Legacies: stereotypes, racism and the civil rights movement

Coffins of Khnum-Nakht and Nekht-Ankh

Made in Egypt, 12th Dynasty (about 1985-1773 BC)
Wood, bronze, limestone and obsidian

See this object at The Manchester Museum, University of Manchester This object may not always be on display. Please check with the venue before visiting.

Coffins of Khnum-Nakht and Nekht-Ankh

The tomb of two brothers, Khnum-Nakht and Nekht-Ankh, was discovered by a workman called Erfai, under the supervision of British Egyptologist Ernest Mackay, during official excavations by Sir William Flinders Petrie (1852-1942) and the British School of Archaeology.

The contents of the burial site were passed to the Manchester Museum where they were studied initially by Margaret Murray in 1908 and more recently by Professor Rosalie David in 1979. The two brothers came from Der Rifeh in Middle Kingdom Egypt and lived during the 12th Dynasty (about 1985-1773 BC). Their burial site is the finest non-royal tomb found in that area.

The wooden coffin of Khnum-Nakht held the body of a negroid man. It has eyes of limestone and obsidian inserted in the bronze rim. It may seem strange that his coffin has a white face, but this is symbolic rather than how he really looked. White was the colour of purity, whilst black signified new life and resurrection. The coffin of Nekht-Ankh has a face which is painted black, although it held the remains of Khnum-Nakht's non-negroid brother.

The chances are that, as today, people in the north of Egypt would have been lighter-skinned than those from the south. In addition, the higher your status in ancient Egypt, the less likely you would be to work in conditions exposed to direct sunlight. A lighter skin tone may have been seen as a status symbol, indicating that you did not have to earn a living by labouring.

Western history has traditionally argued that European culture developed from non-black, Indo-European models. This has been challenged in recent years, with some historians arguing that Greek civilisation was heavily influenced by ancient Egypt, a black African culture. One difficulty that researchers still face, however, is the lack of written evidence about pre-colonial Africa and the challenge of interpreting oral history.

This information was provided by curators from The Manchester Museum.