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Art Through Time: A Global View

Death Compare: What Do Funerary Arts Reveal About Cultural Beliefs and Values?

Eagle Coffin

Eagle Coffin
Artist / Origin: Workshop of Kane Quaye, Teshe, Ghana
Region: Africa
Date: 1991
Period: 1900 CE – 2010 CE
Material: Painted wood
Medium: Sculpture
Dimensions: H: 51 in. (129.5 cm.), W: 52 ½ in. (133.3 cm.), L: 106 in. (269.2 cm.)
Location: The Newark Museum, Newark, NJ
Credit: Courtesy of The Newark Museum

Coffin of Henettawy

Coffin of Henettawy
Artist / Origin: Unknown Artist, Deir el-Bahri, western Thebes, Egypt
Region: Africa
Date: Third Intermediate Period, 21st Dynasty, ca. 1040 BCE–992 BCE
Period: 3000 BCE – 500 BCE
Material: Gessoed and painted wood
Medium: Other
Dimensions: H: 79 7/8 in. (203 cm.)
Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Credit: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund

What do funerary arts reveal about cultural beliefs and values?

The way a society or community treats the bodies of its dead reveals a great deal about its hopes and fears, values and beliefs. Coffins, in particular, can tell us a lot about not only the cultures that produce them, but also the individuals who are placed in them. They might, for instance, offer clues regarding the religious beliefs, class status, or worldview of the deceased. During the Third Intermediate Period in Egypt, those who could afford to do so were mummified and placed in elaborate human-shaped coffins decorated with references to material wealth, protective symbols, and inscriptions. In modern-day Ghana, it is considered a family obligation to send the deceased off in style. Among the Ga people, this sometimes means commissioning a figurative coffin in the form of an animal, foodstuff, or prestige item.

Questions to Consider

  • What might coffins like these tell us about the lives led by the deceased? What do they suggest about the fate the deceased expects to meet after death?
  • Within their funerary context, coffins are not intended to remain visible to the living for long. Coffins like the Ga eagle are buried in the earth, while the coffin set of Henettawy was sealed up within a tomb. Why do you think people would put so much time and so many resources into creating visually elaborate coffins that will go largely unseen?
  • Is there anything equivalent to these two coffins in the funerary arts of your own culture or community? If so, what is it and how is it similar? If not, why do you think that might be? What does it suggest about the beliefs and values of the society in which you live?

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Art Through Time: A Global View


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