Pimp my coffin: Ancient Egyptian priest changed sarcophagus as his career progressed

Research for Fitzwilliam Museum's new show reveals that in antiquity funerary arrangements were made well in advance


New research for an exhibition opening today (23 February) at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge has scholars scratching their heads about the booming funerary industry in ancient Egypt. An examination of the sarcophagi of Nespawershefyt (also known as Nes-Amun) has revealed that significant changes were made to the owner’s titles, which suggests that he had his coffins made well in advance of his death and upd ated them as his career flourished.

Helen Strudwick, an Egypto­logist and co-curator of Death on the Nile: Uncovering the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt (until 22 May), says this is the first time that such alterations have been reported. “You often see the progression of job titles inscribed on tombs, especially Old Kingdom ones, but no one has reported seeing this on coffins before,” she says. Strudwick suspects that other examples exist but that no one is talking about them.

The group of coffins was donated to the museum in 1822 and is one of its earliest Egyptian acquisitions. Nes-Amun, who lived some time around 1,000BC, held various supervisory positions at the Temple of Amun-Ra at Karnak—a plum post at the time. “His coffin gives us a sense of a man who was clearly very proud of being a member of that team and one who didn’t skimp on quality,” Strudwick says.  

The exhibition takes an in-depth look at 13 of the museum’s Egyptian coffins and examines contextual objects including canopic jars, statues of gods and fragments from the Book of the Dead. It inaugurates a year of exhibitions to mark the Fitzwilliam’s 200th anniversary.

• A full version of this article appears in our March issue in print