to emphasize the deceased’s identity as king of Egypt. However, the king is also shown wearing a braided beard with a curved end, the so called “divine beard.” This beard is often associated with the god Osiris, the Lord of the Underworld, and here it is used to show the deceased king as transfigured into a deified being in the afterlife.

On the front of the nemes headdress, a wooden ureaus (cobra) is attached. The uraeus traditionally represents the goddess Wadjet, who is at the king’s brow ready to strike anyone who should do potential harm to him. On the coffin of Ramses II, it is quite obvious that this uraeus was modified in antiquity. Not only is it off center in its current state, but there are remains of covered and plastered-over dowel holes on the left and right sides of the cobra. Additionally, the old cobra tail maintained the same position and is off-set and detached from the newly added wooden uraeus. This suggests that there was originally a dual vulture-cobra motif at the king’s brow, and it was likely made of gold and inlaid with costly materials, as on Tutankhamun’s coffins or funerary mask, or from other royal burial equipment of the 18th and 19th Dynasties. If so, this was probably taken along with the gold covering of the coffin’s surface, when it, like most of the other royal coffins from the Royal Cache, was stripped and remodeled for the reburial of Ramses II.

It is fairly certain to Egyptologists that this coffin was not the original burial-container of Ramses II. The coffin employed for the reburial of Ramses II’s mummy is likely a late 18th Dynasty royal coffin that was re-processed and re-used for the king’s burial at the end of the New Kingdom. Based on similar facial characteristics in three-dimensional portraiture, scholars have suggested that this coffin originally belonged to Horemheb, the last ruler of the 18th Dynasty. What is certain is the elongated, triangular face of this coffin is Amarna or post-Amarna in style, with some of the facial characteristics painted on, including high-relief eyebrows and eyes with inner-sloping canthi.

The Coffin of Ramses II was part of the University of California, Los Angeles Coffins Project at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The project was directed by Kara Cooney and supported with funding from ARCE's AEF grant.

Model courtesy of David Anderson, Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse (www.sketchfab.com/danderson4 and www.uwlax.edu/archaeology).