“Anthropoid coffin” refers to an ancient burial container shaped in the form of a human body. Although the stylized facial features carved, molded, or painted on these coffins were usually intended only to symbolize the appearance of the deceased, realistic portraits were sometimes attempted—especially in later examples. This class of burial artifacts, known from Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Lebanon, offers an illustration of a cultural tradition that lasted, with modifications, for almost 3,000 years.
The earliest examples of anthropoid coffins are the elaborate royal “mummy cases” of the Egyptian XIIth Dynasty (c. 1991–1786 B.C.). Bearing the image of the departed member of the royal family, they were initially carved from stone, though during the New Kingdom period (c. 1567–1085 B.C.) they were fashioned from a variety of materials, including wood, cartonnage (thick, glued layers of linen or papyrus) and gold (in the most elaborate royal examples, such as the inner coffin of King Tutankhamun). Their use reflected the growing power of the cult of Osiris, the ruler of the Egyptian afterworld, who was himself commonly depicted in the form of a mummy.
During the New Kingdom period, the custom of burial in anthropoid coffins spread to the Egyptian upper classes and to military officers stationed throughout the Egyptian empire. Among the rich finds of clay anthropoid coffins from this period in Egypt are examples from Tell el-Yehudiyeh, Tell Nebesheh and Kom Abu Billu in the Nile Delta; Gurob and Riggeh in Middle Egypt; and Aniba in Nubia. Mycenaean and Cypriot pottery found in some of these coffins has led some scholars to suggest that clay anthropoid coffins may have been used by non-Egyptians serving as mercenaries in the New Kingdom army.
The use of anthropoid coffins made from relatively inexpensive materials continued through the Late Dynastic and Ptolemaic periods (1085–30 B.C.). In the later Roman period (second to fourth centuries A.D.), a distinctive variation gained popularity, particularly in the Fayum region of Middle Egypt. In this type of anthropoid coffin, a highly realistic painted portrait of the deceased was attached to the “head” of the coffin. These portraits provide a vivid glimpse of the way well-to-do Egyptians looked in this period. With the rise of Christianity in Egypt in the fourth century A.D., the custom of burial in anthropoid coffins was gradually abandoned in favor of simpler burial rites.
In the New Kingdom, during the XIXth and XXth Dynasties (c. 1320–c. 1085 B.C.), Canaan was incorporated into the empire 054and many characteristic Egyptian cultural and religious traditions were adopted there, including burial in anthropoid coffins. Although never widespread, this custom seems to have taken hold at such official administrative or military outposts as Beth-Shean, in the northern Jordan Valley, and at road stations along the route from Sinai, for example the site of Deir el-Balah south of Gaza.
Professor Trude Dothan, the excavator of Deir el-Balah, has distinguished what she calls the “naturalistic” style of decoration in the earliest anthropoid coffins in Canaan. This is typified by the use of clear religious symbols such as the “Osiris beard,” the lotus headdress and the crook and flail (ceremonial scepters and symbols of the office of Egyptian pharaohs), all characteristic of royal Egyptian burials. As was also the case with the simpler coffin burials in Egypt, the funerary offerings included Mycenaean, Cypriot, Egyptian and local pottery, as well as a variety of jewelry and metal and alabaster vessels. Such coffins were apparently used for the burial of Egyptian functionaries serving in Canaan.
The second major category of anthropoid coffins in Canaan, termed by Dothan the “grotesque” type, bears only a general similarity to the earlier “naturalistic” examples. The exaggerated features, such as those found on coffin lids from the sites of Tell el-Farah, Lachish and Beth-Shean, represent the growth of a new tradition in which the Egyptian religious symbolism became less important or was misunderstood. Significantly, several of the later examples from Beth-Shean bear ornamental headdresses strikingly similar to depictions of the headgear (possibly feathers) of the Sea Peoples (among them the Philistines) on the reliefs of Ramesses III’s 12th-century B.C. mortuary temple at Medinet Habu, in Egypt. This custom of burial in anthropoid coffins, though originally Egyptian, may therefore have been adopted by foreign mercenary troops serving in the forces of Pharaoh Ramesses III and his successors of the XXth Dynasty (c. 1200–c. 1085 B.C.).
Although this burial custom was relatively short-lived in Canaan, it continued for several centuries in the more remote inland regions east of the Jordan. Examples of later anthropoid coffins come from the sites of Sahab, Jebel el-Qusur in Amman and Dibon, and have been dated to the tenth to seventh centuries B.C. Much later, in the Persian period (sixth to fourth centuries B.C.), burial in anthropoid coffins appears again at sites along the Mediterranean coast, but this seems to have been inspired by Phoenician rather than Egyptian traditions, however.
Many examples of a distinctive class of anthropoid coffins, dated to the fifth to fourth centuries B.C., have been excavated in the vicinity of Sidon, one of the most powerful of the Phoenician city-states. The cities of Phoenicia were deeply influenced by Egyptian styles from the Middle Bronze Age onward (c. 2000 B.C.), and the initial adoption of this method of burial—primarily for Phoenician royalty—was part of this trend. As early as the sixth century B.C., however, Phoenician artists began to produce distinctive versions of the anthropoid coffins, and with the growing economic and cultural connections of Phoenicia with Greece at the end of the fifth and beginning of the fourth century B.C., Greek artistic styles and imported Greek marble were increasingly used in the manufacture of the anthropoid coffins of Phoenicia.
This burial custom quickly spread to Phoenician cities and colonies throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Examples of the Phoenician-type anthropoid coffins have been found along nearly the entire Lebanese and Syrian coasts, in southern Turkey, on Cyprus and even at the sites of Sidonian colonies in North Africa and the western Mediterranean. Although the popularity of this burial custom seems to have declined with the destruction of Sidon around 350 B.C., it apparently lingered on for several generations in the distant western colonies.
“Anthropoid coffin” refers to an ancient burial container shaped in the form of a human body. Although the stylized facial features carved, molded, or painted on these coffins were usually intended only to symbolize the appearance of the deceased, realistic portraits were sometimes attempted—especially in later examples. This class of burial artifacts, known from Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Lebanon, offers an illustration of a cultural tradition that lasted, with modifications, for almost 3,000 years. The earliest examples of anthropoid coffins are the elaborate royal “mummy cases” of the Egyptian XIIth Dynasty (c. 1991–1786 B.C.). Bearing the image of the […]