Written by Eleonora Soteriou
Some fifty clay anthropoid coffins were unearthed from the Northern Cemetery of Beth, a town situated in northern Israel (fig. 1). The burial custom of anthropoid coffins had been developing since Egypt’s Middle Kingdom; however, it slowly spread into Canaan during the New Kingdom. Most of these coffins depict ‘naturalistic’ human faces on their lids (fig. 2), sometimes accompanied with hair. It is generally agreed that the ‘naturalistic’ coffins date from the beginning of the thirteenth to the end of the eleventh centuries BC while the ‘grotesque’ appeared only in the twelfth century BC, during a time when the town was an Egyptian garrison under Ramses III.
Most recent scholarship is concerned with the identities and origins of the people who rested in these coffins, especially in those characterised as ‘grotesque’. This is because their distinctive ‘feathered’ headdress, which renders them unique from all other anthropoid coffins found both in Egypt and the Canaan region, strongly alludes to the Sea Peoples depicted on the walls of Medinet Habu (figs. 1, 4) as well as several other media from all over the Late Bronze Age world (fig. 5). Interpretations of the different designs found on the headdresses, such as the number of bands, the knobs, and the zigzag pattern, fluctuate between being markers of different groups of people and s within a specific “tribe or clan”.
So, who were they?
While scholars agree on the identity of those in ‘naturalistic’ coffins as Egyptians and Canaanites, the identity of those in ‘grotesque’ coffins has been highly disputed. Some scholars choose to identify them more generally as Sea Peoples, possibly of Aegean or Cypriot origin, while others attempt to identify them with specific groups of Sea Peoples such as the Philistines or the Denyens. This dispute arises from two main issues. Firstly, because the tombs were extensively disrupted in antiquity, archaeologists have not been able to accurately match funerary deposits and human remains to specific coffins. Secondly, the cultural variety found similarly in all tombs, including Canaanite, Egyptian, Mycenaean, and Cypriot artefacts, does not help to narrow down the origins of this group. Therefore, rather than attempting to ascertain who these people were before they reached Beth Shan, the study of these coffins has reconfigured its focus to this group’s “social processes and the construction and formation of identity” during their lives at Beth Shan. Through their funerary deposits and their unique lid designs, these coffins yield important information on this group’s wealth and the extent of their cultural assimilation into the local community.
Evidence shows that the tombs of these ‘grotesque’ coffins contain much more “rich assemblages” and “much nicer objects than those produced by other graves […] a fiddle-shaped ivory gaming board, bronze jugs, bowls, a lamp, a two-pronged ‘spear-butt’”. Moreover, studies have shown that “foreigners [in the Egyptian Empire] were given high-ranking posts in both the army and the civil service” which would include working as mercenaries in an Egyptian garrison town. This, as well as their “ability […] to commission” these coffins with their own unique designs, therefore, displays at least a certain amount of affluence attained by this group.
Integrating their own foreign designs (distinctive facial features and headdresses characteristic of their group) into the local burial traditions of the Canaan region, these peoples evidently wanted to stand out from the rest of their community at Beth Shan. This deliberate stylistic deviation to achieve “self-representation” and preservation of their identities suggests that, unlike the Canaanites who adopted the Egyptian customs creating a “hybridized” version of the anthropoid coffin, this group of peoples did not want to assimilate completely into this Egyptianized culture. The absorption of their resistance into the local community’s traditions (at least concerning burial culture) therefore raises questions for future research about this group’s relationship with the Egyptian Empire and possibly about their own religious beliefs.
Conclusion: Why are they significant?
As we have seen, these anthropoid clay coffins not only portray the cosmopolitan element of Beth Shean at the time, as we find Canaanites, Egyptians, and Sea Peoples living together and interweaving their burial traditions, but they also enhance our knowledge about the enigmatic Sea Peoples. Even though we cannot ascertain their origins through these ‘grotesque’ coffins, this group can be described as somewhat wealthy and having a strong sense of their own identity with a desire to preserve it throughout time. Moreover, through the presence of these coffins at an Egyptian garrison where they seem to have been mercenaries, a more complex relationship with the Egyptian Empire is revealed rather than their simplistic association with the enemy as depicted on the walls of the Medinet Habu.
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Featured image credit: Northern Cemetery at Beth Shean. Expedition Magazine Vol. 55, Issue 1. Accessed via Penn Museum: https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/contextualizing-penns-excavations-at-beth-shean/. Used under fair use policy.