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The secrets of ancient Egyptian artisans on show in Death on the Nile

The Fitzwilliam Museum is marking its bicentenary with an exhibition on its collection of Egyptian coffins. Death on the Nile: Uncovering the afterlife of ancient Egypt explores the beliefs behind these objects and reveals new information on how they were made.

Golden yellow, and covered from head to toe in bright hieroglyphs and pictures in reds, greens and blues, the set of coffins belonging to the man named Nespawershefyt (also known as Nes-Amun) was one of the very first gifts to the Fitzwilliam collection, given by two members of the University of Cambridge in 1822, just a few years after the Museum was founded in 1816.

The Nes-Amun coffin set is one of many stunning objects in Death on the Nile the majority from the Fitzwilliam’s collections and complemented by loans from the British Museum and the Musée du Louvre.

The coffins of Nes-Amun are one of the finest coffin sets of its type in the world and in an outstanding state of preservation. To uncover its hidden secrets, the coffins have been extensively studied with X-radiography at the Museum. And the inner coffin was sent for CT scanning at the radiology department of Addenbrooke's Hospital, part of Cambridge University Hospitals (CUH).

Julie Dawson, Head of Conservation at the Fitzwilliam and co-curator of the exhibition, spoke about what they discovered:

"The inner coffin box is made up of a multitude of pieces of wood, including sections from at least one older coffin. Wood was a precious commodity and the craftsmen were incredibly skilled at making these complex objects from sometimes unpromising starting materials."

Examining the surface revealed other surprises, including several 3,000 year old fingerprints, suggesting that the craftsmen moved the lid of the inner coffin before the varnish had dried. Nes-Amun commissioned his coffins during his lifetime, but, by the time of his death he had risen in rank. His new titles - as supervisor of craftsmen's workshops in Karnak and the supervisor of temple scribes of Amun-Re - had to be inscribed over the top of the old ones.

24 February 2016

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