Coffins and Customs | Natural History Museum of Los Angeles

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Coffins and Customs

An ancient Egyptian artifact has many stories to tell

Hieroglyphs are visible on all sides of this Egyptian coffin, a gift from Dr. Peter Janss, which was probably purchased from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Egypt, around 1923.

 

According to its hieroglyphic inscriptions, this Egyptian coffin may belong to a man whose name starts with “Meryef-.” Constructed some time between 2345 and 1567 BCE (during the VI to XII Egyptian Dynasties), the coffin is made of large pieces of wood connected by hand-made wooden pegs and dowels. The outside appears to have been painted yellow; the inside, white. The top edges are bright red. The eyes of Horus were painted on the left side of the coffin so that, according to ancient Egyptian belief, the deceased could see through it.

a photo of the side of the Egyptian coffin showing a pair of painted eyes on the side
The eyes of Horus, a powerful symbol in ancient Egypt, adorn the side of the coffin. Packing ribbon is helping support the wooden structure, which has sustained damage over the years.

This coffin has been through a lot in its 4,000 or so years. It has been damaged by insects like termites, and attempts by previous caretakers to stabilize it with nails and wires have only caused further harm. Assistant Conservator Marina Gibbons is tending to this ancient artifact in the Conservation Lab to stabilize the coffin’s structure so it can be safely placed in climate-controlled collections storage and preserved for future generations.

She’s also doing a thorough inspection of the coffin’s hieroglyphic inscriptions, which have faded after millennia. If more of the writing can be translated, we can learn more about the individual the coffin belongs to, including how the name “Meryef-” ends. This will help ensure that the person originally buried in this coffin so long ago can be respectfully remembered — a consideration Museum staff always keep in mind when dealing with objects related to human remains.

an animated gif of two views of the side of the coffin -- with and without a blacklight shining on it, which reveals previously unseen hieroglyphics
After so many years, some of the details of the coffin are so faded they can only be seen with the assistance of a black light, as demonstrated by Assistant Conservator Marina Gibbons.

Another facet of this coffin’s story is not related to its ancient Egyptian history but rather its more recent L.A. history. When this piece arrived in Los Angeles in 1926, it had quite the rude welcome from customs agents. So egregious was its treatment (along with other artifacts arriving from Egypt) it was covered by the Los Angeles Times.

a photo of an archival L.A Times article entitled, Museum Here Seeks Colony of Egyptian Mummies: five specimens purchased for Los Angeles met rude greetings at customs gate
The story in the 1926 Los Angeles Times about the rude arrival of these objects. Click to expand and read the full article, if you dare.

The following selections from the above article allow a glimpse into the unfair treatment of these valuable cultural objects at Customs, while also showing how the journalism and museum fields have changed since the roaring 20s. This nearly 100-year-old article employs devices like sarcasm, words like “thence,” and arguably far too many exclamation points! And on more than one occasion the NHMLA staff are referred to as simply the “museum men,” which today would be very much inaccurate.

Enjoy.

 

Feverish-eyed deputies in blue uniforms and glittering brass buttons tearing ruthlessly into the faded scarlet and gilt of a past age! Modern-day customs officials searching hurriedly, almost fearfully, within the age-old bosoms of calm and silent, unprotesting and long dead mummies. Searching in official haste for — what? Surely for something evil and insidious, else why their very destructiveness as they rip rotting shreds from the ancient shrouds and hurl them in heedless ribbons to the floor!

Such a scene took place not so very long ago in the United States Customs Office when a small consignment of Egyptian mummies addressed to the Los Angeles Museum at Exposition Park passed through the hands of the duties collectors. In vain did the museum officials remonstrate, swearing up and down, tearing their hair and gnashing their teeth. They were only a batch of old Egyptian mummies, dead at least four centuries [sic]. What could they smuggle into this great country? How could they be held under the immigration law? Could they formulate any anarchistic plots?

Of course not! The museum men laughed at the very idea. Let us have our mummies before they fall apart; we only want to put them under a few glass cases for exhibition. Everybody is interested in mummies, you know, and such an addition to a Los Angeles museum must inevitably prove profitable to that institution, and thence to the city and State. Search them — the very idea!

And they were! Completely and irreparably! Wrappings and bandages were ripped off without a thought of how to replace them; gilded masks were torn from leathery faces. And after a time of intense and grim prying and peeping, the disgruntled inspectors threw up the job. They announced that Egypt’s quota of immigrants—what was left of them—might now be allowed to enter.

And the museum men came with baskets and shovels and carted off the remains to their museum, where they have reassembled the various parts of those shriveled old human machines, and placed them in glass cases...

Then came the donor, Dr. Peter Janss, who was literally horrified at what had happened to his brood. He threw up his hands in disgust. “Throw them out!”  he said. “Burn them up; get rid of them! Anything! I’ll get you some more. I’ll get you some mummies who are ‘somebody,’ and have them so shipped that no damage can come to them.”

...Meanwhile the museum out at Exposition Park has been daily learning how interested the general public is in its small collection of five mummies from ancient Egypt’s middle class of life. In addition to the five mummies, there are two or three earthen pots and jars to be seen, along with some wooden coffins, much written upon, and more faded.

 

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