A mummy case decorated with hieroglyphs in shades of blue, gold and deep red

The Aswan cartonnage

Photo of John H Taylor in front of a bookshelf, wearing a navy jumper, blue checked shirt and glasses.

By John H Taylor, Visiting Academic, Department of Egypt and Sudan, British Museum

View the Aswan cartonnage in Room 62.
Find Room 62.

A hundred years after it disappeared from the archaeological record, curator John H Taylor recognised an ancient Egyptian coffin in a Dorset castle from a photograph taken in Cairo in 1907.

Here John explains why this extraordinary cartonnage coffin – and its return to history – matters.

What is the Aswan cartonnage?

The Aswan cartonnage is a coffin found near Aswan, a city 600 miles along the Nile south of Cairo, Egypt. Made of 'cartonnage' – layers of textile, glue and plaster – and decorated in brightly coloured pigment and gold, it was found in an intact tomb on an island near Philae and once enclosed an ancient Egyptian mummy, most likely of a priest. It dates to the Ptolemaic period, from about 305–30 BC. This period was towards the end of the history of 'ancient' Egypt, when it was ruled by the family of Ptolemy – the general of Alexander the Great – and was therefore under Greek control. Greek culture was introduced to Egypt and coexisted alongside traditional Egyptian culture for 300 years.  

The Aswan cartonnage was made during this culturally mixed period – but what is striking about the coffin is how Egyptian it is in style. It is one of the latest examples from ancient Egypt of a complete coffin made of cartonnage. By this time fashions were changing and people of high status were usually buried in a coffin of wood or stone, with a mask of cartonnage over the mummy's head and, often, with separate cartonnage plaques to cover the breast, legs and feet. Only a few complete coffins made of cartonnage are known from this period, and even these are rather different from the Aswan specimen; they comprise a cover which fits only around the front and sides of the body, with a separate mask over the head (see this mummy from Thebes, in Room 62). The Aswan cartonnage is unusual because it consists of two halves – front and back – and it covered the mummy completely, from head to toe.

It is decorated in a very traditional Egyptian style, reflecting beliefs and ideas about life after death which can be traced back many centuries. The gilded face and the blue colouring of the headdress were features of the gods and are meant to show that the dead person had become divine. Most of the other images on the front and back represent individual deities, whose role was to protect the dead from harmful forces and to make sure that they flourished in the afterlife. One of these deities is in the form of Khepri, a winged scarab beetle. Most of the others are painted in human form, some with animal heads, but they are not always easy to identify.

On the flat surface under the feet the painter has depicted the outlines of a pair of sandals. On each of these is the figure of a bound captive, conveying the idea that the dead person would be triumphant over any evil beings or forces that might threaten him. He would literally tread his enemies under foot.

There are hieroglyphic inscriptions, intended to give protection and empowerment, but they contain many repetitions and mistakes. Probably the painter was not fully literate and was copying from a model that he did not understand.

Why does the Aswan cartonnage matter?

Who was it made for?

Only people of high status, such as officials or priests, could expect to be buried in a tomb and to have a decorated coffin. The man who this coffin belongs to is represented in a painting on the left-hand side of the lid, where he is kneeling to worship a group of deities. His clothing – a long white shendyt (a kilt-like garment) and a band across the chest – is typical of the dress of a priest, so he probably worked in one of the temples at Philae. Unfortunately, his name does not appear in the hieroglyphic inscriptions on the coffin.

Why does the Aswan cartonnage matter?

With its rare use of cartonnage to make a complete coffin with lid and base, the Aswan cartonnage is important, as it differs from the standard types of the period.

It is also important because it has secure archaeological 'provenance' – its findspot and the details of its excavation are very well documented. This is something which many examples in museums lack.  

However, in spite of the detailed notes of its excavation, the coffin actually disappeared from the archaeological record when it was purchased by a private collector in 1915, a few years after its discovery – unknown to experts and the public alike. Now, a century later, this incredible object has been carefully restored by British Museum conservators and is on display for both scholars and the public to study and marvel at.

What exactly is a cartonnage coffin?

A cartonnage coffin is a type of coffin used in ancient Egypt between about 2000 BC (during the Middle Kingdom) and AD 100 (in Roman Egypt). These coffins, made from layers of textile, glue and plaster, were moulded into the shape of a human body. Usually they represented the occupant wrapped like a mummy, with details that indicated that they had been reborn as a divine being.

Most Egyptian coffins were made from wood, stone or clay (although some kings had coffins of gold or silver). However, cartonnage had many advantages: it was light in weight; it could be fashioned into complex shapes; it could support a plaster surface on which paint could be applied; and it was relatively cheap. It could be made from recycled textiles (often old clothes or sheets) or, in the later centuries BC, discarded documents written on papyrus.

The earliest mummy-wrappings to be made of cartonnage were masks placed over the head of the wrapped body. This led to the creation of full-length mummy-shaped coffins, usually made of wood, but occasionally of cartonnage. The main period of popularity for cartonnage coffins was between about 950 and 700 BC (the 22nd to early 25th Dynasties). During this period, most people of high status, and many of 'middle' rank, were buried in a cartonnage coffin.  

What exactly is a cartonnage coffin?

There are no records of how the coffins were made, but careful study of surviving examples has revealed clues to the process which the craftsmen followed. Layers of linen, soaked in animal glue, were applied to a core or form, made of mud and chopped straw and shaped like a wrapped mummy. After removal of the core, the body was inserted into the hollow shell of cartonnage through an opening at the back, and the coffin was laced together with string threaded through holes along the edges. The outer surface was then painted.

The skill and know-how of the craftsmen who made these coffins became apparent to British Museum conservators during the restoration of the Aswan cartonnage – a process which took more than four years. You can learn more about the conservation project in this blog.

Temple at Philae

Sepia photograph of an Ancient Egyptian temple complex on an island, surrounded by water, with a rocky hill and palm trees in the foreground and a headland in the distance
Frank Mason Good (1839–1928), Island of Philœ, about 1856–60. Photograph of the temple complex on Philae island, where the deceased priest may have worked during the Ptolemaic period. In the 1960s the temple was deconstructed and relocated to the nearby island of Agilkia to protect it from flooding due to the construction of the old Aswan Dam and the Aswan High Dam. Photo: Prints & Photographs Division, United States Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-04488.

Where is the cartonnage from?

Aswan was a long-established settlement on the Nile, which marked the southern border of Egypt and was important as a focal point for traffic in the produce of sub-Saharan Africa.

The Nile river island of Philae, to the south of Aswan, was the site of an important temple of the goddess Isis, from the Late Period (about 664–305 BC). Isis, one of the most important goddesses of ancient Egypt, was especially associated with healing and magic. The cult of Isis was particularly promoted at Philae. What remains of the temple today dates from about 380 BC to AD 300. The worship of Isis continued at Philae into the Christian era, until the temples there were finally closed in the reign of the emperor Justinian, in about AD 535.

In 1907, work began on the First Archaeological Survey of Nubia, a large-scale operation conducted by the Egyptian government in advance of a planned raising of the Aswan Dam which aimed to improve irrigation and increase the yield of crops. The aim of the survey was to record sites of archaeological interest and to carry out salvage operations at locations likely to be threatened by the construction of the dam. One of these locations was the island of el-Hesa, situated in the Nile to the south of Aswan. On the island were the tombs of priests of the goddess Isis and their families, who had probably worked in the nearby temple of Philae. An excavation team led by the American archaeologist George A Reisner discovered many rock-cut tombs on el-Hesa, and the cartonnage coffin was found in one of these.

Philae is now under water, submerged as a result of the raising of the first Aswan Dam in the early 1900s and the construction of the Aswan High Dam in 1960. The temple complex at Philae was disassembled and moved by UNESCO to the nearby island of Agilkia, which tourists can visit today.

How did the cartonnage come to the UK?

In the early 20th century large numbers of objects were being discovered in archaeological digs in Egypt. At the completion of work, a division of the finds was routinely made, some items going to the excavators and their sponsors, while the remainder entered the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. In view of the large volume of material which most digs produced, the museum offered some pieces for sale to collectors and tourists, and these items could include coffins and mummies. This 'Salle de Vente' (sale room) operated in the Cairo Museum from 1880s to the 1950s.

The cartonnage from Aswan seems to have been sold in this way to a British army officer who spent time in Egypt during the First World War. In 1915 Colonel Frederick Wingfield Digby wrote to his family at Sherborne Castle in Dorset: 

I am thinking of buying an old Sarcophagus or coffin for the museum. I can get one 300 or 1000 years B.C. from the Museum cheap & it will look lovely in our museum at Sherborne.

The cartonnage was shipped to England in 1916 and joined the private collection there. For around a century, it was unknown to Egyptologists and the general public.

Tomb 91B, where the cartonnage was found, was discovered undisturbed, with its original entrance blocking of stones still intact. The tomb contained two mummies, each in a stone sarcophagus. One had five separate cartonnage covers over the front of the mummy and the other rested in the cartonnage coffin now in the British Museum.

How did the cartonnage come to be at the British Museum?

What happened to the mummy?

We know from excavation records that the mummies found in the el-Hesa tombs were well-wrapped, with a shroud held in place by bands at the head and foot. These well-preserved mummies with cartonnage were not unwrapped by excavators. Some of these are now in the Nubian Museum at Aswan.

It is possible that the mummy from tomb 91B was sent with its cartonnage to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo but, if so, it was not acquired by Mr Wingfield Digby. He wrote that he felt 'rather superstitious' about moving a dead body. The mummy may have remained in Cairo or could have been sold to another purchaser. Its whereabouts today are unknown.

How did the cartonnage come to be at the British Museum?

The cartonnage formed part of the collection at Sherborne Castle until 2018, when it was bought by the British Museum. 

Throughout a long career, the specialist curator builds up a visual memory of thousands of objects – objects seen in the field, in museums, in books and online. As a curator of Egypt and Sudan, I had seen photographs of the coffin at Sherborne and, although the years had taken their toll, recognised it as the one from the 1907 excavation photographs of el-Hesa. For 100 years the fate of this cartonnage was unknown. It is quite amazing that, a century later, it has been reconnected with its history and re-entered the archaeological record. After careful conservation from the British Museum conservation team, the coffin is now on display in Room 62.

Although the publication details of the original excavation were of high quality by the standards of the time, research methods have evolved in the past century and we can now learn much more from specimens such as this. We can identify the materials used by the craftsmen, analyse the pigments and study the constructional techniques involved, using scientific methods that were not available in 1907. The cartonnage can be compared with other examples and contextualised within a much larger body of archaeological material.

Thankfully, because of its secure archaeological provenance, all the new data which we gather can be placed in a reliable historical and social context. This greatly enhances the value of the cartonnage as a piece of evidence for the reconstruction of a vanished world.

Conserving the cartonnage

A woman in a dark red top and wearing a face mask arranges the support frame for an ancient Egyptian cartonnage coffin, inside a humidifying tent
Head of Organic Conservation, Verena Kotonski, works on the conservation of the Aswan cartonnage coffin.

Curator's comment

Photo of John H Taylor in front of a bookshelf, wearing a navy jumper, blue checked shirt and glasses.

Having the opportunity to use my experience to identify the Aswan cartonnage was immensely rewarding, and I am delighted to have played a part in re-connecting this significant piece with its history. Awareness of the coffin's original context greatly enhances the value of the knowledge we continue to gain through its study and helps us to forge direct links with the people of the past.

John H Taylor, Visiting Academic, Department of Egypt and Sudan

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