By Kathlyn M. Cooney, UCLA
For most of its history, Egyptology has looked upon tomb robbery and funerary arts reuse as aberrant, regressive and abnormal. Documents like the Tomb Robbery Papyri have reinforced that mindset. In their own literature, the Egyptians themselves repeatedly describe the ideal burial situation as a stone house in which the ancestors reside for eternity, supported by income-producing lands set aside in an endowment to pay for priests and provisions in perpetuity. My current research on coffins of the 19th to 22nd dynasties is attempting to normalize the recommodification of funerary arts – at least during times of crisis – as a creative negotiation that prioritized the coffin’s value of ritual over the value of perpetual use. Over the years of this project, I have built a case – based on dispute texts about tombs and tomb goods, tomb inventories, late Ramesside letters, and almost 300 coffins – that Theban families engaged in the systematic reuse of funerary objects. Much of this evidence suggests that West Theban families recommodified older funerary objects from their own family tombs.
I am currently working my way through many of the 800 or so 21st-dynasty coffins spread about the globe, and I have been startled to find that around 65 percent of the 20th and 21st-dynasty coffins examined thus far show evidence of reuse. The reuse of funerary arts represented a spectrum of possible appropriative actions. Some coffin reusers inscribed a new name. Others redecorated parts of the coffin lid. Others went further and redecorated all surfaces, over the old plaster and paint. Some went the extra step to scrub away the old plaster and paint before starting new decoration, but they retained the old modeling in the wood. Some, I suspect, scrubbed the coffin down, dismantled it and started a new coffin from scratch, using only the wood and thus giving away no trace of an older coffin visible except by means of further scientific examination.
When we are confronted with the reuse of funerary arts, it may seem a troubling practice – morally and emotionally. We are left wondering if such activities were disconcerting for the ancient Egyptians as well. How and why could human beings be capable of taking from the dead to serve the living? How could they be capable of erasing the names of ancestors so that the freshly dead’s name could be put in its place and how could they display the dead in a coffin that everyone could see was produced a generation before its time?
Funerary reuse essentially involves the reappropriation of ideologically charged objects, and in the case of 20th- and 22nd-dynasty coffins, this reuse occurred in the context of an economic and social crisis. It is always best to get an explanation from the source community itself, but the Egyptians did not directly communicate how they justified or negotiated monument reuse and appropriation. They only openly discussed the practice of reuse in very negative terms – like the Tomb Robbery Papyri that document the torture and interrogation of men accused of stealing coffins or reusing temple wood to make coffins or as we see in tomb curses which condemn anyone who harms the monument to a horrible end.
A coffin was essentially meant to make a functional link between the thing and the person – to transform the dead into an eternal Osirian and solar version of him or herself. The coffin was believed the ritually activate the dead. Thus, the wood, paint and plaster were meant to provide an inviolable, idealized, permanent depiction of the person inside. This fetishization is why coffin reuse is so disturbing to us. These objects have faces and hands and feet, and thus they are seen to be human. The ritual spells inscribed on the surface imply that the human stakes were very high: nothing less than providing an eternal afterlife for the dead. Thus, removing a body from the inside and redecorating it for another seems profoundly wrong to us – because we have created an inherent value for that object.
However, during the 21st dynasty (and probably during many other time periods of crisis), the Egyptians were able to de-fetishize these objects for recommodification. They were able to separate the coffin from the essence of one dead body and modify it for another in need of immediate transformation within that materiality. It is difficult to understand how the ancient Egyptians were able to break the link between the person and this sacred thing. I suspect there were magical spells and rituals involved to keep the dead at peace before and after they were removed from the container, but the Egyptians did not leave any such information preserved for us.
The motivation to acquire a coffin seems to have been so great that reuse rates skyrocket in the 21st dynasty as access to resources, particularly wood, plummets. Much of this reuse was ideologically driven. The dead were thought to need ritual transformation, and the elite Egyptian mindset demanded materiality to create that transformation through a complicated set of funerary rituals that included the Opening of the Mouth ceremony. But the reuse was also economically driven. Access to high-quality wood from native tree cultivation of acacia and sycomore fig or from the Lebanon was impossible, and people had to look elsewhere for this most basic coffin resource. Social drivers for reuse are also apparent. Funerary rituals took place in a public or semi-public forum, inviting an intertwined socioeconomic agenda. Elite families of the dead wanted to display their social place to the world, and they needed funerary materiality to do it.
Some Egyptologists may consider coffin reuse to have been an immoral crime that happened rarely, but the ancient Egyptians may have considered the non-performance of ritual transformation for those who had just died to be an egregious cultural and social failure. Coffin reuse was thus a creative negotiation of this economic-social-religious crisis. In other words, it was not the reuse of a coffin that was aberrant; if anything was aberrant, it would have been refusing to provide the recently deceased with transformative ritual activity by means of materiality just because there was no access to wood that had not been previously used.
This article is adapted from one that appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of the ARCE Bulletin.
Header image: Coffin of the Lady of the House, Weretwahset, Reinscribed for Bensuipet Containing Face Mask and Openwork Body Covering, ca. 1292-1190 BCE. Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund