Neb Ankh

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Neb ankh means “lord of life” or “possessor of life.” It can be used as a title or can refer to one's most prized possession or to the outermost layer of the coffin. Hundreds of years after the Africans in Egypt developed the neb ankh, the Greeks referred to it as sarcophagus, meaning the flesh eater; thus, Greek usage removed the ancient meaning of lord of life.
Through the ages, the neb ankh evolved through many forms, from the most simple and unadorned wood boxes to the most elaborate gilded container for the deceased. Occupying a place of honor among burial items, its primary function was the preservation and protection of the body from either physical or spiritual deterioration or mutilation. The master artisans who crafted the neb ankh used a variety of materials ranging from wood to precious stones and metals like gold. In the early to middle dynasty of Kernet, the predominant material used for the neb ankh was wood (sycamore or Lebanese cedar), stone (white lime, red granite, deep onyx, or black basalt), or metal (gold, silver, or electrum). Once Africans had created the form, they illuminated the interior with colored pigment, protective spells, and excerpts from religious literature and the exterior with light portrait carvings of the head of the deceased and faience-encrusted scenes. Sometimes they added false doors and windows in the form of udjat (eyes) through which the soul or spirit of the deceased passed. Next, the spirit of the deceased would be shown partaking of various pleasures, followed by the offering scene or other vividly painted scenes and excerpts of text and scenes from the Book of Gates or Book of the Coming Forth by Day.
The first evidence of the neb ankh has been dated to the early kingdom around the 3rd century BC. The earliest forms were simple wood rectangular boxes, which sometimes had vaulted lids and crosspieces. After a while Africans created neb ankhs to resemble palaces, with false doors and façade designs. By at least the 6th century BC, artisans had begun to embellish the interior of the neb ankh with calligraphically written excerpts from the Book of the Coming Forth by Day. On the exterior, artisans sometimes painted white crisscrossed bands that imitated mummy wrappings. The sides were decorated with gold leaf replica of vulture wings and various colorful scenes and passages from the Book of the Coming Forth by Day. Then they interspersed these scenes with the sons of Heru as well as images of Asar and Anpu. During this early dynasty, most neb ankhs were homogeneous, but by the Middle Kingdom, different provinces began to establish local styles. They perfected the craft of cutting and designing neb ankhs by the 12th dynasty.
In the New Kingdom, Africans continued to make neb ankhs with a variety of new materials, but regional and class differences emerged in the quality of the work. Depending on class or status, Africans would produce styles ranging from a neb ankh made of a single piece of wood, covered with strips of linen and gesso (a white plasterlike paint) and then brightly painted, to a neb ankh finished in gold, silver, or faience. Africans often reserved the court style, an elaborate style, for royal families. They were usually embellished in gold leaf or made of silver. During the New Kingdom (18th to 20th dynasty), Africans developed a neb ankh that took on an anthropoid form, and actually in the 18th dynasty, Africans created the neb ankh as the outmost container with several layers of containers for the body of the deceased inside. These increasingly elaborate neb ankhs became more distinguishable for their anthropoid style in the late dynasties of ancient Egypt.

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Further Reading

  • Reeves, C. N., and Wilkinson, R. H. (1996). The Complete Valley of the Kings: Tombs and Treasures of Egypt's Greatest Pharaohs. New York: Thames & Hudson.
  • Weeks, K. R., and De Luca, A. (2001). Valley of the Kings. New York: Friedman/Fairfax.