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Casket

  • Place of origin:

    Egypt (made)

  • Date:

    400-500 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Wood, brass, iron

  • Museum number:

    1683:1-1888

  • Gallery location:

    Medieval & Renaissance, Room 8, The William and Eileen Ruddock Gallery, case 14 []

This casket was excavated from a burial site at Akhmim in Upper Egypt. It has been preserved through the burial practices of a people who considered the afterlife to be an idealized form of worldly experience and furnished graves with objects they used in daily life. Such grave goods included textiles, toiletries and furniture to assist the deceased in the afterlife.
The height of this casket and circular imprints in the base of the interior suggest that it was used to hold perfumes or medicines.

Physical description

Wooden casket. The front is decorated with stamped brass bands. Those on each end bear a vine scroll emerging from an urn and inhabited by a single bird. The inner bands have been stamped with two alternating designs: roundels containing helmeted heads and a second design of two star shapes placed one above the other, which could represent stars or flowers. The lid, which can be removed from the object has two long prongs with which it locked to the main body of the casket. The feet at the front of the casket have been carved into crude owls. Most of the ironwork on the outside of the casket has corroded to little more than a mineral residue. The box has two simple, loop handles attached to the lid: one on the front and one on the top. Two iron hinges are attached to the back of the box, they have become detached from the lid, but remain secured to the main body of the casket. The interior of the casket has been divided into eight compartments. At the bottom of the side compartments, the dark circular impressions left by whatever was contained within the box can still be seen.

Place of Origin

Egypt (made)

Date

400-500 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Wood, brass, iron

Dimensions

Height: 16.4 cm, Width: 20 cm, Depth: 21.5 cm

Object history note

From ancient tombs at Akhmim Upper Egypt. Given to the Museum by Henry Wallis Esq.

Historical significance: This casket appears to be one of only two surviving example of its type.

Historical context note

If genuine, this wooden casket has survived through the burial practices of a people who continued the tradition of earlier religions in considering the afterlife to be an idealized form of their worldly experience. Graves were furnished with everyday objects including textiles, toiletries and furniture to assist the deceased in the afterlife. These people may have been Copts - Christians native to Egypt.
It has been proposed that the present casket contained weights, possibly used in a trade context, however the uniformity of the compartments within the casket and of the ring impressions left in the base, suggest otherwise. An existing Coptic weights box, also features applied metal bands on the exterior, but the structure is quite different. The compartments for the weights are of varying sizes and the lid slides on and off rather than being hinged. The delicate handles on the present casket were not designed to support a heavy load .
Caskets were also used as reliquaries by the Copts. According to Evelyn-White, Coptic texts make frequent reference to the bestowal of saintly bodies in "arks" of wood. The sole surviving example of such an object (from the church of El Adra) is quite different from the present casket in its dimensions, adornment and construction.
The height of the present casket suggests that it contained tallish cylindrical objects and this would be consistent with a casket for perfumes and other toiletry unguents or medicines. The circular impressions on the base of the casket also help to promote this theory.

The vegetal motifs found on the front of the casket, impressed into copper bands, are common to the late antique Eastern Mediterranean and Coptic Art. Here a tendril sprouting bulbous fruit, possibly intended to be bunches of grapes, and leaves with splayed fronds emerges from an urn. The ornament is inhabited by a single well understood bird. A comparable example of this inhabited foliage can be seen on a fragment of Coptic sculpture now in the British Museum (B.M.1617). A bird of similar simple design, with a large ringed eye, rests among foliage. The scale of the bird in comparison to the fruit and foliage carved on the stone is of a similar ratio to that seen on the present casket, i.e. the bird would be minute.
A casket in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo is decorated with similar applied metal banding depicting vine-scroll. It is illustrated in Strzgowski, J. as CG9037 and was also excavated in Akhmim. Although the vine appears as a Christian motif in later art of the region, there is no reason for a Christian interpretation in the case of the V&A casket - the same motif accompanies purely classical decoration on CG9037. It could however have been owned by a Christian, the religion being one of many which co-existed in Akhmim at the time the box was made.

Three other panels of copper banding on the front of the casket are decorated with helmeted heads in profile, set within roundels. The roundels are separated by pairs of stars. Profile portraiture does not occur often in Coptic art, with the majority of figures depicted frontally disposed. It is also problematic to find comparable headwear to that shown in the roundels. Textile caps survive but the hats depicted appear more like metal helmets, with a ridge or neck guard at the back, possibly of a military nature. Elisabeth O'Connell of the British Museum has suggested a similarity to felt caps worn by sailors, which may make a reference to the Odyssey.

The origins of Christianity in Egypt are not entirely clear. According to the unproven tradition of the Coptic Church, reported by Eusebius, Christianity was introduced into Egypt by St Mark who landed in Alexandria between AD. 40 and 49 and indeed, the faith probably arrived from Judea sometime in the first century AD and probably became first established in Alexandria, which was both an intellectual centre and the home of a large Jewish community. Coptic Christians were fiercely persecuted in the third century AD under the reign of Diocletian. Thousands perished in The Great Persecution, but Christians were widely accepted again by the end of the fourth century and continued to practice their faith freely until the Arab conquest in 641AD. In attempts to represent Christian themes, the Copts drew on late Hellenistic and Roman motifs, such as those represented in the pressed relief bands on this casket.

Henry Wallis who gave the box to the museum was a British artist and writer; born in London, 21 February 1830. His best known picture "The Death of Chatterton" hangs in the Tate Gallery in London. He visited Egypt annually and bought antiquities there, which he sold to museums and collectors to pay expenses; he was an authority on Near Eastern ceramics, and published in Egyptian ceramic art: The Macgregor collection, 1898 ; his drawings of the tombs of Aswan were published in monochrome. He had a collection of oriental ceramics, embroideries and antiquities which were dispersed after his death, the collection of ceramics is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. In the 1890s he was also involved in campaigns to preserve ancient Egyptian monuments.He died in Croydon 20 December 1916 and is buried in Highgate Cemetery.

Akhmim

Descriptive line

Egyptian, 400-500 AD

Egyptian, 400-500 AD, wood, iron and brass

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Badawy Coptic Art and Archaeology(Cambridge, USA : Massachusettes Institute of Technology)
Bourguet Coptic Art (Methuen, London 1971)
Cannuyer, C Coptic Egypt : The Christians of The Nile (Thames and Hudson)
Strzgowski, Josef Koptische Kunst: Catalogue général des antiquités égyptiennes du Musée du Caire; no. 7001-7394, 8742-9200 (Vienna:A. Holzhausen)
(Vienne: A Holzhausen, 1904)
Sumner, G. Roman Military Clothing AD200-400 (Oxford 2006)

Production Note

From ancient tombs at Akhmim (Panopolis) Upper Egypt

Materials

Wood; Iron; Brass

Categories

Furniture; Africa

Collection

Furniture and Woodwork Collection

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