Publish at November 09 2021 Updated November 19 2021

Luxor and Egyptian Orpiment [Thesis]

When yellow reveals its mysteries

Egyptian coffins on an ancient Egyptian color scale background

"Coffin stories. It's sad and not pretty."

Jacques Prévert - Poet (1900-1977)

These days, it's true that most coffins are not folichon. And Jacques Prévert seems to be in the right when he describes coffin stories as sad and not pretty. And yet...

Around the world, a significant number of mummies, coffins and sarcophagi are admired in museums by millions of visitors.

But what is the difference between coffin and sarcophagus? A coffin in ancient Egypt corresponds, depending on the period, to a wooden or metal box of rectangular, anthropomorphic or even mummiform shape, having a flat, domed or mummiform lid. While a single sarcophagus surrounds the mummy, several coffins may surround it like Russian dolls. This set can be composed of an outer, inner and intermediate coffin and constitutes a funerary set. A sarcophagus, on the other hand, corresponds to a vat and a stone lid.

Besides the mummies, what treasures do these coffins, vestiges of the past, really contain? This is what Lucile Brunel-Duverger sets out to explore in her thesis entitled "Color and Technique of the Yellow-Bottomed Coffins of the XXIst Egyptian Dynasty: from the Origin of Pigments to their Alteration (LuxOr)". In which the author invites us to discover the treasures of information hidden in the stratigraphy of the chromatic ranges of the coffins of this period.

To Life and Death!

The whole of this thesis allows the reader to learn a great deal about ancient Egypt both about the symbolism and materiality relating to colours, the civilisation and beliefs, the techniques and pigments of this period, but also the set of modern archaeometric methods allowing the exploration of this mysterious past.

Lucile Brunel-Duverger provides an effort to clarify vis-à-vis the lack of knowledge about ancient Egypt and makes her work accessible to any curious person by using a clear, simple and precise tone throughout the manuscript.

The author takes us with her in her investigation combining modern analysis techniques and the Louvre's collection with a view to identifying the production workshops at the origin of this characteristic color: orpiment.

Dying a Beautiful Death

"In the worldview of the ancient Egyptians, color held a place of importance. Like the perception of the light spectrum, from a purely cultural point of view, the very notion of "color", is not universal.

The Egyptians, in their hieroglyphic lexicon, did not have a strict equivalent to our word "color", there are however two terms, whose translation is close to it: the expressions "Inem" and "Iwen", sometimes confused by the Egyptians themselves. In ancient Egypt, colour was considered an integral part of nature or of the person. Each term can mean indifferently, the color, the aspect, the character, the being or the nature. Therefore, as a rule, articles of the same color had similar properties. The perception of colors that the ancient Egyptians could have had was therefore strongly linked to the landscape in which it developed and of which it constitutes in a sense a description. Thus, beyond the reading of the graphic representation itself, the use of a certain chromatic range carries strong symbolic references that are very present in the art of Ancient Egypt.

The ancient Egyptians, do not seem to have developed a bi-chromatic worldview, based on the contrast between white and black. For this civilization these shades are known under the concepts of hedj and kek. There is no opposition between them, but rather a continuity, because they are located on the same axis, a temporal continuum based on the alternation of day and night. Day symbolizes the tangible world of life while night represents the intangible world, the afterlife.

The other chromatic terms of ancient Egypt, meanwhile, describe different aspects of the real world. They do not specifically define an established color scheme, but represent more aspects of the landscape whose basic colors will change between dawn and sunset. It is important to remember that each term that determines the chromatism so particular to Egyptian art, has a double value. A concrete value, linked to an aspect of the landscape, and an emblematic one, linked to the cultural concepts that derive from it.

As a result, a painter's choice of color may be dictated by a desire to produce either a naturalistic or symbolic representation, or both. This is all the more true when the subject does not belong to everyday reality, but to the sphere of beliefs, as is the case with coffin decorations."

Frank as Orpiment

The work proposed by Lucile Brunel-Duverger reveals to us a great deal of information on the structural determination of the yellow bottom stratigraphy in particular the position of orpiment as well as the understanding of the chemical processes of manufacture and degradation of the green copper pigments employed in the coffins.

Some of the results gathered by the author allow for a better understanding and knowledge of the implementation of the production of yellow bottom coffins as well as the identity of the workshops involved in the latter. Thus, the author through her research reveals new elements on the practices and gestures of the craftsmen as well as the symbolism of the Egyptian funerary context of 3000 years ago.

Through an extensive material study of 10 objects using modern methods, Lucile Brunel-Duverger succeeds in identifying a general pattern of manufacture whose variations (structure of the coffin, recipe for pigments, stratigraphic organization) are signatures that make it possible to identify the production workshop at the origin of the coffin.

The submerged part of the iceberg

The impressive work of Lucile Brunel-Duverger reveals to us a world hidden beneath the yellow background of ancient Egyptian coffins. We thus discover, through an intriguing and well conducted investigation, the treasure of information hidden in the details of the structure of the coffin bottoms. The author, from this treasure, is able with modern techniques to push the limits of traceability and identify which workshop made this object 3000 years ago.

This information, which may seem trivial, actually adds enormously to our knowledge of this ancient Egyptian craft and sheds light on our knowledge of the social, religious and political context at the time of these productions.

What about you? What message will the colour of your coffin convey?

Good reading!"

Thesis presented and defended on 25 September 2020. Work carried out at the University CY Cergy-Paris and the Centre de recherche et de restauration des musées de France (C2RMF) in collaboration with the Department of Egyptian Antiquities of the Louvre Museum within the doctoral school Sciences et Ingénierie : ED 417 (University Cergy-Paris) (Cergy-Pontoise - France).



Lucile Brunel-Duverger. Color and technique of the yellow-bottomed coffins of the XXIst Egyptian dynasty: from the origin of pigments to their alteration (LuxOr). Chemistry. CY Cergy Paris Université, 2020. French. ⟨tel-03086123⟩




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