RMO joins mummy case research project

16 November 2011

Gawtseshen's mummy case during examination at the National Museum of Antiquities (RMO).Gawtseshen's mummy case during examination at the National Museum of Antiquities (RMO).
Gawtseshen's mummy case during examination at the National Museum of Antiquities (RMO).Gawtseshen's mummy case during examination at the National Museum of Antiquities (RMO).
Gawtseshen's mummy case on a picture from 1916.Gawtseshen's mummy case on a picture from 1916.

This week, the National Museum of Antiquities signed a contract in Vatican City and officially became a participant in the Vatican Coffin Project, an international research project of the Vatican Museums. Other participants include the Louvre. The project is focused on a collection of wooden Egyptian mummy cases from 1069 to 945 BC, the twilight of ancient Egyptian civilization.

Research into the original colours

The cases form a coherent group, all painted in a colourful, detailed style. By studying the layers and varieties of paint and the painting techniques, researchers hope to determine the exact origins and initial appearance of the mummy cases. Most of the cases are now in poor condition, with flaking paint and fading colours. The research data from the Vatican Coffin Project will ultimately give us the information needed to restore them according to the latest scientific methods.

An initiative of the Vatican Museums

The Vatican Museums' department of Egyptian and Oriental antiquities launched the Vatican Coffin Project in 2008 with mummy cases from their own collection. Now that the RMO is participating, four new sets have been added to that group. The research involves outer and inner coffins and mummy boards. Multidisciplinary teams of scholars are examining the painted cases with the aid of modern laboratory techniques such as chromatography and spectrometry. The latter technique makes it possible to analyze individual paint layers separately and reconstruct the original colours. The researchers are also investigating the pigments and painting techniques used. This will enable them to recognize the styles of individual artists, identify the workshops where the cases were made, and determine how they were restored in the past.

Egyptian priests

Most of the mummy cases being examined come from Bab el-Gasus, an underground storage site in Thebes. In total, 153 sets of coffins from the period 1069-945 BC have been found. This was a time of political instability in ancient Egypt, full of turmoil and power struggles. The high priests of Amon in Thebes were gradually becoming more powerful. They brought the mummies of deceased priests and their grave goods to safety in the dark underground passages of Bab el-Gasus. The wooden cases were lavishly decorated, so that despite the simplicity of their tombs the priests could take a wealth of symbolism and spells with them into the hereafter. In the late nineteenth century, the Egyptian authorities divided the cases from Bab el-Gasus among seventeen friendly countries, including the Netherlands, France, and Vatican City.

The RMO is able to participate in the Vatican Coffin Project thanks to the annual support of the Dutch BankGiro Lottery.