Coffin and mummy of Nesmin
Unknown artist, Egyptian
Coffin and mummy of Nesmin, 250 BCE
Coffin: wood, gesso, gilding, paint, and colored glass
Length: 179.1 cm (70 1/2 inches)
Museum Appropriation Fund and Mary B. Jackson Fund 38.206
About the work
More than 2,000 years ago, after being wrapped in linen and resin, Nesmin the priest became Nesmin the mummy. During his lifetime, Nesmin served the fertility god Min, as his father and grandfather had before him. After his death, the preparation of his body and coffin testifies to the emphasis on eternal life in ancient Egyptian religious belief and practices.
The Egyptians believed that an eternal life in paradise awaited the dead, so long as proper preparations had been made. Bodies were mummified in a process that involved removing internal organs, then dehydrating the body and wrapping it in linen. These careful preparations allowed Nesmin’s spirit soul to return to his body every night. There were many dangers on the road to the underworld, so protective amulets were sewn into his wrappings, and blessings and incantations were written on his sarcophagus. Powerful gods appear in scenes on the sarcophagus lid, and Nesmin’s genealogy is written out for all to see.
It was very expensive to be mummified and buried in a richly decorated sarcophagus made of imported wood. Nesmin’s ability to afford this treatment reflects the high status of priests in ancient Egyptian society. Although he lived during a period of Greek rule in Egypt, Nesmin was buried in a very traditional way, revealing the durability and longevity of Egyptian culture.
After Nesmin’s funeral, no living person soul would have been able to see his ornately decorated sarcophagus. What does this say about ancient Egyptian beliefs about the power of images and writing?
While the ancient embalmers did a good job preserving Nesmin, his mummy and sarcophagus are made of organic material, and more than 2,000 years old. What kind of concerns do you think museum conservators and curators need to deal with to keep them intact and on display for another 2,000 years? Consider the details of his display at the Museum and his surroundings, including air conditions, lighting, and the protective outer case.
Nesmin is unique in the RISD Museum’s collection because he was once a living person. What do you think are some of the issues museums consider regarding the possession and display of human remains?
To encourage close observation, ask students to choose a small section of the painted sarcophagus or the decorated areas on the mummy. Have them draw the forms and symbols they see and take notes about the materials used, as well as their appearance and condition. Ask what these observations reveal about the materials, about how the craftsmen and artisans might have worked, and about what was important to ancient Egyptians.
Ask students to write their own inscriptions, using these observations and their knowledge of Egyptian life and religion. What information would they include about the deceased? What kind of texts would they use and what purpose would they serve?
To help students prepare their own inscriptions, begin by discussing this text on Nesmin’s coffin:
Take for yourself your heart of your mother. She has set it in its place in your body, so that you may be renewed. May you cross the sky in peace. May you see the sun god Re in the horizon without [ceasing] daily forever and always.
Ancient Egyptians believed that at birth, each person inherited their heart from their mother; to be reborn in the afterlife, this process had to be repeated. Unlike the organs removed during embalming and placed in the canopic jars, the heart stayed intact within the body, as the Egyptians believed the heart contained the individual’s personality and memories. This information will help your students decipher the inscription.
Now consider form and content. Who is speaking and who is being addressed? Notice that the text is conveyed in the voice of Nesmin himself, but that his speech is not in the first person. It is important to remember that Nesmin was a priest dedicated to the fertility god Min. Re is the sun god who crossed the sky every day and was reborn each morning. How might these facts explain Nesmin’s actions in the text? Ask students to consider how the gods are portrayed by this writer and what is expected from them.
Notice how the second-person voice is used. As you write your own inscription, think about why the writer might have used the second-person voice, rather than the first person or third-person voice. Scholars think this is probably because the words belong to an older funerary spell the priests copied from another source, possibly a papyrus, for Nesmin’s coffin.
Andrews, Carol. Egyptian Mummies. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984.
Taylor, John H., ed., Journey through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010.