Apis bull, coffin element painted on board; circa 745- 655BC Image Credit: The Fitzwilliam Museum/Cambridge

Many a patient has been put through an X-ray scan in a hospital radiology department. But the coffin of an Egyptian mummy?

This was the unusual challenge set Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, England, better known for its work in organ transplants, by the curators of an intriguing exhibition “Death on the Nile: Uncovering the Afterlife of Ancient Egypt”.

The coffin belonged to a man named Nespawershefyt and on its surface appears to be a gloriously elaborate memoriam, exquisitely decorated, finely constructed, capturing all the mystique that surrounded the Egyptian way of death for millennia.

What the pictures from the CT scan showed was something more mundane. The coffin had been made with bits of wood from other coffins and patched up to appear as good as new.

This insight from the exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge uncovers some of the mystique that surrounds the ancient Egyptian way of death from before 3200BC to the Roman era that came to an end in Egypt in AD395 by revealing the make-do-and-mend practices of the artisans who made the coffins.

Nespawershefyt, whose name translates as “The One who belongs to the Great One of the Ram’s Head”, a splendid title for a man who was supervisor of the scribes and craftsmen at the temple of Karnak around 1070-890BC, was in a position to ensure that his own burial reflected his status. His burial regalia consisted of a mummy board or lid decorated with winged deities, two inner coffins with his face, curiously androgynous with its black almond shaped eyes, and, like a Russian doll, two inner casks into which the coffins are placed. All are richly covered with depictions of the deities and religious scenes as befits a man of importance. In one scene he is portrayed being judged before Osiris, ruler of the underworld, his heart on a scale, his worth weighed by the judges of the dead.

However beautifully his prestige is recognised on the exteriors, the scan confirmed what the curators had suspected; that an inner coffin was made up of re-used wood — timber was an expensive material at the time — held together by dowels. Mortises had been cut into the wood to lock in with tenon joints and it was lined with paste as a preparation for further work.

Furthermore, the images of the scan show that the plank of the lid had split and been pinned together with a butterfly clamp while evidence of the craftsmen’s efforts can be gleaned by the fingerprints left by them 3,000 years ago, suggesting that they had moved the lid of the inner coffin before the varnish had dried.

Perhaps it is little wonder that the coffins needed so much work. Over the centuries they became increasingly sophisticated to reflect the preoccupations, and vanity, of the nobles and upper classes as they prepared for the afterlife. But in earliest times the bodies were squeezed into earthenware pots — the one on display from 2700-2170BC — or lain in holes in the sand. The bodies were placed in a foetal position and surrounded by earthly possessions such as bowls and beakers as well as food and drink to keep them supplied in the afterlife. The hot sand preserved the bodies but it was not secure enough to stop the wild animals breaking in or the wind blowing the sand away.

The sand graves were replaced by coffins but without the heat of the sand to preserve them the bodies had to be mummified. Soon, too, they were laid out at full length in their coffins which became decorated with increasing richness and detail with texts and illustrations.

It was believed that each individual had a number of spirits that lived on after them and the texts on the sides of the coffins helped ensure that the owners could be identified, not just by the living, but by the spirits of the dead.

The deity most portrayed from earliest times is Osiris who, legend has it, came back to life after being murdered by his brother but in later years the dead themselves assumed the figure of Osiris in a way that is still not clear to contemporary experts. This transmogrification started with royalty but in time spread down the social scale.

On the coffin of Nakht (1915-1870BC), which was found with three others from her family, the text on the lid reads: “Oh Osiris, Lady of the House, Nakht.” Her coffin reflects the move to increasingly sophisticated decorations, with a pair of eyes on the outside aligned to the body inside, which would have been placed on her side as custom dictated. She would have been facing east so that she could “look” out and witness the rebirth of the day with the rising sun.

What makes the exhibition so fascinating is not just the coffins in their coats of many colours but some of the smaller, humbler, artefacts. A ragged papyrus that belonged to a man called Ramose tells how he and his wife reach the lands of fertility and well being — the Fields of Iaru — by passing though the Hall of Judgment where their sins and successes were evaluated. They are portrayed happily working in the fields, which suggests they passed the tests, and, as an insurance, a copy of the papyrus would have been buried with them to ensure that in death they survive in the underworld.

Similarly, small containers called “shabtis” were painted with the figures they were to represent as they faced their day of judgment. They would also contain food and be left near the coffin for nourishment in the afterlife.

In the coffin of Khety, a wealthy man from about 2100-1950BC, a collection of models made of sycamore fig wood and linen and fabulously preserved animates how people lived — making bread, sailing down the Nile, brewing and slaughtering an ox.

The exhibition backs up its findings with a demonstration of the repair work and a display of the various tools such as chisels, an axe, a square to ensure the angles are straight and an array of pigments in blues, reds and yellows.

Of course, it is the strange, enigmatic figures of the dead that enthral. Usehet, possibly a warrior from 1855-1790BC, has a stark, black face with the long beard of Osiris on a plain white coffin with a simple, single line of inscriptions. Even here, what is not seen even when the coffin is open, is a split that extends the length of the coffin. Handy workmen of the day sewed together the split using sinew stitches and sealed it with paste.

And Nakhtefmut, a dazzling example of cartonnage made from layers of linen and glue, from about 923BC is decorated with the winged deities of the Sons of Horus and Osiris and is covered with texts, one of which records that he was the “opener of the two gates of heaven in Karnak”, the man whose job it was to open the gates to the sanctuary that contained the figure of Amun-Re, one of the most powerful deities in ancient Egypt.

His coffin captures that mysterious world of deities, spirits and nobility that epitomised ancient Egypt. So too does Pakepu, a “water pourer on the west of Thebes”, whose role was to maintain the cult of the dead. He lies in all his finery — a finery belied by the drips of red and blue paint on the coffin sides left by a craftsman in a hurry.

Richard Holledge is a writer based in London.

“Death on the Nile: Uncovering the Afterlife of Ancient Egypt” runs at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, until May 22.