Afterlife: The coffin and spirit of Egyptian official Neter-nekhta
“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” said Jesus according to the Gospel of Matthew 19:23. But Neter-Nekhta whose coffin and perhaps a portion of his spirit reside at the Australian Museum may have been going through a different judgement and afterlife journey to prove him a worthy human being. We hope he made his way to the field of reeds – the Egyptian equivalent of heaven.
He died two millennia before Jesus Christ in the land where the people of means had much better prospect to get into the kingdom of god. We, common curious spectators, may be excused to think that a large part of collective social effort in Egypt was in fact to help the rich people to progress from their privileged life to heaven.
3D interactive model of Egyptian coffin E012605
Neter-Nekhta was an Administrator of the Eastern Desert and Overseer of Agricultural Land in his province, during the early stage of the 12th Dynasty (2000–1780 BCE). This undoubtedly privileged man was buried at the large necropolis at Beni Hasan (c. 265 km south of Cairo) – a site of over 1000 tombs, explored in the 1820s by John Gardner Wilkinson (1797-1875), a pioneer of British Egyptology.
Before archaeologists fully realised the extent and importance of the Beni Hasan necropolis in the 1890s and moved in with their shovels and drawing boards to disturb the millennia of silence, many tombs were re-opened, used and enlarged in antiquity, selectively explored and ransacked by Greek, Coptic and Arab “visitors”. Such was the case of the tomb in which the Neter-Nekhta’s mummy was placed. So, his journey in the afterlife was not entirely smooth. And in the entrenched tradition of Egyptology not free from the mysteries.
The tomb of Neter-Nekhta was examined by British archaeologists in the early 1890s. It appears by that time the mummy was already missing. More systematic exploration was conducted in the early 1900s by John Garstang (1876–1956), a British archaeologist from Liverpool University where he was a reader in Egyptian archaeology. Garstang brought scientific rigour to classical archaeology, producing a detailed documentation of excavations, accompanied by extensive photographic records - rare practice in early 20th-century.
From his observations we know that the tomb was disturbed and modified in antiquity whereby the additional sarcophagus was added into the impromptu enlarged chamber. In addition, rubble was piled on the burial accessories, suggesting some re-arrangements or plundering happened a long time ago.
But the tomb contained some pottery, painted crosses and distinct writings carved in the chamber wall by the Coptic monks in around the 6th century AD. Examining this evidence the linguist Scott Bucking shows that the Beni Hasan tombs were used by Coptic Christians for habitation and the Neter-Nekhtaa tomb used as “a classroom” where basic instructions in literacy were provided to novices. For this purpose, a sizable “tablet” of letters (90 x 60cm) was carved in the back wall. How much these early Christians respected the burial of their distant forefathers of the same land but different civilisation is difficult to say. Garstang reported that the chamber with coffins was enclosed with wooden board, possibly placed there by the monks. Is it a sign of respect, phobia or purely a physical mark of separation?
There were two mummies interred in the tomb: Neter-Nekhta and Khnem-Nekhta. The second had a larger coffin. Neter-Nekhta’s coffin measured by Garstang is larger than the coffin at the Museum (E12605). Was the accomplished archaeologist mistaken?
Neter-Nekhta coffin - (Garstang 1907) 192 x 76 x 56 cm
Neter-Nekhta coffin - (Australian Museum) 185 x 57 x 40 cm
During the Middle Kingdom coffins began to be considered as miniature tombs. Accordingly, in a number of tombs in Beni Hasan, mummies were placed within two coffins, the smaller internal one could be considered a coffin proper, while the larger external one an equivalent of sarcophagus – typically protective and decorated stone container in which a coffin is placed. A photo, not of the highest quality, of this external coffin (Garstang 1907, Fig 82, page 92) shows it is different from that at the Australian Museum. The smaller coffin, through exchange, found its home at the Australian Museum; the larger, external coffin, if it still exists, may be in another museum or in a private collection somewhere.
Importantly, we don’t know what has happened to the mummy of Neter-Nekhta. Is his preserved body lingering anonymously in some dark storage? Or was it destroyed in one of the gruesome private entertainments whereby the higher-class saloon guests witnessed unwrapping Egyptian mummies purchased purposefully for such “thrilling” spectacle, usually through illicit dealers. It is a serious matter, because a person without a body would find it incredibly difficult to complete his or her journey in afterlife.
But before we give way to despair, let’s consider a glimmer of hope. In later stages of Egyptian civilisation a coffin was considered an equivalent of a mummy and on occasions a sufficient substitute for a preserved body – when the actual remains of the person were destroyed, decayed or went missing, for whatever reason. Name inscribed on the coffin, facial likeness carved and painted and a mask representing the deceased, together with blessing formulas would suffice as adequate representation of a dead person. In fact, such coffins made in a shape of the human body appeared in the same period (12th Dynasty), although Beni Hasan burials mostly retained old-style coffin tradition.
So, it is a tantalising possibility: even if Neter-Nekhta’s body had vanished, his coffin at the Australian Museum may still help him to squeeze through the proverbial eye of the needle and enter the kingdom of god or rather the eternal fields of reeds along the mighty river.
Reflections on Beni Hasan cemetery: “These tombs represent the oligarchy and the local bureaucracy, the grandees of a fleeting age. But the graves of the people […] are not to be found […]. Here is the great problem that awaits the most careful inquiry that archaeology can devote to it, to determine whether the people of Egypt, with their changeless nature and customs, shared in the progress in civilisation of the few who ruled, and prospered on the fruits of their labours.” Garstang (1907:53)
There seems to be inconsistency about Neter-Nekhta’s tomb number. The Egyptian Museum in Cairo refers correctly to tomb number BH 585. In his catalogue, in addition, Garstang gave it (an item) number 23. This number is referred to in some publications as tomb 23 (e.g. Bucking 2012).
The Australian Museum acquired this coffin (E12605) in 1904 by exchange with John Garstang.
John Garstang. 1907. The Burial Customs of Ancient Egypt: As Illustrated by Tombs of the Middle Kingdom. London. Archibald Constable & Co Ltd.
Scott Bucking. 2012. Towards an Archaeology of Bilingualism: On the Study of Greek-Coptic Education in Late Antique Egypt. [in] Alex Mullen and Patrick James (eds) Multilingualism in the Greco-Roman World. Cambridge University Press. Pages: 225-264.
Beni Hasan Tomb BH 585 NK, The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities (accessed 8/02/2020)