Jaume Vilaró Fabregat

Ciclo: XXXV

Project title: Non-stola yellow coffins of the Twenty-first Dynasty preserved at the Museo Egizio in Turin: Relationship and functioning between texts and iconography

The yellow coffins of the Twenty-First Dynasty stand out for their iconography, which feature a deep and complex meaning that is enhanced by the associated textual inscriptions. Both texts and iconography reflect the complex interaction between ritual needs, funeral beliefs and socioeconomic factors specific to the period, in which the private use of tombs gave way to the collective use of tombs.

Certain inscriptions and scenes frequently appear in the same position, indicating the existence of rules of composition, patterns and common sequences governing the adornment of the material. Thus, the primary objective of the research project is to ascertain the discernible iconographic and textual patterns and identify them in the corpus of non-stola yellow coffins.

Egyptologists have generally accepted that ancient Egyptian art assumed the neutralization of the personal stylistic identity of the artist in favor of stylistic homogenization. In this way, specific craftspeople remained imperceptible, even omitted, in ancient studies. However, by identifying and comparing the different patterns exhibited on the coffins, one can identify some of the specific workshops and individual craftspeople involved in the decoration of the funerary artifacts. This novel methodology, rendered accessible by contemporary computer database software, makes it possible to generate new analytical insights about the copying process, knowledge circulation and transmission mechanisms of the textual and iconographic motifs and patterns amongst the relevant artistic networks and craftspeople. The comparative analysis of the copying process allows for observation of meaningful variations, adaptations, deletions and additions. Identified deviations from the patterns may, possibly, derive from the complex interaction between appeals to tradition and the attractions of innovation that lies at the heart of creativity itself. Without any principled basis, ancient Egyptian craftspeople have largely been denied their agency as actors involved in, and relevant to, the creative process.

Additionally, this comparative approach seeks to supply more data in order to investigate the motivation for the emergence of different patterns in the texts and iconography depicted on the non-stola yellow coffins. Could their choice be attributed to the preferences and circumstances of the coffin owner? Or did each workshop in time and space use specific and unexchangeable patterns and models? Were variable individual factors such as gender, class, or specific aesthetic and religious motivations, relevant to stylistic choices?

The attribution of different coffins from the same workshop from around the same time reveals the relevance of previously neglected social factors of the coffin owners as well. For example, the owners’ titles inscribed on the coffins from the same workshops reveal that they were not always bound by family ties but rather by institution or vocation. This may be material to the emergence of collective tombs at the time.

By employing this data-driven comparative methodology, the research project will move beyond mere visual description and indexing of what is represented and inscribed on the non-stola yellow coffins to consider the material as a process and not just as a result. Firstly, the study identifies workshops and individual craftspeople involved in the creation of the coffins, a challenge that has recently been emphasized in coffin studies. Secondly, the study facilitates new analytical insights about the operations and organization of workshops during the Twenty-First Dynasty. Thirdly, the identification of patterns may reveal the factors that impacted the craftspeople’s selection of texts and iconography. Fourthly, the project reveals and analyzes the social statuses of those who originally owned the funerary containers. Fifthly and finally, the investigation specifies the provenance, chronology and recent history of the materials, which oftentimes appear completely decontextualized in museums and institutions.

The project and its methodology complement past and present multi-disciplinary approaches that address the technical and material aspects of the yellow coffins, especially those conducted in conjunction with, or parallel to, the international Vatican Coffin Project. This vital dialogue between scholars, employing different methodologies and different approaches, contributes to filling an important knowledge gap in the field.