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The Fitzwilliam Museum is marking its bicentenary with an exhibition on its collection of Egyptian coffins. Death on the Nile: Uncovering the afterlife of ancient Egypt explores the beliefs behind these objects and reveals new information on how they were made. Click here to access the exhibition's bespoke website.

Golden yellow, and covered from head to toe in bright hieroglyphs and pictures in reds, greens and blues, the set of coffins belonging to the man named Nespawershefyt (also known as Nes-Amun) was one of the very first gifts to the Fitzwilliam collection, given by two members of the University of Cambridge in 1822, just a few years after the Museum was founded in 1816.

The Nes-Amun coffin set is one of many stunning objects in Death on the Nile the majority from the Fitzwilliam’s collections and complemented by loans from the British Museum and the Musée du Louvre.

The coffins of Nes-Amun are one of the finest coffin sets of its type in the world and in an outstanding state of preservation. To uncover its hidden secrets, the coffins have been extensively studied with X-radiography at the Museum. And the inner coffin was sent for CT scanning at the radiology department of Addenbrooke's Hospital, part of Cambridge University Hospitals (CUH).

Julie Dawson, Head of Conservation at the Fitzwilliam and co-curator of the exhibition, spoke about what they discovered: "The inner coffin box is made up of a multitude of pieces of wood, including sections from at least one older coffin. Wood was a precious commodity and the craftsmen were incredibly skilled at making these complex objects from sometimes unpromising starting materials."

Examining the surface revealed other surprises, including several 3,000 year old fingerprints, suggesting that the craftsmen moved the lid of the inner coffin before the varnish had dried. Nes-Amun commissioned his coffins during his lifetime, but, by the time of his death he had risen in rank. His new titles - as supervisor of craftsmen's workshops in Karnak and the supervisor of temple scribes of Amun-Re - had to be inscribed over the top of the old ones.

 

 

Through scientific analysis of the many objects in the exhibition, the woods, pigments and varnishes used by craftsmen to make decoration have been identified. All this information helps bring us closer to the people who made the coffins as do the very human touches and stumbles - secret repairs hidden underneath a perfect finish, mistakes in drawings that had to be changed in the final painting and even the odd practice doodle on the underside of a coffin box.

In a live conservation area, visitors will be able to examine in more detail the scientific techniques and the materials and construction methods uncovered during the project.

Helen Strudwick, Egyptologist and exhibition co-curator said: "A coffin artisan in ancient Egypt had to deal creatively with many practical problems and sometimes restrictions on materials available because of the economic or political climate. Objects always had to be tailored to cost, but the finish had to meet the high aspirations of the customer."

"This is also a very appropriate exhibition for our bicentenary year. Not only did the Museum’s collection of Egyptian artefacts start with the gift of a beautiful set of coffins, that gift was also given in the year that Egyptology as a subject was born: 1822 was the year that Jean-François Champollion first announced his theories on the hieroglyphic script."

Death on the Nile: Uncovering the afterlife of ancient Egypt runs from until 22 May 2016. Admission is free.