Museum Purchase, Collector's Choice, 1965.14 Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2009. All Rights Reserved.
We don’t know who made this case, but we do know that it was made for a man who was thought to be living in Egypt during the 3rd century B.C. Mummification—preserving a person, and in some instances, animals, for the afterlife—was commonly practiced in ancient Egypt. After bodies were mummified, they were placed inside special cases like this one that served to protect the body. This case was carved out of rare cedar wood, which suggests that it was made for a person of high status in Egyptian society. Once the construction of the case was complete, artists painted symbols and hieroglyphs, or “sacred texts,” onto its surface. In the Ptolemaic [TALL-uh-may-ick] period (332–303 B.C.), when this case was made, there was an increase in realism in Egyptian art. There is distinct modeling in the face on the surface of this case, but we don’t know whether those who made the image intended for it to represent a portrait of the deceased, or a more generalized visage.
Mummy cases offered physical protection from animals and other intruders, as well as a more spiritual form of protection. Hieroglyphs were painted on both the inside and outside of the case, providing prayers for protection and praise for the individual in the afterlife. Curiously, the Egyptians had standard prayers that they would use, and the text here was not unique to the individual for whom this case was made.
Many ancient Egyptian symbols of death and rebirth are painted on this mummy case. Below the falcon collar is Nut [noot], the sky goddess and mother of Osiris [oh-SIGH-russ], god of the underworld and symbol of resurrection and immortality. It was believed that Nut swallowed the sun each evening and gave birth to the sun each morning. Because of her connection to the solar cycle, she became a symbol of resurrection and rebirth. On either side of the base of the coffin are images of Anubis [uh-NOO-biss], the god of mummification. Anubis is usually represented with the head of a jackal and the body of a man, but is shown here as a full jackal. Anubis is the guardian of the cemetery; he attends to and protects the mummy in his or her tomb. Anubis would also oversee the ritual of embalming (preparing the body to be wrapped).
In ancient Egypt, the beard was seen as an attribute of several of the gods. Although real facial hair was not often admired, Pharaohs (divine rulers) would wear false beards to signify their status as a living god. The false beard on the DAM’s mummy case does not signify that this is the mummy case of a pharaoh, but that the deceased wanted to be associated with Osiris, who also wore a false beard in his role as ruler of underworld. False beards were often braided, signified here by the lines slanting inward in the same gold and green colors as the wig.
Although physical appearance was of great importance to the Egyptians, this was not the sole reason for the use of makeup. Eye makeup was also used for spiritual, magical, and therapeutic purposes. The Egyptians used a mineral called kohl to outline their eyes. Some believe that with this makeup, Egyptians were attempting to associate themselves with the cat, a variety of which were honored in Ancient Egypt. Cats represented beauty and prosperity, among other things. It is also said that the kohl would protect the eye against common infections.
Covering the mummy’s chest is a collar consisting of 16 rows of flowers, petals, and leaves with three different patterns. One row is composed of upside-down lotus flowers and buds. The next row is made up of another flower that seems similar to a daisy. It is hard to tell whether the third pattern represents a type of flower or leaf, or just a design. At each end of the collar is the head of a falcon, which was a symbol of Horus, the god of the sky and a symbol of divine kingship. He is also the god of order and justice, and he protects the deceased in this mummy case.
Lotus flowers grew along the Nile and were symbols of life and regeneration. At night, they close their blossoms and submerge themselves under water. In the morning, they emerge and open once again. Because of this pattern, lotus flowers became a symbol of the sun, with its daily cycles, and of creation and rebirth.
The lower portion of the mummy case is covered with a hieroglyphic inscription. (The word hieroglyph means “sacred text.”) Most funerary inscriptions include spells and prayers that come from the Book of the Dead. The text often asks the gods for protection of the deceased on his journey to the afterlife. On the front of this coffin, the text is written primarily as though the owner of the coffin is speaking. At one point, he says to the gods, “May you rescue me from the aggressors who are in this land of the righteous! May you give me my mouth so that I might speak with it! May you give me my inheritance in your presence…”
There are a number of birds on the DAM’s case, most of which are found in the form of hieroglyphs. There appear to be, among others, a sparrow, an ibis, a desert owl, and a duck.
Below the falcon collar, Nut’s wings are symmetrical, meaning that if you were to draw a vertical line down the center of her body, her wings would be the same on either side. Her wings resemble the cloisonné technique, an enameling process in which shapes are created with a thin metal wire and then filled with colored enamel powder. When heated to a certain temperature, the enamel powder melts, forming a solid area of color. The wire used is often gold, which is the color that outlines the individual feathers of Nut’s wings. Her green clothing is also outlined in gold to separate it from the feathers that surround it.
People and animals were commonly depicted partly in profile and partly from other views. Notice how the lower half of Nut’s body is in profile, while her arms are spread so that her collarbone and wings are facing the viewer. Also, though her face is seen from the side, we see her eye as though we are looking at it from the front.
The hieroglyph ankh, meaning “to live”, was the sign of eternal life in Ancient Egypt. It was a very powerful symbol and can be seen among the other hieroglyphs on the case.
The was scepter was a sign of authority and power and is meant to signify the well-being of the mummy. On the DAM’s case, two was scepters are placed back to back, alternating with the ankh symbol.
Preparing a Mummy for Transit
Conservators at the Walters Art Museum explain the process behind transporting objects in the collection.
Scanning a Mummy
Ancient Egyptian mummy cases get cat scanned at the University of Pennsylvania of Archaeology and Anthropology.
National Geographic Videos Mentioned in Presentations:
Builders of the Pyramids
Excavations reveal details that help archeologists understand the daily lives of the Egyptian craftsmen.
African Dung Beetle
The Ancient Egyptians worshiped the beetles, who perform vital ecological functions. Watch their life cycle and labor. Are they capable of having fun?
Great Pyramid Mystery Solved?
An architectural perspective on the Great Pyramids. Jean-Pierre Houdin, a French architect, tackles the question on how the Egyptians raised the building stones to the top by proposing an internal ramp system.
This link from the Kress Foundation offers a 360° view of the Bernadette Berger Discovery Library at the Denver Art Museum. Pan around the gallery to see how the artworks are displayed and what resources are available to visitors. See if you can find the Mummy Case!
Explanations of Egyptian mummy cases markings.
Anything and everything about ancient Egypt—test your knowledge about mummies, write your name in hieroglyphs, examine a clickable mummy, and read an interview with an archaeologist
World Myths and Legends in Art. Explore Ancient Egyptian objects from the museum collection.
Lesson Plans and Resources Related to the Tutankhamen exhibition
The Griffith Institute features images by excavation photographer Harry Burton.
Fan Club of the most famous living Egyptologist.
The Carlos Museum at Emory University’s lesson plans: Canopic Coffinette, Crowns of the Kings of Egypt, Harry Burton: Pharaoh’s Photographer, History of Pharaonic Egypt, Kingship in Ancient Egypt, Mummification, Names of Tutankhamun, the Nile, Religion, Scribes and Writing, Shabtis, Smiting the Enemies of Egypt, Statue of Standing Osiris, Symbols and Colors, Tomb of Tutankhamun, Thutmose’s Cat, and Tut as a Child.
Filer, Joyce. The Mystery of the Egyptian Mummy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
This highly readable text is richly complemented throughout by full-color photographs (many with hieroglyphs) and X-ray and CAT scan images.
Fischer, Henry George. Ancient Egyptian Calligraphy A Beginner's Guide to Writing Hieroglyphs. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1988.
Step-by-step guide to the study of hieroglyphic paleography, including 165 line drawings and 200 signs.
Perl, Lila. The Ancient Egyptians (People of the Ancient World). New York: Franklin Watts, 2004.
Explore the lives of pharaohs, mummy makers, artisans, and tomb builders. Read about the discoveries that led to our present-day understanding of the ancient culture. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Broida, Marian. Ancient Egyptians and Their Neighbors: An Activity Guide. Chicago, Ill: Chicago Review Press, 1999.
This book provides instructions for approximately 40 projects about the clothing, architecture, writing, food, and other cultural aspects of ancient Egypt. Appropriate for ages 4-8.
Gibbons, Gail. Mummies, Pyramids, and Pharaohs: A Book About Ancient Egypt. New York: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2004.
This book, written for young readers ages 4-8, provides facts about the society, homes, clothing, farming methods, craftsmanship, and mummies of the ancient Egyptians.
Cole, Joanna. Ms. Frizzle's Adventures: Ancient Egypt. New York: Scholastic Paperbacks, 2003.
Fans of The Magic School Bus will enjoy Ms. Frizzle's adventures in ancient Egypt. Appropriate for ages 4-8.
Materials from Telling a Story: King Tut Teacher Workshop on October 9, 2010
Annotated bibliography of storytelling resources
Annotated bibliography of artmaking resources
Annotated bibliography of King Tut resources
Handout: Writer's Notebook
Lesson Plan for Artmaking Activity
Sandals Powerpoint by Chrisopher Maier
Triptych Powerpoint by Emilie Lewis
Materials from Building the Ancient Egyptian Way Teacher Workshop on July 17, 2010
Annotated Bibliography of Print and Web Resources on Ancient Egypt
Handout from Art, Proportion, Symbolism breakout session
Warmup Activities from Art, Proportion, Symbolism breakout session
Dangle Angle handout from Math & Science of Tomb Construction breakout session
Retractor a Go-Go Car handout from Simple Machines breakout session
Staple Remover Catapult handout from Simple Machines breakout session
Spoon Slinger handout from Simple Machines breakout session
Funding for object education resources provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.
The images on this page are intended for classroom use only and may not be reproduced for other reasons without the permission of the Denver Art Museum. This object may not currently be on display at the museum.