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Work The sarcophagus of Madja

Department of Egyptian Antiquities: The New Kingdom (circa 1550 to circa 1069 BC)

Le cercueil de la dame Madja

© 1979 Musée du Louvre / Pierre et Maurice Chuzeville

Egyptian Antiquities
The New Kingdom (circa 1550 to circa 1069 BC)

Geneviève Pierrat Bonnefois

The sarcophagus of Madja might be considered the perfect example of an Egyptian sarcophagus. Its easily legible decoration was simply painted on a white background in colors that have retained their brightness even today. The tomb was discovered in a cemetery in West Thebes overlooking the valley of Deir el-Medina, behind the hill of Qurnet Mourai. In this tomb the coffin was the only support for the texts and scenes of offerings that the Egyptians believed to be essential to the deceased's well-being in the afterlife.

A highly decorated coffin

The coffin was carved from a tree trunk then whitewashed. It was modeled in the form of a mummy wrapped in a shroud that was held in place by yellow bandages covered in inscriptions. All that emerges is the painted yellow face with its impersonal, impassive expression and kohl-rimmed eyes, framed by a large blue and yellow wig and a broad necklace. The polychrome decoration was a faithful imitation of the gold, lapis lazuli, and carnelian that adorned the luxury jewelry and finest sarcophagi of the time; in her painted finery, the dead woman is bedecked like a queen.
The essential funerary scenes are represented inside the painted frames: on one face of the coffin, food and drink offerings are being made to a seated couple, while the other face shows the burial, with the coffin being hauled on a sledge as two mourners hold their hands to their heads in a traditional gesture of grief. Further up, a chapel topped by a huge Wedjat eye represents the tomb and its door, according to the convention of the magic or "false" door that already featured on coffins in the Middle Kingdom. Next to this, Anubis the black jackal god, guardian of the cemetery, lies on a chapel. A small figure of Osiris completes the decoration. Isis protects the mummy's head, Nephthys its feet.

Essential decoration

The funerary texts and decoration were concentrated on the coffin. The tomb in which it was discovered was just a roughly hewn cavern, with no chapel built above it, contrary to the image shown on the coffin itself. There was no stele, and no offering table bearing inscriptions. In this very simple tomb, the deceased's everyday furniture was placed around the coffin on the day of burial. Display case 4 in Room 16 contains a blue faience dish (E 14562) and a mirror (E 14465) that were found near the mummy's head.

Madja and the other occupants of the cemetery

No titles accompanied the name of the deceased—Madja—which is strange, as every woman of a certain social status was at least referred to as "mistress of the house," and Madja’s possessions and coffin were of quality. As was often the case, she was given a ready-made coffin, and her name was added to the existing funerary formulas.

All the tombs in this same cemetery were very humble ones, and the bodies themselves were very poorly mummified. This group of people without administrative titles was probably unrelated to the royal enclave that occupied the valley of Deir el-Medina at this period. The lyre in the coffin of an old man who was buried in the same vault as Madja could be a clue to her profession: Madja was not a local name, and sounds rather Nubian, while other names in the tombs in the same cemetery are of Syro-Palestinian origin; foreign nurses, musicians, and dancers were in the service of the great Theban families at this time, and Madja may have belonged to this social group.


- Catalogue de l’exposition « Les Artistes de Pharaon, Deir el-Médineh et la Vallée des Rois », Louvre/RMN, Paris, 2002, p. 299, notice n° 247.

- Catalogue de l’exposition « Un siècle de fouilles françaises », 1880-1980, RMN, Paris, 1981, p. 190-193, notice n° 217.

- Catalogue de l’exposition « La Vie au bord du Nil », Calais, 1980, p. 80, notice n° 147.

- Catalogue de l’exposition « La Vie quotidienne chez les artisans de Pharaon », Metz, 1978, p. 10-12, notice n° 1.

- Actes du colloque « Deir el-Médineh et la Vallée des Rois », Paris, 2003, p. 49-65 (sur le cimetière).

Technical description

  • Le cercueil de la dame Madja

    vers 1450 avant J.-C. (milieu 18e dynastie)

    cimetière ouest de Gournet Mourraï

  • bois peint

    l. : 1,84 m. ; L. : 0,46 m. ; H. : 0,62 m.

  • E 14543

  • Egyptian Antiquities

    Sully wing
    Ground floor
    Room 14
    Vitrine 6

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