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“The Coffins of the Senior Lector Priest Sesenebenef: A Middle Kingdom Book of the Dead?” Harco Willems

Each year the British Museum host a two day colloquium about an egyptological topic, and a lecture in the evening of one of the days which is the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Distinguished Lecture in Egyptology. J went to the whole colloquium this year (about coffins) and I just came along and joined him for the lecture. This was given by Harco Willems, and concerned the texts on a particular coffin from the Middle Kingdom.

Willems started by giving us a bit of context for this particular coffin. It was discovered in the 1890s at al Lisht. This site includes the mastaba of Imhotep and Senwosret I’s pyramid, and was initially excavated between 1894 & 1896 by a French team. It has been re-excavated in the 20th Century (I think he said the 1980s), but the tomb of Sesenebenef wasn’t part of this later excavation. The tomb contained the coffins, an outer and an inner one, and also a canopic box and some sticks and staffs which were removed. The coffins were not removed from the tomb (I think that’s what he said) but the French team made a reproduction of the text. He noted that as this was done by candlelight in cramped conditions it’s not entirely accurate, there are places when he is sure the transcriber has made errors. The coffins have several texts on them – not just in the places you always see texts on box style Middle Kingdom coffins, but also in some of the spaces that are normally filled with decoration. Willems said that these coffins must be from the later Middle Kingdom – late 12th or early 13th Dynasty. He used a particular feature of the hieroglyphs to reach this conclusion – the legs on the birds and the tails on the snakes are not present. In the later Middle Kingdom hieroglyphs might be drawn like this to prevent them “coming to life” and causing mischief.

The French didn’t have time to do a full analysis of the text, and the point of this talk was to describe the analysis that Willems has done (he said it isn’t part of his “real” research at the moment, more of a hobby). But why study these in particular, given he’s working from someone’s (not entirely accurate) transcription because the coffins themselves are inaccessible? He explained that he feels there is much to be learnt from integral studies of the texts on a single coffin – looking at all the texts as a whole can tell much about the belief system behind them. Such integral studies of Middle Kingdom coffins are rare, and previous work has looked at early Middle Kingdom coffins – so he thought it would be interesting to look at a late Middle Kingdom coffin to see how the texts have evolved. These coffins are also particularly interesting because they have so many texts on them, which is not the norm for late Middle Kingdom coffins. Willems speculated that this was because Sesenebenef was a lector priest – he had a professional interest in texts.

Willems analyses texts on a coffin by looking at not just what they say, but also by using the grammar in them to figure out a chronological order. He finds that most Middle Kingdom coffin texts follow a particular sequence, even if they are superficially different. Sesenebenef’s texts don’t follow this chronological sequence, which is interesting. To explain this further Willems first told us what the “standard” sequence is. Coffins are intended to be oriented in a particular direction and so it makes sense to talk about the North end of the coffin etc. The texts that are on a particular side are thematically associated with the cardinal direction for the side, and the bottom of coffin concerns the underworld. One might expect the top of the coffin to concern the day sky, but early Middle Kingdom texts and coffins generally only concern the night part of the sun’s cycle.

There are four zones through which the spirit of the deceased travels in the night. First is the descent into the underworld. Second is the liminal zone which is where the gatekeepers are, and where the deceased must correctly answer questions and pass examinations before his soul can proceed. The third zone is the area near the eastern horizon where the soul must merge with the dead father god (Osiris) who is preparing to be resurrected, and there are more gatekeepers here. The fourth is the eastern horizon and the sunrise. Generally early Middle Kingdom coffin texts are only concerned with zones 2-4. Texts concerning zone 2 are normally in the present tense because the questions and answers can only happen when both gatekeeper and soul are present (so it must be the “now” of the text). Zone 3 texts are usually in a future tense, presenting a wish for what happens next. Zone 4 is always future tense, and expressed as a hope.

Coffin Texts (spells) 30-37 on early Middle Kingdom coffins are intended to be recited by the son of the deceased. The grammatical construction of these spells indicates that when the son is speaking the deceased is between zones 1 and 2, and the son is smoothing his father’s passage through the trials that are about to come. The texts also address zone 3’s gatekeepers in a similar fashion.

Sesenebenef’s coffin texts don’t follow this scheme. We still call them “Coffin Texts” because they are on a Middle Kingdom coffin, but actually the spells look more like precursors to the Book of the Dead. What Willems has found is that this is not only the case for the words in the texts, but also for the underlying theology as indicated by the grammar and positioning of texts on the coffin. For instance on the foot of the coffin is a spell for assuming the form of a sparrow in order to go forth by day – this is a very common sort of spell in the Book of the Dead (which was titled “The Book of Going Forth by Day” by the ancient Egyptians). In that spell all four of the underworld zones are referred to in the past tense, reinforcing the idea that this is a spell concerned with the day part of the cycle. So in contrast to the early Middle Kingdom coffins, and more like the later Book of the Dead, the whole of the cycle of the afterlife is present in the texts. Spells 30-37 cover most of the inside of the coffin, but they are also modified to make them more what we might think of as New Kingdom style. They are now designed to be read by the son as if his deceased father is at the beginning of the cycle when he hasn’t been through zone 1 yet. Other spells emphasise the cyclical and repeating nature of the afterlife – for instance a spell about going out into day as a phoenix and returning to the underworld as a falcon.

Willems’s conclusion is that the basic pattern of Sesenebenef’s coffin texts is about complete cycles through the afterlife, in contrast to the early Middle Kingdom texts which are focussed on a single point on the cycle. He was keen to point out that this is not a new invention by the designer of Sesenebenef’s coffin (which might’ve been Sesenebenef himself). For all we divide the various afterlife texts into distinct groups, they are actually more of a spectrum. Sesenebenef’s texts fit into this as part of the evolution from Middle Kingdom ideas to New Kingdom ones.