Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.12.30 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.12.30

Rogério​ Sousa, Burial Assemblages from Bab el-Gasus in the Geographical Society of Lisbon. Monumenta Aegyptiaca, 14​.   Turnhout:  Brepols, 2017.  Pp. xiv, 290.  ISBN 9782503565750.  €89,00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Marissa Stevens, University of California, Los Angeles (

Burial Assemblages from Bab el-Gasus in the Geographical Society of Lisbon by Rogério Sousa marks the first complete publication of a group of four 21st Dynasty coffin sets discovered in 1891 in the Bab el-Gasus cache of Deir el-Bahri in the Theban necropolis, and now housed in Lisbon. The Bab el-Gasus cache contained 153 21st Dynasty (1070-945 BCE) coffin sets belonging to members of the Theban priesthood of Amun. This archaeological find was of major significance for Egyptology, particularly in the areas of Egyptian religion, mummification, and coffin studies. Despite its importance, however, the materials of the Bab el-Gasus, scattered across museums worldwide, have received scant and inconsistent scholarly study and publication. Sousa’s publication consequently stands as a great contribution to the field of Egyptology and a call for scholars with access to similar material to continue the research dialogue in the field of coffin studies. Sousa’s descriptions and commentaries of the four coffin sets are supplemented by 121 black-and-white plates and 16 color plates to provide a full research record of the coffins.

For coffin studies, the focus on a discrete museum group of coffins can provide valuable information regarding the construction, decorative variation, use, reuse, and ownership of 21st Dynasty coffins. Sousa’s contribution fills a growing need within the field, which is currently overwhelmed by the amount of data and objects under its purview. This volume presents a large quantity of data in a structured manner. Being able to publish discrete coffin sets or a museum corpus is a growing trend in coffin studies that contributes widely to the field.

Sousa conceptually divides the monograph into two parts: description and documentation, although in reality, the book follows a tripartite construction that includes a commentary after the description of the coffin sets. Part one, which focuses on the description of the coffins, addresses each of the four coffin sets in turn. These sets are referred to primarily by their A list numbers assigned by the excavator, Georges Daressy, A.4, A.27, A.110, and A.136, respectively.1 A.4 is the coffin (lid and case) of an anonymous woman; A.27 is the coffin (lid and case) and mummy-cover of an anonymous woman; A.110 is the coffin (lid and case) and mummy-cover of Djedmutiuesankh; and A.136 is the outer coffin (lid and case), inner coffin (lid and case), and mummy-cover of Henut-taui. Part two consists entirely of the plates accompanying the text of the monograph.

Each of the coffin pieces is systematically described in part one in terms of its iconography and inscriptions. The descriptions follow a pattern of discussing the head-board, upper section, central panel, lower section, and foot-board as defined in the introduction (2-3). Within these organizational sections, however, Sousa uses terms such as centrifugal block and centripetal block, which are uncommon in coffin studies. A discussion of these and other sub-divisions of the coffins would have been beneficial for the reader.

Several important research topics are presented in the commentary to part one. These topics, which include construction quality, reuse, religious iconography, style, and economy, might have been better incorporated into the descriptions, or separated completely into a new section of the book. Many of these discussions lack reference to the intricate and methodical descriptions of the coffin sets featured in the first half of part one.

The discussions of religious iconography and style are compelling and comprehensive, drawing not only upon other coffins as points of comparison, but also contemporary papyri and earlier tomb decoration. These comparisons permit a sense of iconographic development over time. Sousa insightfully discusses the difficulties of transposing motifs common in tomb decoration onto coffins, the reinvention and reinterpretation of certain funerary motifs into new compositions, and the syncretism of Osirian and solar beliefs about the afterlife. Sousa's insights contribute to his wider discussion of style, which focuses on the appropriateness of a coffin’s decoration for an owner and the ways in which decoration changed over the course of the 21st Dynasty.

The considerations of construction quality, reuse, and economy are less sound. Part one does not include a systematic evaluation of construction methods, and the resulting discussion of quality is disjointed and lacks an explanation as to how the final assessment of quality was derived. Statements such as “poor construction” and “good construction” are not explained, and an overarching discussion of coffin construction and decoration is absent from the work, despite precedent in the Egyptological literature for such analyses.2 This shortcoming is quite possibly the result of limited access to these museum objects. Close inspection of the pieces, coupled with wood sampling, x-ray or CT scans, and pigment analysis would have been necessary to provide a more detailed discussion of construction quality and economy. A related problem is the topic of coffin reuse. The broader discussion of institutionalized and sanctioned 21st Dynasty reuse, which has become a major topic in coffin studies in recent years,3 does not feature prominently in this work, although several of the coffin sets in Lisbon show signs of reuse. More collaborative work is needed on the topic, and Sousa is indeed participating in these efforts. Nonetheless, despite mentioning the possibility that several of the coffins were reused, Sousa omits reuse from his discussion of coffin construction and Theban economy.

While one of Sousa’s goals was to showcase a “combined use of drawings and textual description,” (5) the separation of the iconography and the inscriptions within part one results in a lack of cohesive engagement with text and image. Images are presented together in part two, making it cumbersome to refer to the plates while reading. In addition, an error in the numbering of the plates resulted in all black-and-white plates after Plate 40 (190) being mislabeled and subsequently misnumbered.

In addition, there are no transcriptions of the hieroglyphs or transliterations of the texts provided with the translations. The reader must refer to the plates in part two to view line drawings of the hieroglyphic inscriptions, which are often drawn separately from the accompanying images. Complicating this issue further is the fact that Sousa does not always refer to the inscriptions by plate number, but by inscription number, which makes them difficult to find in the 121 black-and-white plates. Further, the plates themselves are often too dark to reveal the details Sousa emphasizes in part one. The color photographs are an appreciated addition, although their overall printed quality is slightly blurry.

Sousa’s monograph provides a detailed picture of four coffin sets in the Geographical Society of Lisbon. His subject, however, goes beyond four burials and connects these coffins to others from the Bab el-Gasus cache and others containing the internments of Egypt’s 21st Dynasty priesthood. This micro-analysis helps develop the larger picture of 21st Dynasty burials, society, religion, and economics. It is through works such as Sousa’s that scholars will begin to have access to information that has been scattered across museums worldwide. This publication and others like it are the foundation of Bab el-Gasus scholarship and the springboard for long-term research, collaboration, conservation, and curation of a dataset that deserves scholarly attention. The meticulousness of the information presented in this work is a model for others who aim to combine an art historical and textual approach to coffin studies. Sousa’s work illustrates the worth of detailed research by publishing material that can be used to further coffin studies and highlight the larger social environment of the 21st Dynasty. Sousa’s work also challenges other scholars to continue the expanding dialogue of coffin studies and focus on collaborative research. ​


1.   See Georges Daressy, “Les cercueils des prêtres d’Ammon (Deuxième Trouvaille de Deir el-Bahari)” ASAE 8 (1907): 3-38.
2.   See René van Walsem, The coffin of Djedmonthuiufankh in the National Museum of Antiquities at Leiden, Vol. I: Technical and Iconographic/Iconological Aspects, Egyptologische Uitgaven 10 (Leiden, 1997); Kathlyn Cooney, The Cost of Death: The social and economic value of ancient Egyptian funerary art in the Ramesside Period, Egyptologische Uitgaven 22 (Leiden, 2007); and France Jamen, Le cercueil de Padikhonsu au musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon (XXIe dynastie), Studien zu altägyptischen Totentexten 20 (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2016).
3.   Lara Weiss, The Coffins of the Priests of Amun: Egyptian coffins from the 21st Dynasty in the collection of the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, Papers on Archaeology of the Leiden Museum of Antiquities 17 (Leiden: Sidestone Press, Forthcoming, 2018). ​

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