The restoration of the coffin of the royal scribe Butehamon: restoring, understanding, telling the story
The Egyptian Museum of Turin, in collaboration with the Department of Ancient Egypt of the Vatican Museums, has organised and curated this photographic exhibition on the restoration of the outer coffin of Butehamon, which forms part of the Turin museum’s collection.
The Vatican Coffin Project team from the Vatican Museums was involved in the restoration of the external coffin of the Royal Scribe, Butehamon, which was presented as a temporary exhibition in the new arrangement of the Museo Egizio of Turin, formally opened on 1 April 2015.
The restoration work was carried out in the Museo Gregoriano Egizio by Giovanna Prestipino and took six months.
The analyses were carried out by the Laboratory of Diagnostic for Conservation and Restoration of the Vatican Museums, directed by Ulderico Santamaria assisted by Fabio Morresi.
The restoration project was directed by Christian Greco, Director of the Museo Egizio di Torino, and Alessia Amenta, Curator of the Department of Ancient Egyptian Antiquities in the Vatican Museums and Director of the Vatican Coffin Project.
The publication of the restoration is in preparation and will be published in the catalogue series of the Museo Egizio di Torino.
Those responsible for the restoration decided to present this important work by means of a photographic exhibition set up in the gallery of Sala I of the Museo Egizio, also opened on 1 April 2015.
The royal scribe Butehamon
The royal scribe Butehamon was a key figure in Egyptian history. He flourished between the end of the New Kingdom (Twentieth Dynasty, reign of Ramesse XI) and the beginning of the Third Intermediate Period (Twenty-First Dynasty, reign of Smendes). By this time, the community of the builders of the tombs of the pharaohs had already moved from their original home, the village of Deir el-Medina, to the temple of Medinet Habu.
Butehamon, the son of the scribe Djehutymes and his wife Baketamun, was the descendant of a prominent family of scribes and men of letters that we can trace all the way back to the famous Amennakht son of Ipuy, who penned important documents kept in the Turin museum, such as the Strike Papyrus and two royal hymns. Among sources for Butehamon’s personal and professional life, his correspondence with his father Djehutymes is of the greatest importance. It provides, among other things, interesting information about the political events that marked the last years of the reign of Ramesses XI.
Many graffiti with the name of Butehamon bear witness to this scribe’s activities in the royal necropolis. In particular, a note found on the mummy of Ramesses III attests that Butehamon was among the officials charged by the High Priest of Amun-Re, Pinudjem I, to restore the mummy of the pharaoh and rebury it, along with the many others who were restored around this time and brought to the cachette of Deir el-Bahari (DB 320).
Butehamon married Ikhtay, a Singer of Amun, who bore him many children. The name of the woman is preserved thanks to an inscription from the family home, which is still visible today inside the enclosure of the Medinet Habu temple. Butehamon’s grief for Ikhtay’s death is expressed in a sensitive letter preserved on an ostracon in the Louvre, which he addresses to the coffin of the deceased, beseeching it to act as a go-between and give his love to the deceased woman.
The coffin of Butehamon arrived in Turin in 1824 with the Drovetti collection. It is presumed to have been found in the reused tomb of a Deir el-Medina craftsman named Nakhtmin (TT 291).
The coffin set is already the one typically found in the Third Intermediate Period. It thus comprises an outer coffin, an inner coffin, and a false lid. Unfortunately nothing is known of the mummy. A small decorated amulet papyrus belonging to Butehamon also came to Turin with the Drovetti collection.
Some elements of the decoration of the outer coffin, such as the stripes of the wig extending down to the box and the white background color, alternating with the yellow background of the text columns, still reflect the style of the Ramesside period (1292-1076 BC). On the other hand, the increasing space taken up by images to the detriment of the texts, which are shrunk to simple offering formulas or the names and epithets of the depicted deities, is a feature of the new “yellow coffin” style. The iconographic repertoire is richer than before, combining elements inherited from the New Kingdom tradition, such as funerary and offering scenes, processions of deities and funerary texts, with new theological speculations stressing the connection between the sun god Re (the vital principle) and Osiris (the catalyst of regeneration) in the process of the deceased’s rebirth.
The layout of the images on the outer coffin is very interesting in this regard. On both of the long sides of the chest, scenes showing Butehamon offering to a funerary deity are alternated with mythological scenes. The offering scenes are dedicated to the god Ptah-Sokar-Usir, and to a particular form of Osiris, significantly depicted with the falcon head characterizing the sun god Re-Harakhty. The mythological scenes include the Memphite cosmogonic representation of the god of the air, Shu, separating his children, the sky goddess Nut and the earth god Geb, and the scene of the “great serpent at the top of the staircase,” an allegory alluding to the rebirth of Osiris.
The lid has a very rich decorative program, including a splendid broad collar ending with a wreath of lotus flowers, a pectoral dominated by an image of the scarab Khepri, symbolizing the morning sun, and a solemn broad-winged image of Nut on the abdomen. The lower half of the top of the lid, instead, is subdivided into a number of frames containing offering scenes, including a remarkable one showing the deified pharaoh Amenhotep I, the patron of Deir el-Medina. A fine example of the horror vacui typical of the “yellow coffin” style is the fact that even the space of between the bracelets is filled in with a row of tiny figures of crouching deities.
Recent scientific tests performed on the occasion of the restoration of the coffin have shown that Butehamon, in spite of being one of the most prominent individuals of his time, reused pieces of earlier coffins in his outer coffin. Reuse of earlier coffins is well attested in the Third Intermediate Period, when Egypt’s economic and sociopolitical crisis had undermined the supply of the most valuable raw materials, including wood.