Sarcophagus mask

The discovery of anthropoid pottery coffins with Egyptian-looking appearances in excavations throughout Israel has generated a great deal of scholarly attention. The coffins, cylindrical and of considerable size, were produced using the coiling technique. Their upper parts are fitted with a lid exhibiting a human face and arms in a variety of styles. The lid was cut from the coffin before it had completely dried, allowing it to fit the coffin perfectly. Through the opening that was created, the body of the deceased, along with funerary gifts, was inserted. Some of the lids and coffins still bear traces of paint: the face was painted white, the lips or cheeks red, and the eyes black or yellow. Each of the differently designed lids exhibits at least a few of the following features: a wig, a lotus flower on the forehead, eyes, eyebrows, a nose, a mouth, a chin, an “Osiris” beard, cheeks, ears, arms, and hands. These details were achieved by the application of additional clay to the smooth lid or by marking. A protrusion at the lower part of the coffin usually represents feet; it is reasonable to assume that this also made it possible to stand the coffin upright during production. In rare cases, realistic feet are depicted.

To date, 130 complete and fragmentary anthropoid coffins have been found within the borders of Canaan: For example, in archeological excavations at Deir el-Balah (south of Gaza), only four tombs containing such coffins were unearthed. Besides these, 33 coffins and an additional 11 lids are to be found in the Israel Museum Collection (most originally in the Dayan Collection and presumably from Deir el-Balah). A coffin in the collection of the Hecht Museum, Haifa, and lids in the Bible Land Museum, Jerusalem, all probably came from the Deir el-Balah excavation. It is customary to divide the coffins into two main types: The first type includes coffins in which the head and shoulders are clearly delineated, similar to the wooden and stone sarcophagi discovered in Egypt. The second type consists of cylindrical coffins, in which the head and shoulders are not delimitated. The lids are also divided into two types: the naturalistic type, with clearly marked outlines around the face and the so-called grotesque type, less detailed and more exaggerated, almost to the point of caricature. At Beth Shean, the naturalistic type is found more than at the other sites., whereas at Deir el-Balah, most of the lids belong to the grotesque type. At any event, it appears that the images depicted on the lids were not meant to be individual portraits of the deceased. Rather, they were the idealized depiction of the face of a person made in distinct styles which individualize them.

Through recent archaeological excavation five coffins have been discovered in situ, but only one of them has been found to have only one body inside (Tel Shadud), while the others, found at Deir el-Balah, have contained more than one deceased, and in both cases remains of animals have also been found inside, such as fish, cattle and pigs, as provisions for the deceased in the other world.

The funerary goods found in the recently excavated tombs include Canaanite pottery, pottery in Egyptian style and pottery imported from Egypt, Cyprus or Greece, luxury goods, such as alabaster vessels, bronzes, glass vases, jewellery in gold or carnelian, beetle forms, amulets and various figures found inside the sarcophagi or outside them. Some of these objects had been imported directly from Egypt, while others are reproductions made in Canaan.

There is no doubt that the anthropomorphic sarcophagi found in the Canaan region are the result of cultural contact with Egypt at the end of the Bronze Age, given the resemblance both with the anthropomorphic sarcophagi and the funerary goods which are found inside and outside of the same tomb. However, it is difficult to specify to whom these belong, their cultural identity. Different theories suggest they may be of Egyptians who have gone to the zone, or Philistines or others. The practices of the Egyptian administrators on the frontier between Canaan and Ancient Egypt would seem to have led to the adoption or assimilation of these by the elite Canaanite population.


- Pharaoh in Canaan: The Untold Story. The Israel Museum. Jerusalem. 2016. pág. 96 - 100.

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