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Semitic Museum Discovers New Painting in 3,000-Year-Old Egyptian Coffin

Located at 6 Divinity Ave., the Harvard Semitic Museum houses Harvard's archaeological collections from the Ancient Near East.
Located at 6 Divinity Ave., the Harvard Semitic Museum houses Harvard's archaeological collections from the Ancient Near East. By Fankai Liu
By Meera S. Nair, Crimson Staff Writer

A team of researchers led by Professor Peter D. Manuelian, director of the Harvard Semitic Museum, has discovered an image of an ancient Egyptian deity inside a 3,000-year-old coffin.

The discovery came as part of a week-long project in January to document and analyze three coffins which had been gifted to the museum in 1901 and 1902. While previous researcheres had created thorough pre-existing documentation about two of the coffin's interior designs, the third — the coffin of Ankh-Khonsu — did not boast any documentation of what scholars found when it was last opened 30 years ago.

Professor Adam J. Aja, assistant curator of collections at the Semitic Museum and a researcher involved in the project, said in an interview that the researchers initially expected there would be nothing of interest inside the coffin.

“We knew there were no human remains, since they had been gifted without the bodies, but we also knew that there often weren’t any inside decorations,” Aja said.

However, to their astonishment, the opening of the coffin revealed a painting on the inside of the ancient Egyptian sun god Ra-Horakhty.

Joseph A. Greene, deputy director and curator of the museum, wrote in an email that his first impression upon seeing the inside of the coffin was muted.

“My first look inside the coffin of Ankh-Khonsu was rather unrewarding since there was a good deal of accumulated modern dust and a layer of ancient black “goo” obscuring the painting on the flat bottom inside,” Green wrote. “After Ankh-Khonsu’s coffin had been cleaned up and the inside properly illuminated, I was able to see the painting more clearly.”

Manuelian said the opening of the coffin marked a rare occastion in the recent history of the Semitic Museum.

“This object had never been opened before in the memory of anyone currently at the museum,” Aja said.

Opening the delicate artifacts required a team of expert curators, photographers, art handlers, materials scientists, and student assistants to comprehensively analyze the construction and design of the coffins.

The Dean’s Competitive Fund for Promising Scholarship — an internal program that awards competitive grants to Faculty of Arts and Sciences researchers — funded the project. Ultimately, the researchers aimed to gather complete images of all three coffins to be digitally stored and shared with researchers around the world as well as visitors to the Semitic Museum.

Greene wrote that the team attempted to take full advantage of the uncommon opportunity to study the coffins.

“Because these coffins are large and heavy but fragile objects, these stresses they underwent over the week of study and recording in January 2020 are ones that we don’t want to repeat in a year’s time or in 100 years’ time. So we took this opportunity to study them as fully and in as much detail as possible,” he wrote.

—Staff writer Meera S. Nair can be reached at meera.nair@thecrimson.com.

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