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Tut! Tut! The Coffins...Three In One

Added: Friday, September 12th 2008 at 10:00am by southwesterngrad
Related Tags: events, life

When the broken lid of the yellow sarcophagus of King Tut in his tomb was slowly lifted away from its base using an elaborate pulley system, there was an audible gasp from the crowd of dignitaries who had assembled for this very event. What they found, underneath two sheets of linen, was a splendid anthropoid coffin. Its golden surface still shined brilliantly under Burton's arc lamps.

However, the size (and weight, about 1.36 metric tons or 3,000 pounds) of this coffin suggested that it was only the first of several such nested coffins. Nevertheless, the excavators had to be patient. Conservation demands of objects already removed from the tomb meant that it would be another year and a half before work on opening the coffins could begin. This is perhaps one of the greatest curses of such work.

The Outer Coffin (no. 253)

The outer coffin of King tut in its sarcophagusThe exposed outer coffin of Tutankhamun, measuring 2.24 meters long with its head positioned to the west, rested on a low leonine bier that was still intact though certainly suffering from the strain of a ton and a quarter worth of weight it had endured over the prior 3,200 years. Fragments chipped from the toe of the coffin lid at the time of the burial, a crude attempt to rectify a design problem and allow the sarcophagus lid to sit properly, were found in the bottom of the sarcophagus. The chippings revealed that the coffin was made of cypress with a thin layer of gesso overlaid with gold foil. The layer of gold varied in thickness from heavy sheet for the face and hands to the very finest gold leaf for the rather curious khat-likeheaddress. The gold covering also varied in color so that, for example, the hands and face were covered by a paler alloy then the remainder of the coffin. In Howard Carter's words, this gave "an impression of the greyness of death".

The surface area of both the lid and base of the coffin were covered with rishi, a feather decoration executed in low relief. On the left and right sides and superimposed upon this feathering were two finely engraved images of Isis and Nephthys with their wings extended. Their protective embrace is alluded to in one of the two vertical lines of hieroglyphs running down the front of the lid. At the bottom of the coffin under the foot is another depiction of the goddess Isis, kneeling upon the hieroglyph for "gold", and below this are ten vertical columns of text.

The lid of the coffin itself is carved in high relief with a recumbent image of the dead king as Osiris. He wears a broad collar and wrist ornaments carved in low relief, while his arms, crossed on the chest, clutch the twin symbols of kingship, the crook (heqa Scepter) and the flail. The "Two Ladies". Wadjet and Nekhbet, representing the divine cobra of Lower Egypt and the vulture goddess of Upper Egypt, rose from the king's forehead. A small wreath tied around the pair was composed of olive leaves and flowers resembling the blue cornflower, bound onto a narrow strip of papyrus pith. The oliveleaves were carefully arranged so that the green front of the leaves alternated with the more silver back surface.

The original design of the outermost coffin's lid had incorporated four silver handles, two on each side, which were used to lower the lid into place. Some three thousand years later, these same handles would be used, once more to raise this lid, by Howard Carter and his team.

The second Outside Coffin (no. 254)

The middle coffin of Tutankhamun being removed from the outer coffin base.Carter tells us that "it was a moment as anxious as exciting", when he lifted the lid of the outermost coffin. Within, what was expected to be found was indeed found, a second anthropoid coffin.

Once again, the surface was concealed beneath a decayed shroud of linen, which in turn was obscured by floral garlands, and similar to the first coffin, there was a small wreath of olive leaves, blue lotus petals and cornflowers wrapped around the protective deities on the Pharaoh's brow.

An inscribed silver tenon, one of ten, attaching the lid and base of the second coffinHowever, even before the linen covering was removed, Carter and his team decided to remove both the delicate lower half and contents of the outermost coffin from the sarcophagus. The fragile gessoed and inlaid surface of this outer relic required that this be performed with as little handling as possible. Therefore, steel pins were inserted through the inscribed tenons of the outermost coffin and pulleys were employed in a process that Carter records as a task "of no little difficulty". Nevertheless, the outer coffin was lifted and then deposited upon trestles resting on the rim of the sarcophagus box without incident.

Afterwards, the second coffin was soon revealed as even more magnificent than the first. It measured 2.04 meters long, and was constructed from a still unidentified wood covered as The fine work of King Tut's second coffinbefore with an overlay of gold foil. Here, the use of inlays were far more extensive than on the outermost coffin, even though they had suffered considerably from the presence of dampness within the tomb and showed a tendency to fall out. 

It is hard to image the amount of work which must have been put into making this coffin. Carved in wood, it was first overlaid with sheet gold on the thin layer of gesso (a sort of plaster). Then narrow strips of gold, placed on edge, were soldered to the base to from cells in which the small pieces of colored glass, fixed with cement, were laid. The technique is known as Egyptian cloisonne work, but it is not true cloisonne because the glass was already shaped before being put in the cells, and not put in the cells in power form and fused by heating.

Carter removes the shroud from the second coffin of Kink TutMany details, such as the stripes of the nemes-headcloth, eyebrows, cosmetic lines and beard were inlaid with lapis-blue glass. The uraeus on the forehead was of gilded wood, with a head of blue faience and inlays of red, blue and turquoise glass. The head of Nekhbet, the vulture, was also of gilded wood with a beak of dark block wood which was probably ebony. The eyes were set with obsidian. The crook and flail, heldrespectively in the left and right hands, were inlaid with lapis-blue and turquoise glass and blue faience, while a broad "falcon collar" containing inset pieces of brilliant red, blue and turquoise glass adorned the king's throat. There were also two similarly inlaid bracelets carved onto the wrists.

Rishi-pattern decorations covered the entire surface of the king's body though here, unlike the outermost coffin, the feathers were each inlaid with jasper-red, lapis-blue and turquoise glass. A view of the upper part of the second coffin of King TutankhamunHowever, here replacing the images of Isis and Nephthys as depicted on the outermost coffin, were images of the winged vulture goddess Nekhbet and the winged uraeus, Wadjet, also inlaid with pieces of red, blue and turquoiseglass.

Unfortunately, there were no handles on the second coffin as there were on the first. Moreover, ten gold-headed silver nails had been used to secure the lid of the second coffin, and these were in a location that could not be accessed easily with the outer shell (bottom portion of the outer coffin) still in place. Therefore, Carter removed these pins just enough to attach a "stout copper wire" to each and then "strong metal eyelets" were screwed into the edge of the outer coffin and the two separated by lowering the outer shell into the sarcophagus while the inner hung suspended.

The Innermost Coffin (no. 255)

The golden inner coffin of King TutankhamunThe delicate lid of the second coffin was removed in a similar fashion. Eyelets were screwed into the edge of the lid at four points. The silver pins securing the ten inscribed silver tenons were then removed, and the coffin lid, after some initial flexing, was lifted effortlessly into the air. Thus, the third anthropoid coffin was revealed, though covered once again with fine linen in place above the nemes-headdress. It was tightly encased within the second coffin and a shroud of red linen, folded three times, covered it from neck to feet. However, the face of this coffin had been left bare. The breast was adorned with a very delicate, broad collar of blue glass beads and various leaves, flowers, berries and fruits, including pomegranates,which were sewn onto a papyrus backing.

Now this coffin was amazingly different, particularly in one respect, as Howard Carter notes:

"Mr. Burton at once made his photographic records. I then removed the floral collarette and linen coverings. An astounding fact was disclosed. The third coffin...was made of solid gold! The mystery of the enormous weight, which hitherto had puzzled us, was now clear. It explained also why the weight had diminished so slightly after the first coffin, and the lid of the second coffin, had been removed. Its weight was still as much as eight strong men could lift."

Another view of the innermost gold coffin of king Tut

However, as opposed to the outer two coffins, this one, entirely of gold, did not gleam. After the linen shroud and papyrus collar were removed, what was revealed was a coffin covered "with a thick black pitch-like layer which extended from the hands down to the ankles". This was actually a fatty resinous perfume. Howard Carter estimated that up to two bucketfuls of this liquid had been poured over the coffin, filling in the whole space between it and the base of the second coffin and making them solid and causing them to stick firmly together. The removal of this resinous layer was difficult to say the least, according to Carter:

"This pitch like material hardened by age had to be removed by means of hammering, solvents and heat, while the shells of the coffins were loosened from one another and extricated by means of great heat, the interior being temporarily protected during the process by zinc plates - the temperature employed though necessarily below the melting point of zinc was several hundred degrees Fahrenheit. After the inner coffin was extricated it had to be again treated with head and solvents before the material could be completely removed."

Closeup of the face of the golden inner coffin.The golden coffin measures about 1.88 meters in length. The metal was beaten from heavy gold sheet, and varies in thickness from .25 to .3 centimeters. In 1929, it was weighed, tipping the scales at 110.4 kilograms. Thus, its scrap value alone would today be in the region of 1.7 million USD.

The image of King Tut that was sculpted on this coffin is today oddly ethereal, due to the decomposition of the calcite whites of the eyes. The pupils of the eyes are obsidian, while the eyebrows and cosmetic lines are inlaid with lapis-lazuli colored glass. The beard was worked separately and afterwards attached to the chin. It is also inlaid with lapis colored glass. The headdress on the coffin is the nemes, as was that of the second coffin, though here the pleating is in relief rather than indicated by inlays of colored glass. During this period of Egyptian history, males wore earrings only up until puberty, so when discovered, patches of gold foil concealed the fact that the ears, also cast separately, were pierced. At the neck of the coffin were placed twoheavy necklaces of disc beads made of red and yellow gold and dark blue faience, threaded on what looked like glass bound with linen tape. Each of the strings had lotus flower terminals inlaid with carnelian, lapis and turquoise glass. Necklaces of this kind were awarded by Egyptian kings to military commanders and high officials for distinguished services. Below these necklaces was the falcon collar of the coffin itself, again created separately from the lid, and inlaid with eleven rows of lapis, quartz, carnelian, felspar and turquoise glass imitating tubular beadwork, with an outer edge of inlaid drops.

Like the first and second coffins, the king's arms are shown crossed upon his chest in the Osirian manner, with sheet bracelets inlaid in a similar manner to the collar using lapis, carnelian and turquoise colored glass. The crook and flail are held in the left and right hands, overlaid with sheet gold, dark blue faience, polychrome glass and carnelian. Much of the decoration of the flail's shaft had decayed because of the application of the thick black resin with which the coffin had been so liberally anointed.

The image of a winged Isis inscribed very finely beneath the foot of Tutankhamun's innermost coffin.Underneath the king's hands, the goddesses Nekhbet and Wadjet, made from gold sheet and inlaid with red-backed quartz and lapis and turquoise colored glass, spread their wings protectively around the upper part of the royal body. Each of them grasp in their talons the hieroglyphic sign for "infinity". Both the lid and base of this coffin are further adorned with rich figures of the winged goddesses Isis and Nephthys on a rishi background, thusprotecting the lower right and left sides, respectively. Two vertical columns of text are laid out down the front of the coffin lid from the navel to the feet, with the usual figure of Isis kneeling upon the hieroglyph for "god" (nub) upon the soles of the feet.

Like the outermost coffin, this innermost one was also fitted with handles and was attached to its base by means of eight gold tongues, four on each side, which dropped into sockets in the shell and were retained by gold pins. Because the available space between the two coffins was so narrow, these pins had to be removed piecemeal. Then, at long last, "The lid was raised by its golden handles and the mummy of the king disclosed".

User Comments

Very interesting Joan!!  I remember many years ago watching my SIL Laquita work on a ceramic head of King Tut.  She put many hours into painting and perfecting her piece of art!!


As you know, all things old and ancient are of special fascination to me.  I thought the fact that there were three coffins, each encased in the other, was especially fascinating. 

That is facinating Joan!!

Just fascinating. That moment of initial discovery must have been heart-stopping!!

It must have been indeed.

Whooo! I was afraid this was some new fangled save money technique when I read the title!

and that the tutt tut! was like shame shame like they said back in the day.  Sometimes i am such a moron!

I can't imagine anything being solid gold like this!  Gold was of immense value to them, too, so it is almost inconceivable as to the cost/worth of the gold as it was used throughout the coffin and, especially in that innermost coffin!  I'm wondering, throughout all of this amazement and importance to us today and of the Egyptians back then, just how many may have questioned, maybe resented, that so much be spent in this way when there were people who were in need.

The detail on that second coffin is tremendous!  I just can't get over the pattern and the colors and all the little trim of hieroglyphics/symbols.  Ornate is the wrong word because it almost wants to cheapen it, but I am at a lack of a better word.

There were huge gold mine deposits in ancient Egypt.  They were mined by the workers just as the construction of their pyramids, etc. were.  Even though the Israelites were not treated very well, they were not actually slaves, but probably paid for their labor.

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