* Anthropoid Coffins from Deir el-Balah *

How were these Coffins manufactured?

by Dr. Jan Gunneweg

Archaeometry Unit, Institute of Archaeology

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel


Since the anthropoid burial coffins, found in Deir el-Balah and situated in the dunes 14 kilometers south of Gaza, first emerged from anonymity, (T. Dothan 1979) the question of how these almost two meter long ceramic coffins were manufactured, has become intriguing. *


Anthropoid Coffin

The anthropoid coffins are large ceramic recipients made to hold a corpse for burial. They are cylindrical and conical in shape. Two-thirds up from the bottom, the cylinder is of one piece, whereas at a third or a quarter length from the top, a slab was cut out from the main upper structure to enable the insertion of the deceased. The same removed slab of clay would later serve as a detachable lid which would cover the open space of the coffin after the corpse had been inserted. The average length of a coffin is between 1.94 to 2 meters, and a few coffins are less (one even 1.60 m., which is exceptional) (Dothan 1979, 99). Its width is about 0.60-0.75 m. at its shoulder and 0.40- 0.50 m at its base. The coffins at Deir el-Balah are dated to the Late Bronze II and Iron Age I. Their origin, as a concept, lies in Egypt (W. F. Albright, 1932, 295 ff; Petrie 1888; Neville and Griffith 1890; Reisner 1910 and Engelbach 1915), where similar coffins have been unearthed, but these were made of a variety of materials: wood, plaster, ceramic and stone, and the ceramic ones were inferior in quality to the those found in Deir el-Balah. Others of the same period were found in Canaan (Petrie and Tufnell 1930; Rowe 1930 and Macdonald et al. 1930) and in Syria (Hennequin 1939). The removable lid measures about 0.65 by 0.50 m., adorned by a modeled face, made by means of clay appliques and incisions. The lid depicts a mouth, eyes, a nose, ears and often a wig, features sometimes accentuated by white, black, red and gold colours. Many of the lids bear stylized arms and hands. Most of them have been unearthed in legal excavations (Footnote 1), whereas the minority was dug up illegally (see the M. Dayan collection).


Coffin Lid

The purpose of this study

The purpose of this study is to examine the technique used to manufacture such a coffin. To date, all the scholars who have dealt with this problem have asked themselves how were these coffins fired. Some scholars have come up with a plausible answer. T. Ornan summarized it in 1986 as follows: "The coffins and lids were probably fired in an open fire at a relatively low temperature, and the lids were then fired a second time at a higher temperature in a kiln" (Ornan 1986, 120). She continues: "Potter's kilns containing coffin-fragments which were excavated in the settlement [of Deir el-Balah, insertion mine] near the cemetery, demonstrate that the coffins were produced at the site" (idem, 121). Perlman had determined the local manufacture of the coffins long before 1986, on the ground of neutron activation results (Perlman et al. 1973, 149). No different ways of firing the coffins are known to me from the published material. Because of the sheer absence of a large kiln needed for firing such a coffin and the near impossibility of an 'open-firing' of it, I propose the following: The basic premise is that the coffins were fired neither in the open, nor in a kiln, at least not in one as we know it today from the usual kiln firing. In some peculiar way, the coffin itself must have served as the kiln, as I will explain. In the Spring of 1994, a team of students at the Jerusalem Art School of Bezalel experimented with a project for making art- pottery, which consisted of firing huge statues made of clay. The leader of the class, Martina Schoder from Altenstadt in W-Germany taught her students how to fire larger than life-size ceramic objects. Her class created a statue which is shown in Fig. 1a. in Fig. 1a.


Bezalel's Ceramic Structure

Back at my desk at the nearly adjacent Institute of Archaeology in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, it suddenly occurred to me that here one may perhaps find an explanation of how Late Bronze anthropoid coffins were made in Deir el-Balah and elsewhere.

The coffin

The ancient potter would have proceeded as follows: First, the coffin was freely hand-made by means of the coil technique. The body of the coffin was formed, while smoothing over the inside and the outside as work progressed.


Bezalel's "kiln-Art-Piece" Structure

The coffin was made of one piece until the top was reached and closed. Three to five holes, each 2 cms diameter,--whose function is to be explained later--were pierced through the back of the coffin and often a hole was cut at the foot end, or some holes were pierced through it. There are no such holes in the front of the coffin. When the coffin was dry enough to support itself, a string was taken and a symmetrical cut was made throughout the entire upper- front


Anthropoid Coffin in section

This explains why the sides of the cut on both the lid and the coffin are smooth, without the potter having to be afraid that he would come out at a different place, in case he used a knife. The slab (the lid) was not removed until the whole construction was thoroughly dried. Only then, were both separated.

The lid

The lid was modeled in high and/or low relief as described in the Introduction. It was then dried and fired in a kiln. Kilns with fragments have been found near the cemetery (Ornan 1986, 121). Therefore, there was no incentive to fire the lid twice as Ornan has suggested. Her statement is based on the rope impression found on one of the coffins which, according to her, indicated that both, the coffin and the lid, were first fired together in an open fire (see our drawing of the anthropoid coffin which is a free pen- tracing of Ornan's photograph 57:3). However, the rope could not have made the impression found at the back of one of the coffins, when it tied the two separable parts after the coffin had become bone hard; the rope would not have left an impression. And if it did leave one, its traces on the front of the lid as well had to be found. These have not been found. The signs of a rope impression probably mean that at the point where the coffin was the weakest, a string was used to support it until it would be dry. The rope left its impression on the back of the coffin because it was put there when the coffin was wet, before the cut-out lid was removed for the modelling of the face. It served the purpose of keeping the shape of the coffin after the lid had been cut out. Then, one worked on the lid, dried it, and fired it separately--a hypothesis which can be proved because of the finds of it in the kilns unearthed.

The kiln

The next step was to build the kiln. For that purpose, a narrow shallow--50 cms. deep--V-shaped ditch was dug into the ground which started at 50 cms from the head-end of the coffin, at the part where the opening for the corpse was cut out. The ditch continued beneath the entire length of the coffin, until 40 cms beyond its rear end. From the head-end outward, a slope was dug, which served as the entrance of the firing tunnel. Thereby, care was taken that the stoking hole would be deep enough to allow the ashes to fall down into the hollow without blocking the draft or obstructing the re-fueling of the kiln. The coffin was placed bottom-up over the V-shaped ditch to a depth where the cut-out lid-space became level with the surrounding ground. The coffin was to a depth of 15 cms into the ditch, whereas the rest stuck out above ground. Since the V- shaped ditch was 50 cms deep, one obtained some sort of a wind tunnel below the entire length of the coffin. Then, the front of the V-shaped ditch which was visible, was covered with a roofed construction of clay, mud and straw, forming a stoking chamber positioned at the head-end of the coffin. Thus, the hot gases of the fire could easily enter the inside of the coffin through the cut in the coffin, as well as below the entire structure


Coffin used as its own kiln

(see Fig 3.). At the other end of the V-shaped ditch, a construction of either stones or bricks and mortar was built on which a chimney was placed. The chimney of the kiln could have been made of bottom-less store jars covered with wet mud mixed with straw cut into pieces of 15 cms length. A shard of a vessel would have had to be at hand to be placed on the chimney opening in order to muffle the escaping fumes. The position of the chimney in terms of whether it was situated opposite the wind direction or not, is unimportant, because the hot smoke which escaped the kiln through the chimney would have created a natural draft, irrespective of the direction of the prevailing wind. If, as was described above, this construction were to be fueled by supplying the stoking ditch with branches, dung, wood, straw, thistles and the like, and lit, the entire enterprise would certainly have been a failure, because the coffin would either have exploded or disintegrated. Heaping fuel around and over it would momentarily give a fierce fire, but this would not suffice to turn a 3 cm thick and almost two meters long structure of clay into a ceramic. Heap firing suffices for small and medium large vessels.

The proposed manner of firing

Therefore, something is needed to prevent the coffin from cracking. For that purpose, one prepared a mixture of wet clay, mud and a lot of straw as well as other organic material from plants, traces of which were found on coffins at Deir el-Balah (Dothan 1979, 99). One would bring this wet mixture in layers onto the outside of the dry coffin which would have immediately made a good bond. Meanwhile, a small fire was kindled in the fire channel the entrance to which was constructed so that it could be covered by a vessel or a large shard at the entrance, to muffle the fire, in order to prevent certain cracking by increasing the temperature too rapidly (see Fig. 1b). Instead, throughout the initial three hours, the heat would have to be kept relatively low, between 2-300 degrees Celsius, and this would be made possible by repeatedly placing the vessel or a large shard into the stoking opening. Whereas in modern kilns, pyrometric pyramids (wrongly called "cones") are inserted to check the heat of the kiln, in ancient times the potter would do it by eye, using small pierced holes, observing the change in colour at the inside of the kiln. In the coffins, however, these holes were placed at certain intervals in the back of the coffin itself and, all facing upward, since the coffin was laid on its belly over the V-shaped ditch. At the same time, the small pierced holes served the purpose of having an extra outlet for the smoke, so that the holes would have also been visible through the mud-mantle. This also explains why the coffin did not have holes in front; they were not required for the firing. Ornan states that the "holes in the backs of some coffins were probably intended for drainage" (Ornan 1986, 121). However, she does not explain the cut hole at the foot-end of the coffin which would have been at 20 cms above the ground, and thus useless for "drainage". At Beth Shean, for example, a neatly cut out hole of about 15 cms diameter was found in the bottom of a coffin (Rowe 1930). According to the present scenario, the hole at the foot served to let the hot gases from the inside of the coffin/kiln, escape into the chimney, with which it was connected (see Fig. 3). It is suggested here, that these holes were for the firing of the coffin and not for "airing" the corpse. The openings in the back were spy holes for the potter who, peeping through them at regular intervals, would be able to see whether the fire had reached the entirety of the coffin from within. This would have been shown by the glowing from within which starts at 700-750C. He then closed the holes with wooden pegs and eventually with mud, whereas the fire would have been maintained at the same temperature for the duration of approximately 1-2 hours. At that stage, no fuel was added and the stoking hole was closed, as was the outlet of the chimney. During the entire firing process, the ancient potter kept an eye on the fuel supply, but above all, on the outer surface of the covering mud layer which tends to dry and break. In order to prevent the breaking of the outer mud mantle, he would repeatedly add fresh mud and smooth it all over. Then the entire body of the coffin was covered with a 5-6 cms. thick wet mud layer, as shown in the drawing of Fig. 3. In sum, the firing of the coffin would haven taken eight hours, the first three at low temperature during which time the covering of the coffin with mud and straw took place, then 2-3 hours in order to bring the temperature up to 700-750 C. and finally maintaining this temperature for an additional two hours. After a slow cooling period of 12-16 hours, the mantle of dried mud was removed and the coffin would be ready to be taken away. No traces of the mantle have been found, for the simple reason that the "mud-mantle" was not fired into a ceramic. The dried mud would disintegrate when in contact with rain or ground water. Traces of straw, however, were found on some of the coffins as mentioned above. On the other hand, a thick black layer appears in a photograph (Dothan, 1979, Fig. 69) of the hole dug to place the coffins in the cemetery. Although the excavator did not describe the layer, it seemed to be of ashes. If this is the case, the coffins were fired near the future grave and the ashes were mixed with the sand which covered the graves. Another problem is the human content of the coffins (footnote 2.) If this unique way of firing the coffins is the right one, it would corroborate another Deir el-Balah--Egypt connection, because the majority of similar coffins was first made in Egypt, but perfectionated in Deir el-Balah.


The anthropoid coffin depicted in Fig. 2 was fired in a way similar to the statues depicted in Fig. 1. There is sufficient archaeological evidence that in the Late Bronze and Iron Age I, coffins at Deir el-Balah were made in this fashion. The novelty of the firing in this manner described in the present study, today, as well as in antiquity, consists of the fact that wet mud was used to cover a clay object while the firing was taking place,-- a procedure which has often been considered a "taboo" in the pottery manufacture trade. Footnotes Footnote 1. The excavation report of the cemetery at Deir el- Balah (B. Arensberg and P.Smith at Dothan 1979, 92) only mentions that sometimes in each coffin more than one or even two and three corpses have been found. No scholar has given a satisfactory explanation of this phenomenon. Were people buried together because they died at the same time? If not, the coffin would have been dug up and after so many years this would have been a major undertaking because the burial itself makes the coffin to disintegrate. Footnote 2. For an exhaustive over-view of the different styles and controversies concerning the anthropoid coffins, see Tr. Dothan 1982 and Tr. and M. Dothan 1992. REFERENCES
  1. ALBRIGHT, WILLIAM F. 1932: An anthropoid clay coffin from Sahab in Trans-Jordan, in American Journal of Archaeology 36, 295 ff.
  2. DOTHAN, TRUDE 1973: Anthropoid Clay Coffins from a Late Bronze Age Cemetery near Deir el-Balah, in Israel Exploration Journal 23, 129-148.
  3. DOTHAN, TRUDE 1979: Excavations at the cemetery of Deir el- Balah, Qedem 10, Monograph of the Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
  4. DOTHAN, TRUDE 1982: The Philistines and their material Culture, Jerusalem, Israel Exploration Society Chapter V, 252-288.
  5. DOTHAN, TRUDE AND MOSHE 1992: People of the sea, New York, 57-75.
  6. ENGELBACH, R. 1915: Riqqeh and Memphis VI, London, 18 and 21; Pls.IX:18, XIX:1; XXXIV-XXXVIII.
  7. HENNEQUIN, L. 1939: Trois sarcophages anthropoides en poterie trouves a Tell Duweir, in Melanges Syriens offerts a R. Dussaud II, Paris, 965-974.
  8. MACDONALD, E. STARKEY, J.L. AND HARDING, L. 1932: Beth Pelet II, London, 25; Pl. LIII.
  9. NEVILLE, A. AND GRIFFITH, F. 1890: The mound of the Jew and the city of Onias,: The Antiquities of Tell Yehudiyeh, London, 15-17; 42-48 and Pls. 12 and 13.
  10. ORNAN, TALLAY 1986: A man and his land, Highlights from the Moshe Dayan Collection, Catalogue 270 of the Israel Museum of Jerusalem, Chapter IV, 57.
  11. PERLMAN, ISADORE, ASARO, FRANK AND DOTHAN, TRUDE 1973: Provenance of the Deir el-Balah coffins, in Israel Exploration Journal 23, 147-151.
  12. PETRIE, WILLIAM M. F.1888: Tanis II, 17; Pls. I and III.
  13. PETRIE, WILLIAM M. F. and Olga Tufnell 1930: Beth Pelet I, London, 6-9; Pls. XIX and XXIV.
  14. REISNER, G.A. 1910: The archaeological survey of Nubia, Report for 1907-8, Vol. I, Cairo, Fig. 46, Pl. 36.
  15. ROWE, A. 1930: Beit Shean Cemetery, 139 ff; Figs. 12,53:4 and 80;9,52:1-4.
  16. ROWE, A. 1930: The history and topography of Beth Shan I, Philadelphia, 37, Pl. 17.
Fig. 1b. The Art-ceramic belly of an animal with mud mantle and muffling slab at the opening of the stoking hole. Fig. 2.a-d. Pen drawings of the front, the lid, the back and the section of a ceramic anthropoid burial coffin similar to the ones found at Deir el-Balah. Fig. 3. The probable way of the firing of anthropoid coffins during Late Bronze II and Early Iron Age I. The coffin itself is the kiln, covered within a mantle of mud and straw.

Please, send comments and/or questions regarding the manufacture of Anthropoid Coffins to:

Jan Gunneweg
Copyright of all which has been reported here: Jan Gunneweg, The Hebrew University February 1997

Since February, 1, 1997, people have leafed through this Coffins Paper

Click here for returning to Gunneweg's Homepage