Egyptologist Anders Bettum of the University of Oslo in Norway says the practice was intended to ensure the transformation of the deceased from human to deity.
"The numerous layers of coffins around the mummy functioned as repeated images of the deceased, but also as protective capsules, similar to the larva's pupa before its transformation to a butterfly.
"The Egyptian coffin sets are based on the same principle that we can observe with Chinese boxes and Russian nested matryoshka dolls, where objects are nested inside each other to constitute a complete ensemble," he said.
The child king Tutankhamun (1334-24 B.C.) was buried in as many as eight coffins, Bettum said.
"For men and women who were members of the ancient Egyptian elite at that time, three or four coffins were not unusual," he said in a university release Monday.
"Boxes and other forms of containers are technologies that arise at given points of time in various cultures. Everybody knows the ancient Egyptian practice of mummifying their dead. What is perhaps less known is that they placed the mummies inside layer upon layer of coffins."
Complete Egyptian coffin nests still can be found intact in some places, but most have been disassembled and scattered in museums all over the world. As a researcher, Bettum said, he would like to see international cooperation to reunite some coffin ensembles in the same location.
They would be fascinating to the public and could rekindle interest in some of the world's largest and most enigmatic cultural treasures, he said.