Why Egyptians ‘Nested’ Mummies In Multiple Coffins

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

In his PhD dissertation paper, Anders Bettum of the University of Oslo describes the reasons behind why Egyptians buried their dead in multiple coffins.

Egyptian mummies were burried in multiple coffins that nested within each other, similar to the iconic Russian matryoshka dolls. The child king Tutankhamun (1334-24 BC), for instance, was burred in as many as eight coffins, an unusually large numbered compared to other ancient Egyptian elite who had three or four coffins.

Bettum, an Egyptologist at the Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages, wrote in his thesis that nest coffins were not only a status symbol for the Egyptian elite, but they also played a role in the process that they believed would link the deceased to their ancestors.

The rituals that took place during their seventy-day funerals are symbolically rendered on the coffins. The components of each nest reflect the Egyptian view of the world.

“The decorations, the forms and the choice of materials signify a unification of the two myths about Osiris and Amun-Ra respectively,” Bettum said. “On the outer coffin, the deceased is portrayed as Osiris, with a mummified body, a blue-striped wig and a pale, solemn face. The coffin is painted yellow and varnished, and must have shone like gold. The very richest Egyptians did in fact use gold leaf on their coffins.”

He wrote that their choice of color represents the light and its origin in the sun. If the figure of Osiris, the god of the afterlife, is being bathed in the sun then that could only mean one thing, Bettum said.

“The decoration invokes a well known mythical image: when the sun god arrives in the throne hall of Osiris in the 6th hour of the night and the two deities join in mystical union,” the researcher wrote. “According to the Egyptians, this union was the source of all regeneration in nature, and it was here, at the center of this ‘catalyst of life’ that the deceased wanted to be placed for all eternity.”

He said the innermost layers of the coffin nests were decorated to look as living humans in their best outfits. This layer was the most important one because it showed the objective of the afterlife transformation.

“The numerous layers of coffins around the mummy functioned as repeated images of the deceased, but also as protective capsules, similar to the larvae’s pupa before its transformation to a butterfly. Such repeated imagery is a well-known theme in religious art and literature.”

Most coffin nests have been disassembled and scattered to museums all over the world, but Bettum hopes to see more international collaboration to reassemble coffins. He said a project like this could be fascinating to the public and could rekindle interest in ancient Egyptian culture.

“So far, national legislation and interests have unfortunately served as barriers to such cooperation,” he concludes.