Journey Through the Afterlife: Life and Death of an Egyptian Priestess

Journey Through the Afterlife: Life and Death of an Egyptian Priestess

Sotheby's upcoming Ancient Sculpture & Works of Art sale, on 3rd December, features a remarkable work of art from ancient Egypt.
Sotheby's upcoming Ancient Sculpture & Works of Art sale, on 3rd December, features a remarkable work of art from ancient Egypt.

P erhaps more than any other ancient object, the Egyptian mummy has captivated the world’s imagination since the dawn of modern Egyptology in the mid-19th century. From Hollywood horror films to blockbuster museum exhibitions, the mummy has come to stand as the visual symbol of ancient Egypt, and rightly so. Key to Egyptian religion was the belief in an afterlife, in that after a person died, their soul would depart the mortal world and travel to an underworld where it would remain in perpetuity. This in turn centralized the importance of funerary practices and rituals in Egyptian religion, where the preservation of the deceased’s body was tantamount. Mummies were placed into coffins to provide further protection of the soul prior to its departure for the underworld. While both mummification and coffin-making were practiced in ancient Egypt from the Predynastic Period to the Roman period, the style of coffins varies greatly based on its date of creation.

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  • GILDING ON FACE

    Yellow and gold symbolized the concept of indestructibility and eternity in ancient Egypt. Not surprisingly, it is the color of the sun, and Egyptians used to paint the skin of the gods with gold. In Egyptian tombs, and on sarcophagi and coffins, the face of the dead is often gilded, to testify that the deceased has become a New Osiris, therefore one of the immortals.

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  • UPPER PART OF COLLAR

    The collar design of this coffin is a blending of styles.
    The upper part of the collar is distinguished by many u-shaped bands done in conventional colors. These cover the most of the neck. The main collar, however, includes several bands which are not consistent with the upper part. The lower bands are again in another different style, segmented into hexagons, and decorated with in-pointing triangles of green and red, which border white diamonds with centered dots.

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  • RED PIGMENT

    The scarcity of imagery and hieroglyphics on the coffin surface was intended to reveal the original surface of the wood. Sometimes used high quality cedar was used, but more often the locally available sycamore. In some instance, when fine wood was not available, the surface would be harmonised with a red pigment that would emulate its coloring, as is the case here. Moreover, red (deshr) in Ancient Egypt also represented victory and life. During the celebrations, ancient Egyptians used to dye their bodies red and wear carnelian amulets.

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  • PANEL OF INSCRIPTION

    Small text compartments, containing three text columns, are located on a flat zone at the lower end of the lid’s front panel. The hieroglyphic describe: the name and titles of the deceased, details of parentage, and brief wishes for a good burial.

    “Words spoken by the sistrum-player of Min, Ta-gem-en-Hor, a true-of-voice
    daughter of the stolist-priest and 3rd prophet of Min, P(a)-senedjem-ib-nasht,b and born of the sistrum-player of Min
    Nehem-sy-Bast, true-of-voice. Made is a good burial on the west of Akhmim”.

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  • ORIGINALLY CONTAINED IN A QUADRANGULAR COFFIN

    The coffin was sold at auction in Paris in 1905. In the same sale, the previous lot is the wood quadrangular box (outer coffin) in which the present lot was originally placed. The current whereabouts of the outer coffin are unknown.

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Lot 64, An Egyptian Polychrome and Gilt Anthropoid Inner Coffin Of The Sistrum-Player Ta-Gem-En-Hor, Macedonian/Early Ptolemaic Period, Circa 332-290 B.C. Estimate £100,000–150,000

This example, an inner coffin lid for a woman named Ta-gem-en-Hor dates to the Ptolemaic period (or the 4th century B.C.) and fits into the tradition of anthropoid sarcophagi which were first created during the end of the Middle Kingdom (circa 18th-17th centuries B.C.). This lid, although somewhat more stark and conservative in ornamentation than earlier examples, offers a tantalizing glimpse into the life of the woman it once belonged to. From the inscription, we learn that Ta-gem-en-hor is described as being a “sistrum player”, a priestess of the god Min. While we may never know further biographical details about this long deceased woman, a closer look at her coffin provides keen insight into the prevailing funerary practices of the early Ptolemaic period.


We are grateful to Dr. Jonathan P. Elias for his assistance in cataloguing this lot.

Ancient Sculpture and Works of Art

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