FRAME|WORK: An ancient Egyptian coffin from the Thirtieth Dynasty

FRAME|WORK is a weekly blog series that highlights an artwork in the Museums' permanent collections. This week, we feature an enigmatic coffin from Egypt's turbulent past. Currently on view at the Legion of Honor, this ancient artwork provides insight into Egypt's past.

Anthropoid Coffin of Iret-hor-irou. Egyptian, Dynasty 30, 380–343 B.C. Cedar with traces of paint. Museum purchase, Gift of Diane B. Wilsey in memory of Alfred S. Wilsey. 2002.2a–b

Earlier this year, the world watched Egypt’s political structure transform when widespread social protests ended former president Hosni Mubarak’s thirty-year rule. Although Mubarak’s tenure was lengthy by modern standards, it was decidedly shorter than the dynasties of Egypt’s heralded antiquity, many of which held power for multiple generations. Over 2,000 years old, this work comes from a time when Egypt faced similar upheaval that resulted in a national identity crisis.

Captivating and complex, this coffin dates to Egypt’s Thirtieth Dynasty. Only seven years longer than Mubarak’s dictatorship, this dynasty was notable because it was the last one to be ruled by native Egyptians. After overthrowing his predecessor, the pharaoh Nectanebo I finally gained control of Egypt by late 380 BC. His success, however, was short-lived as he then spent the remainder of his rule fending off attacks from Persia, relying on the occasional assistance of Sparta or Athens. The descendants of Nectanebo maintained power despite familial infighting, until his great-grandson, Nectanebo II ascended to the throne in 360 BC. He would be Egypt's last indigenous pharaoh. In 342 BC, after repeated attempts, Artaxerxes of Persia successfully invaded Egypt and Nectanebo II retreated to the Nubian court in exile. From that point on, outsiders ruled Egypt, most notably the renowned descendents of Alexander the Great's general Ptolemy.

There's little in the way of hardwood in Egypt, so the cedar for this coffin had to be imported, which indicates that Iret-hor-irou was a wealthy man. The inscription is unusually long and carved with striking attention to detail, including spell seventy-two from the Book of the Dead and the name of the coffin's former inhabitant. The headdress reveals traces of pigment, and the glyphs were originally inlaid with polychrome, suggesting that the overall appearance would have been quite colorful. Last year, this object was photographed using RTI technology, which provided incredible images and rendered the hieroglyphs much more legible.

Visit the Hall of Antiquities in the lower level of the Legion of Honor to witness a piece of Egypt’s ever-fascinating history!