The term “Coffin” is usually applied to the rectangular or anthropoid container in which the Egyptians placed the mummified body, whereas the word “Sarcophagus” (Greek: “Flesh-Eating”) is used to refer only to the stone outer container, invariably encasing one or more coffins. The distinction made between these two items of Egyptian funerary equipment is therefore essentially an artificial one, since both shared the same role of protecting the body of the deceased. In terms of decoration and shape, coffins and sarcophagi drew on roughly the same iconographic stylistic repertoire.
The earliest burials in Egypt contain no coffins and were naturally desiccated by the hot sand. The separation of the body of deceased from the surrounding sand by the use of a coffin or sarcophagus ironically led to the deterioration of the body, perhaps stimulating developments in mummification. The religious purpose of the coffin was to ensure the well-being of the deceased in the afterlife, literally providing a “house” for the “Ka”.
The earliest coffins were baskets or simple plank constructions in which the body was placed in a flexed position. From these developed and valuated house-shaped coffins that remained in use into the fourth Dynasty (2613 – 2494 BC). At around this time, the Egyptians began to bury the deceased body in an extended position, perhaps because the increasingly common practice of evisceration made such an arrangement more suitable. By the end of the Old Kingdom (2181 BC), food offerings were being painted on the inside of coffins as an extra means of providing sustenance for the deceased in the event of the tomb chapel being destroyed or neglected. In the Old & Middle Kingdom, a pair of eyes was often painted on the side of the coffin that faced east when it was placed in the tomb. It was evidently believed that the deceased could therefore look out of the coffin to see his or her offerings and the world from which he or she had passed, as well as to view the rising Sun.
Decorated coffins became still more important in the First Intermediate Period (2181 – 2055 BC), when many tombs contained little mural decoration. It was thus essential that coffins themselves should incorporate the basic elements of the tomb and by the Middle Kingdom (2055 – 1650 BC), they often incorporated revised extracts of the Pyramid Texts, known as the coffin texts. This change reflects the increased identification of the afterlife with Osiris, rather than the Sun-God “Ra”.
Anthropoid coffins first appeared in the 12th Dynasty (1985 – 1795 BC), apparently serving as substitute bodies lest the original be destroyed. With the New Kingdom (1550 – 1069 BC), this form of coffins became more popular and the shape became identified with Osiris himself; his beard and crossed arms sometimes being added. The feathered, rishi coffins of the 17th and early 18th Dynasty were once thought to depict the wings of the goddess Isis, embracing her husband Osiris, but are now considered by some scholars to refer to the BA bird. Rectangular coffins were effectively replaced by anthropoid types in the 18th Dynasty; but some of their decorative elements were retained.
In the Third Intermediate Period (1069 – 747 BC), coffins, papyri and stelae became the main vehicles for funerary scenes that had previously been carved and painted on the walls of tomb chapels. The principal feature of most of the new scenes depicted on coffins was the Osirian and solar mythology surrounding the concept of rebirth, including the judgment of the deceased before Osiris and the journey into the underworld, the voyage of the Solar Bark and parts of the Litany of Ra. Among the new scenes introduced in the decoration of coffins and on funerary papyri was the depiction of the separation of the earth-god Geb from the sky-goddess Nut.
The excavation of the 21st & 22nd Dynasty royal tombs at Tanis has provided a number of examples of the royal coffins of the period (although the sarcophagi were sometimes reused from the New Kingdom). The cache of mummies of high priests of Amun at Deir el-Bahri has also yielded a large number of private coffins of the 21st Dynasty (1069 – 945 BC). It was also from the end of the New Kingdom onwards that the interiors of the coffins began to be decorated again; beneath the lid-especially in the 22nd Dynasty (945 – 715 BC), there was often a representation of Nut, while the “goddess of the West”, Hathor, or the Djed Pillar began to be portrayed on the coffin floor. During the Late Period, extracts from the Book of the Dead were sometimes also inscribed inside the coffin.
In the 25th Dynasty a new repertoire of coffin types, usually consisting of sets of two or three (including an inner case with pedestal, an intermediate anthropoid outer coffin), was introduced, becoming established practice by the 26th Dynasty. Late Period coffins were characterized by archaism, involving the reintroduction of the earlier styles of coffin decoration, such as the provision of the eye panel.
There are comparatively few excavated burials dating from c.525 to 350 BC, but more coffins have survived from the succeeding phase (30th Dynasty and early Ptolemaic Period), when they typically have disproportionately large heads and wigs. During the early Ptolemaic Period, many mummies were provided with cartonnage masks and plaques, fixed on to the body by strips of line.