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Royal Coffin Controversy Volume 53 Number 5, September/October 2000
by Mark Rose

[image] The July 17 issue of the German news magazine Der Spiegel featured side-by-side photos of the KV55 royal coffin top in Cairo, right, and the restored gold decoration from the bottom, left, in Munich.

An old theft and secretive dealings are the latest chapters in the history of an enigmatic Dynasty 18 (1570-1293 B.C.) royal coffin discovered in the Valley of the Kings in 1907. The tomb in which the coffin was found was excavated by the English archaeologist Edward Ayrton, who worked for American financier Theodore Davis. Now known as KV55, the tomb is small, with a single chamber and side niche. It contained the coffin, in ruinous condition because of flooding, a dismantled wooden shrine that had been covered in gold foil, four canopic jars with stoppers in the form of portraits, and a scattering of other funerary objects.

The top half of the coffin, along with the gold foil that had been applied to the sides and floor of the bottom half, went to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Sometime between a restoration of the objects in 1914 and an inventory in 1931, the gold from the bottom half was stolen. It was long rumored that the gold was in a European museum, but not until last fall was it identified as the State Museum of Egyptian Art in Munich. The revelation was made when the journal KMT published two photographs showing the restored gold decoration from the sides of the coffins' bottom half and identified its possessor as the Munich institution.

The poorly preserved mummy in the coffin was initially identified as that of Queen Tiye, the mother of the pharaoh Akhenaten (r. 1350-1334). Her name could be read on a surviving portion of the gold foil on the dismantled shrine, which Akhenaten apparently had ordered built for her funeral at his capital, Akhenaten (el-Amarna). When el-Amarna was abandoned, the shrine, coffin, and other objects found in the tomb were moved to the Valley of the Kings. The identification of Tiye was soon discounted, however, when examination showed the mummy was that of a man.

The mummy's identity has been debated ever since. Cartouches, presumably with Akhenaten's name, had been excised from the top of the coffin and from Tiye's shrine, on which a figure of Akhenaten was also obliterated. Many of his monuments were defaced in this way after his heretical worship of the sun disk Aten was abolished by his successor, Tutankhamen. So Akhenaten is one possibility, but against that is the fact that the mummy is of a man in his twenties, too young for Akhenaten. Yet the mummy's skull morphology and blood type are similar to Tutankhamen's. Could it be Smenkhare, co-regent during the last years of Akhenaten's reign and possibly his brother? The missing gold from the bottom half of the coffin might provide a clue.

Now, an article in the German news magazine Der Spiegel offers an account, based on a recent lecture by Berlin Egyptian Museum scholar Rolf Krauss, of how the gold came to be in Munich. It was acquired ca. 1950 by Geneva-based antiquities dealer Nicolas Koutoulakis. After efforts to sell the gold during the 1970s proved unsuccessful, it went to the museum in Munich, then directed by Dietrich Wildung, in 1980. It was secretly restored at the museum, being mounted on a plexiglas shell. In 1994, Koutoulakis' daughter donated it to the museum. After publication of the photographs in KMT last year, the museum admitted possessing the coffin gold.

While cartouches on the sides of the bottom half have been excised, as can be seen in the KMT photographs, there is hope that the its floor was not defaced. Meanwhile, according to Der Spiegel the museum's current director, Sylvia Schoske, refuses access to it and has not made public her own study of it. Negotiations are said to be underway between Munich and Cairo, with the German museum bargaining for a long-term loan in exchange for return of the coffin gold.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America