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Anthropoid Sarcophagus


Mummies and mummy cases, coffins, and sarcophagi are important to the study of ancient Egyptian concepts of the afterlife. Currently, most of the world’s renowned museums have ancient Egyptian artifacts in their collections, especially mummies, which are visitor favorites. The British Museum’s touring exhibitions of Egyptian artifacts were unprecedented occasions in Japan and Shanghai. At the turn of the millennium, the National Museum of Natural Science held the Ancient Egypt special exhibition. Over a period of three months, it attracted nearly 500,000 visitors. In addition, The Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt special exhibition, which took place in Washington, D.C., ranked first among all summertime exhibitions in American museums that year. Obviously, among the general public, there is a desire to view and even own ancient Egyptian artifacts, such as coffins and mummies.

After a correspondence marathon that lasted over a decade and involved numerous letters, faxes, and e-mails, Huang Cheng, a woman of Chinese descent living in France and an expert on ancient Egypt, helped with the sale at below market price of an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus and a mummy from the private collection of someone she knew to the National Museum of Natural Science for collection, research, and permanent display, with authenticity certified by an expert and free export certificate. The following descriptions are from the Department of Anthropology, based on an Egyptian archaeological viewpoint, and an appraisal provided by Professor Poo Mu-Chou, an Egyptologist at the Institute of History and Philology of Academia Sinica.

This anthropoid sarcophagus should have held the mummy of a minor named Di khnoum.
This anthropoid sarcophagus should have held the mummy of a minor named Di khnoum.
Description and preservation status

This anthropoid sarcophagus is intact and includes lid and base. It measures 170 centimeters in length, 49 centimeters in width, and 35 centimeters in thickness. From the hieroglyphics, we know that the deceased, named DI-KHNOUM, was the son of HOR-KHEB (father) and HEDIKEN (mother). Since his likeness does not include a beard and his social position was not recorded, it is speculated that he was a minor at the time of his death.

Anthropoid sarcophagi emerged during the Middle Kingdom (Moyen Empire, 2933-1710 BC). By the 17th Dynasty (1963-1786 BC), they were widely used. The change from the formerly rectangular shape influenced production techniques and decoration. The base and lid of DI-KHNOUM’s sarcophagus are fitted together with hinges and grooves. From the shape and style of decoration, it is thought to be from after the Third Intermediate Period (1069-664 BC) and before Egypt was conquered by Greece. In other words, it is from between the Saite Epoch and the Late Period or 664-332 BC.

Plaster was applied to linen attached to the outer surface of this sarcophagus. Then, colorful images and hieroglyphics were added to the white plaster. The interior is of undecorated wood.

The lower part of the sarcophagus has been turned into a pedestal, a style which began in the 22nd Dynasty (948-743 BC) and may have been an adaptation for funerals of that time, for example, the need to position the sarcophagus a certain way during the “opening of the mouth” ritual. This change also influenced the unity and harmony of the decorations on the lid and base, as well as their composition, such as vertical and parallel arrangement. The number and extent of scriptures also increased. Towards the end of the Third Intermediate Period, there was a retro phase in terms of sarcophagus decorations. However, there were also many examples of non-conformity and breaking with tradition.

Around that time, the emergence of the bourgeoisie and an increasing population in Egypt affected the professional attitudes of craftsmen. Due to the need for mass production, images and inscriptions became sloppy and even purposely superfluous to please their clientele.

Sarcophagi with decorations added to a white background appeared during the 18th Dynasty, in the early New Kingdom period (1550-1295 BC), replacing the once customary black background. Moreover, images became more colorful. Images of wives and children as travel companions were replaced with images of gods to symbolize the protection of the deceased during the transition to the afterlife.


Top part of sarcophagus lid

The top part of the lid of DI KHNOUM’s sarcophagus features a portrait of the deceased, painted in crimson red, with black eyebrows and eyes, and hair parted three ways. Below the neck and on the chest is an Usekh, a collar made up of multiple strands with falcon’s head and solar disk-shaped clasp. There is also an udjat eye amulet that was thought to protect against evil. 

Identification – Anthropoid sarcophagus

According to a description by antiquities collector Huang Cheng, this anthropoid sarcophagus should have held the mummy of a minor named Di khnoum. From the materials, shape, and painted images and hieroglyphics inside and outside the sarcophagus, it may be from 664-332 BC. (Antiquities, archaeology, and art history experts believe that it is from 711-332 BC, see Appendix 2). Based on ancient Egyptian chronology, it is from the 26th Dynasty, during the rule of Psammetichus I, or from the 23rd Dynasty to the time of Persian rule in the 31st Dynasty.

This sarcophagus without mummy enables us to understand ancient Egyptian concepts of the afterlife, especially the esthetic effects of the coexistence and symbiotic relationship between the soul and the body after death.

2023/09/05 Updated