Exhibitions/ Nedjemankh and His Gilded Coffin/ Exhibition Gallery

Nedjemankh and His Gilded Coffin

At The Met Fifth Avenue
July 20, 2018–February 12, 2019

Exhibition Gallery


By the time Cleopatra was installed on Egypt's throne around 47 B.C., the Ptolemaic dynasty had been in power for nearly three hundred years. The rulers and elites followed Greek customs, but ancient Egyptian traditions continued to play a major role in the lives of the broader population, a fact particularly evident in the religious practices conducted in many temples and tombs.

Nedjemankh, the priest at the center of this installation, would have believed that it was essential to follow ancient Egyptian funerary ritual in order to preserve his body and assist his spirit as he traveled from his known life to a coveted eternal existence. The coffin was the primary vehicle in his time for assembling the elements essential for this transformation, and Nedjemankh commissioned a spectacular example. He had a human-shaped cartonnage decorated inside and out with numerous vignettes and symbols designed to protect his mummified body and his spirit. The most important aspect of the coffin is the hymn inscribed above the feet that speaks of gold and silver, both associated with divinity. The application of costly metals to the surfaces translates the hymn's words literally, assuring Nedjemankh's eternal existence as a divine being. Also presented in this space are temple and funerary equipment and artworks that elucidate the time in which Nedjemankh lived, the role he played in Egyptian society, and the significance of the elaborate decorative narrative on his coffin.


Selected Artworks

The inscriptions on Nedjemankh's coffin paint a picture of a man whose life was spent in the temple. Described as "Royal-Priest, Sameref-priest, Priest who adorns the divine image, and Priest of Heryshef-who-resides-in-Herakleopolis (Magna)," Nedjemankh would have attended to the temple's material and cultic needs in service of the ram-headed god Heryshef.

Already known in the Old Kingdom, Heryshef's earliest monuments in Herakleopolis date to Dynasty 12 (ca. 1981–1802 B.C.). A powerful god, he was closely associated with blood and slaughter, as well as with fertility. Heryshef is often portrayed with the head of a ram, wearing the tall, feathered atef-crown, and described as having the sun as his right eye and the moon as his left.

Daily life in ancient Egyptian temples centered on the god's image, with priests performing rituals and offering provisions for the god residing in it. Regarded as a living body, the statue of the god was washed, clothed, and decorated with jewelry. As stolist, a priest who adorns the divine image, Nedejmankh held a privileged position within the temple, coming in close proximity to the divine. Purity was therefore essential. Priests of Nedjemankh's day kept their heads clean-shaven and engaged in extensive purification practices. When performing rituals, they wore special garments and accessories, such as leopard skins, white sashes, and a braided sidelock of hair on their heads.

Selected Artworks

While we lack information about the precise location of Nedjemankh's tomb, archaeologists have uncovered other tombs and burials dating to the Ptolemaic and early Roman Periods (ca. 332 B.C.–A.D. 100) that help us envision how he might have been interred.

During the Ptolemaic Period, many large mudbrick tombs were built below ground. Some had vaulted roofs, while others, referred to as shaft tombs, led to chambers deep below the surface. Yet it was also common to find coffins simply set into the dirt of a sacred place. Occasionally, a burial like this might be capped by a mudbrick structure called a mastaba to mark the tomb's location.

Ptolemaic and Roman peoples also chose to place their burials either in or nearby older sacred structures. Certainly, it would be easier and cheaper to bury a relative in an existing chamber, and earlier tombs often held numerous later burials. However, the reuse of older cemeteries or disassembled components from earlier tombs and temples may not have been a purely economic decision. Burying the dead in a recognized sacred area, or reusing previously consecrated materials, allowed the newly deceased to partake of acknowledged protection.

Selected Artworks

Known by many names, the sun was worshipped primarily in the form of the god Re. In one set of ancient myths, Re was identified as the god who created the world out of the limitless darkness and water that preceded the beginning of time. One of his eternal duties, in which he was assisted by other divinities as well as the transfigured dead, was to protect the cosmos from the chaotic forces that surrounded it and threatened its existence.

Often depicted in the form of a falcon-headed man, Re was imagined to sail across the sky in his day bark (boat), aging as the hours passed. At sunset, he was thought to die and enter the underworld, the realm of the god Osiris. Frequently taking the shape of a ram-headed man, Re traveled in his night bark through the hours of darkness, fighting off enemies who threatened the cosmic order. At the culmination of this journey, he merged with Osiris and was reborn, usually in the form of a winged scarab or a young child.

The ancient Egyptians believed that without the sun's daily journey, life—and even time itself—would end. Once he had been transformed into one of the blessed dead, Nedjemankh could join Re in his solar bark and become part of the eternal cycle of death and rebirth.

Selected Artworks

Crucial to the transformation of the deceased was his or her relationship with Osiris. A mythical early king of Egypt, this god ruled with his sister-wife, Isis, until he was murdered by their jealous brother, Seth. Isis, with her sister Nephthys, revived her husband with magic and conceived a son, the god Horus. However, Osiris could not remain on earth. In the form of a mummy, he descended to the underworld, which was imagined to be entered from the west, the land of the setting sun. There, he lived on forever as lord of the afterlife, merging with the sun god Re each night to enable the sun's rebirth and his own eternal survival. Nedjemankh's physical body, once mummified, wrapped in linen, and protected by one or more coffins, was identified with Osiris. The intangible aspects of his being would descend to the underworld to be judged, so that he could join the company of the god for eternity.

Selected Artworks

The period between death and burial was considered hazardous. The proper performance of the embalming and funerary rituals helped transform the deceased and ensure his or her eternal existence as one of the transfigured dead.

Ideally, the body would be carefully preserved through the use of natron (a form of salt), anointed with oils and unguents, and wrapped in yards of linen, all while priests recited magical texts. The brain was discarded and the heart left in place. The viscera (lungs, liver, stomach, and intestines) were removed, mummified separately, and then either stored in separate jars or wrapped and returned to the body.

On Nedjemankh's coffin, the deceased, taking the place of Osiris, lies on a lion-headed embalming bed. Isis and Nephthys, beloved sisters of Osiris, mourn and protect the mummy as jackal-headed Anubis, chief god of embalming, performs rituals. (On view nearby is a similar tableau.) Also present in the coffin image are falcon-headed Horus, son and heir of Osiris, and ibis-headed Thoth, god of wisdom and writing.

Selected Artworks

Gilded coffin belonging to the priest of Heryshef, Nedjemankh (detail). Late Ptolemaic to early Roman Period, first century B.C. Cartonnage (linen, glue, gesso), gesso, paint, gold, silver, resin, glass, wood, leaded bronze. Lid: 71 1/4 x 20 7/8 x 11 in. (181 x 53 x 28 cm); base: 70 7/8 x 21 1/4 x 4 3/4 in. (180 x 54 x 12 cm)