Experts at Harvard University in the United States have made an astonishing discovery in a 3,000 year-old Egyptian coffin. They have found a painted image of an ancient deity inside a casket. It was found during a project to scan and document three ancient coffins, during a project to conserve the coffins and to make them more accessible to the public.


Professor Peter Der Manuelian, an Egyptologist and director of the Harvard Semitic Museum led a week-long study of three coffins. The three Egyptian coffins “date from Twenty-Second Dynasty of Egypt , also known as the Bubastite Dynasty, (945‒712 BC) and came to the museum from modern-day Thebes, Egypt, between 1901 and 1902” reports the Harvard Gazette .

One coffin belonged to Ankh-khonsu, a porter in a temple dedicated to the god Amun-Ra. The other coffins belonged to Mut-iy-iy, a female temple singer and Pa-di-mut, a craftsman and priest. They had been left in a container for many years and not properly investigated and there were almost no records for the Ankh-khonsu casket, in particular.

Image of Ra-Horakhty Discovered in the Egyptian Coffin

Professor Der Manuelian and his colleagues placed the coffin of Ankh-khonsu on a Styrofoam support in order to fully document it. When they examined the inside of the coffin they found something remarkable.

They saw an image of the ancient Egyptian sun god Ra-Horakhty partially obscured by a coating of a black residue. The project leader Peter Der Manuelian described the discovery as “a heart-stopping moment”, reported the Harvard Gazette.

According to Professor Manuelian “a layer of resinous material used in the funeral process” covered the image. Despite the dark tar-like coating and the uneven surface, the researchers could still make out the vivid figure of an Egyptian god.

It is painted in yellow and orange with hieroglyphs surrounding the painting. They read “ Ra-Horakhty, the great God, Lord of Heaven” according to the Harvard Gazette report. Ra was the sun god and one of the most important in Egyptian mythology.


The Egyptian Coffins Are Part of a Conservation Program

The discovery of the image of the god was possibly the highlight of the week-long project. A distinguished multidisciplinary team from Harvard and prestigious museums from as far away as Britain were involved in the work. They conserved and recorded every aspect of the coffins.

As part of a course on ‘Museum Collection Care’, students assisted in scanning the artifacts. Innovative technology was used for preliminary digital images of all three coffins to be created, which will be eventually used to recreate the caskets.

Working with the three coffins was daunting because of their value and their age. Jane and Dennis Piechota, who are consultant-conservators, helped to ensure that the coffins were safely transported to the research area so that they could be scanned.

Jane told the Harvard Gazette that, “It’s an honor to work on these artifacts up close and unusual to be able to touch something so old and containing so much history”.

Digital Recreation of the Egyptian Coffins


Opening the lids of the coffin involved inserting wedges all around the lids so that they could be removed safely. Then they had to be turned over so that they could be digitally scanned . Dennis Piechota told the Harvard Gazette , “Turning over the coffins is petrifying! They’re heavy, and if we don’t handle them carefully they can be easily damaged”.

The work and the digital reconstruction of the three coffins is the latest stage of an initiative by Harvard to make its antiquities more accessible to the public. Technologies such as an app and virtual technology will be used to allow more members of the public to see the beautifully decorated coffins. The coffins will continue to be on public display at the Harvard Semitic Museum.

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