A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
A Coffin Fit for a Priestess
Meresamun's skintight coffin, or cartonnage, was made by placing layers of linen and plaster over a temporary mummy-shaped core of mud and straw. When the plaster dried, the back of the coffin was sliced open, the mud and straw was scraped out, and the body, tightly bound in linen wrappings smeared with resin, was inserted inside by stretching the opening. Several wooden boards were placed at the feet, so the mummy could eventually be stood up when it was nested in two outer wooden coffins (now lost). The backing was stitched closed. Additional layers of linen and plaster provided a smooth top coating.
The outside of the cartonnage was then lavishly painted in bold, bright colors with Meresamun's idealized likeness and images to ensure her successful journey to the afterlife, including flowers, sun disks, and a falcon. When the paint dried, a layer of transparent varnish was applied. Over time, the varnish has yellowed, giving Meresamun's face a browner appearance than was originally intended.
Her body was likely transported to a roughly hewn, undecorated group tomb chiseled into a limestone hillside on the West Bank of Thebes, a common practice around 800 B.C. A wooden chest with canopic jars containing her stomach, liver, lungs, and intestines, along with an inscribed stele invoking the gods, would have been placed nearby (both the canopic jars and stele are now lost).
Artists who painted mummy coffins did not sign their work, but the person who decorated Meresamun's cartonnage certainly left his (or her) mark. On each side of Meresamun's head, there are dribbles of blue paint that extend beyond the outline of her wig. With the coffin set on its back while the artist worked, the paint must have dried that way. The artist either rushed the job--or didn't expect anyone would be critiquing the creation some 3,000 years later.
Eti Bonn-Muller is managing editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.Share