Friday, July 28, 2023

Unseen Hands: Coffin Production at Akhmim, Dynasties 21-30

Unseen Hands: Coffin Production at Akhmim, Dynasties 21-30Johnston, Kea Marie

During the Third Intermediate and Late Periods, wealthy Egyptians were sent to theirafterlives in dazzlingly decorated and inscribed coffins nested like Russian dolls. Current understanding of these vessels for rebirth comes almost exclusively from analyses of Theban coffins, which focuses on dating the coffins primarily through changes in decorative layout. Local traditions outside of Thebes have been almost completely neglected and were assumed to be merely derivative of the Theban tradition. Thus, the work of non-Theban artists and scribes has typically been dismissed as "naive" or "provincial"--even though, in reality, very little is known about non-Theban coffin workshops, or about the training of the artists and scribes who worked in them.

A large number of coffins datable to post-New Kingdom pharaonic Egypt are thought tocome from the city of Akhmim, which lies two hundred kilometers north of Thebes. These Akhmim coffins present an excellent opportunity to characterize and evaluate a regional tradition. Sadly, the cemeteries of Akhmim were thoroughly plundered in the late 19th century, and the pillaged pieces were sold on the contemporary art market. Hence, until now, the Akhmim coffins have only been datable by means of stylistic comparisons to the Theban pieces. This dissertation builds a new typology for coffins from Akhmim, centered around the idea of workshops. It re-evaluates the Akhmim corpus, exploring the key questions of whether the artists were theologically trained and to what degree the scribes were literate. Part One provides the background framework required to understand the next two parts. It reviews the current literature and focuses attention on gaps in our understanding that this dissertation is designed to fill.

Part Two is a catalogue forming the core of this work that consists of an in-depthanalysis of the artistic and scribal hands on twenty-one coffins sets that can be tied to Akhmim by the owner's titles or by museum records of their acquisition--preferably by both. Each individual catalogue entry overviews the provenience and iconographic program of the pieces in a given set, and also provides a paleography of characters occurring on specific elements of the coffin set. An in-depth analysis of the artistic and scribal hands is then undertaken with the aim of answering the questions of how many scribes and artists worked on the individual items in the set, whether the items were decorated by the same people, and whether the scribes were also the artists.

The coffins in the Part Two catalogue are arranged in four broad sections based ongeneral characteristics of the decoration as well as rough dating derived from Theban typologies combined with Brech's typology of Akhmim coffins. At the end of each of these sections, the artistic and scribal hands on the coffins are compared with each other in order to hypothesize which pieces were made by the same artisans. The iconography and layout of the coffins in the section are compared with each other and with pieces in previous sections to propose one or more design patterns--defined as the common layout, selection and positioning of texts and vignettes, which typify products of the same workshop. Artists are then assigned to particular workshops, and the interrelationship between different workshops is discussed. Finally, knowledge of the characteristics of the hands of individual artists and the design patterns governing their products is applied to a large corpus of coffins with unsure or unknown provenience. If possible, these pieces are assigned to one of the workshops as previously defined.

The conclusion, Part Three, reviews and summarizes the results that emerged from thedetailed analysis in Part Two and explores further implications of these findings. In particular, the analysis of Part Two established that a local coffin industry flourished at Akhmim in the 21st Dynasty as well as the period between the late Third Intermediate Period and the Persian Period. During these times, workshops at Akhmim were small, multi-generational enterprises in which each coffin set was decorated by one or two people. Though in some cases there was division of labor between an artist and a scribe, on several coffin sets all the text and figural drawing were executed by the same person. The coffin decorators were likely affiliated with the Temple of Min at Akhmim. A comparison of similar vignettes on coffins of the same workshop reveals that artists were copying models and working from memory. The artists were probably not copying models of full scenes, however, since no two vignettes in the corpus are identical. The variations and substitutions of elements within the vignettes indicate that the artists knew and understood the mythology surrounding rebirth. Similarly, the texts on the coffins were created using a combination of memorization and copying. Captions and formulae were memorized, while specialized funerary texts were most likely copied. Whether the scribes understood what they were writing must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Two of the scribes can be shown to have been literate, one was certainly illiterate, and the rest seem to fall on a spectrum of partial literacy.

This study opens the door to studying regional coffin traditions at other sites andproposes a flexible methodology for doing so. It also builds a foundation for further study of the Akhmim corpus and for exploring how the Akhmim artists might have been connected to artists from elsewhere. Ideally, it challenges the idea that art in the Egyptian provinces was merely derivative of, and inferior to, art originating in Thebes.

Lucarelli, Rita
Johnston, K. M. (2022). Unseen Hands: Coffin Production at Akhmim, Dynasties 21-30. UC Berkeley. ProQuest ID: Johnston_berkeley_0028E_21365. Merritt ID: ark:/13030/m5gf84nd. Retrieved from

Publication Date:
UC Berkeley Electronic Theses and Dissertations


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