By Erick R. Schmidt // Spring 2011
The gold face of Meretites’ coffin glimmers beneath the display lights at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and it becomes instantly obvious why Egypt’s wealthy would have so strongly desired this flamboyant burial. The detailed artwork is impeccable even after 2,400 years of entombment. Complex drawings line the outer shell of the sycamore fig coffin of a woman 24 centuries past who expected to be reborn into eternal life. Along the wall opposite the sarcophagus is a cascading line of blue-green figurines, most no larger than a light bulb but carrying infinite meaning to the people who buried them. The figurines are intended to come to life and serve as Meretites’ loyal attendants in the afterlife.
After thousands of years and recent whirlwind stops in Germany and China, Meretites’ tomb (pronounced mer-et-IT-es and meaning “beloved of her father”) arrived at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., in 2008. It has reached what should be a resting place, just inside the entrance of the Ancient Art Exhibit at the museum.
The man who helped bring the collection to Kansas City is Robert Cohon, Ph.D., curator of ancient art at the museum and professor of art history at UMKC. Cohon chose to give Meretites a prominent spot in the gallery. At the entrance, Meretites welcomes patrons as she serves as a doorway into a forgotten time. “We wanted to surprise people and give them something a bit funerary,” said Cohon of the casket’s location. “It’s been a big hit.”
Cohon leads the team that has spent a half-decade acquiring the collection and dutifully analyzing its every detail in hopes of unlocking more of its mysterious past. The team has spent countless hours poring over clues. And while it’s hard for the untrained eye to know where to begin at first glance—there are decorations on nearly every square inch of the casket—Cohon starts at the top and works his way down, quickly educating the viewer.
He starts with the shining gold face, its eyes staring knowingly ahead. “It doesn’t look like a human, does it?” Cohon asked. “But it’s not meant to look like a human. It’s meant to look like Osiris, god of the underworld.” Osiris held a special place in ancient Egyptian religion. Believed to have died and been reborn, Osiris was said to have overseen the afterlife. The belief in his story meant that thousands of well-to-do Egyptians were mummified in hopes of joining Osiris in rebirth.
The living dead
Meretites’ golden face symbolizes the sun, which reflects life and, specifically, rebirth. “The rich reddish ochre suggests the sun’s rays are striking the coffin, bringing her to life. The ancient Egyptians believed that each day, the sun was reborn,” Cohon said. “Meretites wished to be reborn as well.” Black dung beetles the size of small fists speckle the coffin, representing the Egyptians’ fascination with the insects that in myth pushed the sun across the sky. Baboons and a cow also hold a place in Egyptian lore and adorn the casket.
Cohon cautions modern viewers against interpreting the decoration on the coffin as mere symbolism. The images are meant to be much more, he says: They’re magic. The ancient Egyptians’ elaborate mummification, burial and preservation process wasn’t intended to communicate their hope of rebirth—it was meant to communicate their expectation of an afterlife.
The concept of life after death translates to most cultures, so Cohon isn’t surprised that mummies carry appeal today. He said he appreciates the intrigue people have with Egypt, and he hopes to provide a collection that art-lovers and history buffs appreciate. “People are fascinated by Egypt, and I thought this was exactly what could bring in new audiences and sustain our old audiences,” Cohon said.