At some point in the last decade of the 19th century a Doctor R H Plummer, Professor of Anatomy at the oldest medical college in the Western United States, traveled to Egypt and bought himself a mummy case along with its occupant. When he returned home to San
Francisco, Dr Plummer gave the coffin to the museum of his university, the Cooper Medical College. He mentioned having recently acquired his donation from Thebes in a commencement speech he gave to the class of 1891. (Plummer,1892, 5) The mummy “lived” through the great quake of 1906 and when the college was merged with Stanford University in 1912, it went to Stanford.
The coffin strikes any viewer who has seen several of this type of coffin as looking very odd, and the placard at the Cantor Museum explains why: over eighty percent of the lid was estimated by the conservators to have been repainted in modern times. This “remuddling” is said to have been to make the decor more appealing to modern tastes, but the rationale for this isn’t explained. I am curious as to who the owner was, and what the original looked like. In order to make a guess as to its original appearance, we need to look at the style of the coffin and exactly what was repainted and recarved in modern times.
Before we get too far, a bit of technical background: I know this is probably a 21st or early 22nd dynasty piece because of the decorative scheme and colours. In the typical coffin of Dynasty 21, the surface of the case was divided into panels, and within each of these is drawn a vignette. The images were outlined usually in red, and coloured with blue, green, red and sometimes white or black paint. The ground can be white or yellow, and the whole coffin was then slathered in a heavy coat of varnish which turned yellow over time, distorting all the
colours beneath. This yellow colouring is distinctive in these coffins and is, of course, what gives them their nickname. We can tell a little about the coffin’s owner by looking at it: we know it belonged to a woman, because although her name isn’t preserved, her titles are on the feet: She was a Chantress of Amun and Lady of the House. We also know that she did not belong to the upper echelons of society because the texts are garbled and the rendering of the vignettes is fairly crude. She was of middle class.
As the twenty-first dynasty progressed, the layout of the decoration on the yellow coffins began to gradually change: The collar got lower and lower until it covered the belly. The arms, carved into the lid of the coffin at the beginning of the Dynasty vanish entirely by its end, their presence only hinted by elbow-notches in the side of the lid. The coffins began to exhibit a phenomenon called “Horror Vacui”: the decoration gets more and more busy and dense until almost every empty space has to have some religious motif or lucky symbol stuffed into it. (Niwinski, 1988, 66)
The yellow coffin seemed to go out of style in the early 22nd Dynasty, but was in vogue for a good 150 years. Thanks to this longevity and some spectacular (and spectacularly poorly documented) discoveries of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these coffins are common in museums from Latvia to Australia…and of course Palo Alto.
Now that you have a background on 21st Dynasty Coffin typology, let’s look at the Stanford Coffin. The lid decoration corresponds with Niwinski’s type V. (Niwinski, 1988, pp68) The collar drops to the belly, the waist and thighs are covered with horizontal scenes, and the area below the legs is divided into vertical panels. The sides are Type C: They’re comprised of long horizontal vignettes, but there aren’t many vertical columns of text to divide these up. (Niwinski, 1988, pp 89) . By using Niwinski’s typology which compares layouts with each other and the fairly rare dated examples we can roughly date this coffin to between the reigns of Amenemopet and Sheshonq I–the last third of the 21st Dynasty and the first few years of the 22nd.
There are some elements of the coffin that are decidedly NOT 21st dynasty. The first thing that strikes the viewer as odd are the weird 3D bangs and the “roadkill vulture” headdress: The vulture headdress is fairly common on late 21st dynasty female coffins of the middle class, but only seems to be used for royal women in the earlier part of the dynasty. (van Walsem, 1997, 113) This vulture, though, makes no sense. The tips of the wings are lower than where the ears would be, overlapping the hair ties on each lappet of the wig. Between the wings and the cheeks and over the top of the head is an area of black spots on a white ground. One might expect this patterning on a small semi-
circular area of the top of the forehead indicating the body-feathers of the bird, but here it’s interspersed with radiating lines as if to depict more wing feathers. Compare the Stanford coffin to Inv. 51.2094/1 and Inv. 51.2095/1 in Budapest which would have belonged to ladies of a similar social class and which were probably created in the same time period as the Stanford coffin. (Liptay, 2011,91-93)
The whole effect is one of the decoration having been ripped out of catalogues and mod-podged on the case. It’s pretty clear some remodeling has been done on the top of the head, too. On the forehead, there seems to be a circlet of lotus flowers which would be typical of the 21st dynasty. It looks like a good part of the front of the wig at cheek level and over the top of the head has been carved away making the wig oddly flat in front and leaving the umbrella-like bangs. Originally, there would have been no sharp angles here, and the wig would have smoothly curved over the forehead. Our lady would not have had ears as these were not rendered on female coffins, (van Walsem, 1997, 113) but she might have had round disk-shaped earrings poking out of her wig. These would have been in the area carved away.
The other detail which immediately strikes a viewer is the pendant of a disk on a beaded strap that rests between the hands, and the decidedly un-Egyptian abstract decoration between the chains of this necklace–it looks almost like a 19th century interpretation of a Native American adornment! What is intriguing though, is that in this spot on some
other type V coffins, there is often a “stola”: a painted representation of a leather ribbon wrapping around the neck and crossing on the breast below the lappets of the wig. This “stola” is an element that can be used to date yellow coffins in the later part of the 21st Dynasty. It doesn’t appear at the beginning of the dynasty, but persists after the yellow coffin goes out of fashion in the early 22nd.
The decoration below the collar seems fairly original. The figures and glyphs are oddly smudged and blurry. Glyphs that were once green and blue now look like two very close shades of blue, and the red outlines and glyphs are often nearly invisible. One wonders if someone didn’t give the lid an ill-advised modern varnish-job at some point.
So, what did the Stanford Coffin originally look like? We know this coffin dates to the period between Amenemope and Sheshonq III because of the typology of the relatively unaltered part of the coffin below the waist. Both the obvious alterations take place in areas where decoration peculiar to the late 21st dynasty would have occurred. So the question arises: how did the person who remuddled the coffin
know that the vulture headdress and necklace were appropriate decorations for this type of coffin? If he or she knew so much, how did they not know how the vulture headdress or necklace was supposed to look? Perhaps they did know the decoration was incorrect and wanted to create something unique for a higher price. Perhaps the placement of the headdress and necklace are pure coincidence, the artist having seen another coffin in the past and recreated the impression through memory. Perhaps the artist saw a bad drawing of this sort of coffin in a book, and misinterpreting the iconography, reproduced it on a newly discovered coffin which happened to be of the same type.
It is tempting to speculate, though, that maybe the person altering the coffin knew that it ought to have a necklace-like element in the stola area and a vulture headdress because it originally had both.
At some point, I’ll go back and have a look for remnants of a stola and of an original vulture headdress, and I’ll see if I can contact one of the conservators at Stanford. I’d eventually like to put a full iconographical description of the coffin up here, but we shall see if I get the time. I also realize that van Walsem covers stola type coffins in much more detail, so I’d like to revisit this coffin using his typology when I’ve read his work in more detail.