Burial Customs in Ancient Egypt and Their Development
Pyramids, temples, tombs, the burials of kings, nobles and the common people, all express the unique Ancient Egyptian idea of death. Ancient Egyptians believed in the resurrection and the hereafter perhaps more than any other ancient society. According to Egyptians, death was not simply the end, but was just one of the transformations in life’s natural cycle. The Ancient Egyptians saved a part of their wealth to prepare their tombs and to enjoy the afterlife inside it. In Ancient Egypt, Egyptians believed that man consists of many parts: for instance, man's physical body was know in Hieroglyphics as HT, his name as RN, his heart as IB, his soul as BA and his shadow as SW. Cemeteries of the Pre-Dynastic Period provide us with the earliest evidence of Egyptian funerary beliefs and customs. The dead were separated from the living not only by the fact of their being dead, but also by being laid to rest in sets of graves at some distance from towns and villages, on the edge of the desert. Within the grave, the deceased was placed facing to the west and was accompanied by pottery vessels filled with food and drink, clothing, personal adornments and other equipments. In some cases, we found the deceased buried in a squatting position like the embryo in his mother's womb. Also found are some shells behind the deceased intended to help him to be resurrected in the afterlife. In other cases, we found a little statue of a woman to help in the rebirth of the body again. Later, the offering formula which appeared in the tombs was responsible for turning the lists of offerings inscribed on the tombs' walls into real objects. Offerings usually consisted of bread, beer and oxen. Grave contents varied in quantity and quality according to the status of the tomb's owner.
Although the practice of preserving corpses is common to several cultures around the world, the Egyptians were proficient, more complex and refined in this art during the nearly four thousand years. In primitive times, the bodies were buried into the desert, far from growing areas, without further preparation. Because of the direct contact with sand covering the body and the conditions of heat and dryness, the fluids were drained from the body and the skin, hair and nails were kept intact. The accidental discovery of some corpses surely would have caused a deep impression. As the burials of the elite were sophisticated, simple pit tombs were built according to the deceased position. However, in the grave, rather than dried, the corpses discomposed quickly. Thus a need to preserve the body emerged, and the long process of experimentation began. It was not until almost 2600 BC that they were given with the proper procedures.
The Ancient Egyptians believed that their life on earth would continue in the afterlife, but the dead had to be especially prepared to undertake their final journey to the Kingdom of Osiris, with the aid of a complicated ritual that protected them from all dangers and therefore ensured admittance into the land of eternal life. The process of mummification was a complex ritual carried out under the supervision of the High King Priest who wore the mask of god Anubis (known as God of Embalming) who was referred to in ancient texts as the Superior of Mysteries. Every phase in this process (which was carried out in a place called 'wabet' (which means the 'pure place', or the 'house of regeneration')) was preceded, accompanied, and followed by prayers and magic formulas.
First of all, they extracted the deceased's brain with a probe introduced by the nose. Then a long cut was made on the left side of the abdomen, and the lungs, liver, stomach, and intestines were removed and placed in four canopic vases protected by the Four Sons of Horus (human-headed Imsety, dog-headed Duamuref, baboon-headed Hapy, and falcon-headed Qebehsenuf) and four deities (Isis, Nephthys, Neith, and Selket). The heart, considered the seat of thought and emotions, was left intact. Then the body was covered with piles of natron and left to dry for forty days, after which was washed, purified and anointed with various oils, spices and resins. It was later wrapped by layers of cloth and several amulets were placed on certain areas of the body while priests recited the prayers necessary to activate the protective properties of these parts. At this stage, the deceased's body was covered for 70 days with natron, a substance consisting of sulfates, carbonates, and sodium chloride. Only then could the deceased be given back to his/her family. The family would place him/her in a wooden coffin carrying him to the necropolis in a long procession, followed by the relatives and friends, as well as professional women mourners and servants. Servants were responsible for carrying the funerary equipment, which included the many everyday objects the deceased would need in the afterlife. Then, in front of the tomb, the ritual of the Opening of the Mouth of the deceased was performed to allow him/her magically acquire the use of the mouth and senses again. Lastly, the burial rituals being performed, the coffin was placed in the burial chamber, which was hermetically sealed.
Pre-Dynastic Egypt (Badari -Naqada about 4400-3000 BC
In the Badarian Period, the dead were placed in shallow holes. Burial equipments included some vessels (food provision for the afterlife), jewelry (status symbols) and slate palettes (for preparing eye paint). Burial customs of the Naqada I Period were still quite similar to the Badarian period. That is, the dead were placed in shallow holes, with some burial equipment (like jeweler, pottery, and slate palettes) around them. Inthe Naqada II Period, some tombs were quite large and well equipped to contain the mummies of the elite of that era. Burial equipments were often precious and well-made. The range of objects is similar to those of the poorer tombs: pottery, jeweler, status symbols, and cosmetic palettes. The afterlife seems to have been considered a copy of life on earth. Most burial equipments seem to represent daily life objects, mirroring the belief that the afterlife is similar to the life on earth. However, a number of objects might be connected to special religious beliefs or rituals only performed at tombs. Painted vessels might have been made especially for the tomb. -Naqada Tomb 260 contained several clay models of garlic that might have played some part in a funerary ritual. -Probably belonging to a local leader, Hierakonpolis Tomb 100 was decorated with some paintings and depictions. -Seemingly containing the forerunner of coffins, Tomb Qau 1629 was lined with some wooden boards. -Tomb Naqada 624 contained a number of painted vessels.
Early Dynastic Egypt (Naqada III- Second Dynasty, about 3100-2700 BC)
Elite burials were in huge, mud brick mastabas, unlike those of poorer people who were often simply buried in shallow holes in the ground. A wooden coffin is also common for elite burials. In the coffin, the dead were placed in a contracted position. In the Second Dynasty, the body was sometimes laid out full length. In front of the dead is placed funerary meals. In the burial chamber were placed many objects of daily use (such as furniture, games, weapons and other tools). High officials were buried in the cemeteries of the capital (Meidum, Dahshur, Saqqara and Giza). A sarcophagus or coffin is commonly found inside tombs, sometimes inscribed with prayers and religious features and symbols. Side by side were found a set of model copper tools, a set of model pottery, a set of four canopic jars as well as a washing-dish set. Burials of Lower-Class People in Provinces: Coffins were neither so common nor inscribed. A headrest was sometimes placed under the head of the dead. Jewelry was not common. In richer tombs, however, some pottery and stone vessels were common. As a vivid example, the Mastaba of Nefermaat shows the richness of decoration of such a graceful building.
First Intermediate Period and Early Middle Kingdom (about 2025-1700 BC)
Coffin interiors were painted with religious texts and friezes of objects. A small statue of the tomb's owner was placed near or inside his/her coffin. Wooden models showing craftsmen, servants, or ships were placed near or on the coffin. The head of the dead was covered with a mask. Under the head of the dead was placed a headrest and at the feet were placed sandals. Tombs often contained sex-specific burial equipments: women were buried with jewelry, cosmetic objects and grinding stones. Men, on the other hand, were buried with weapons and status symbols. Pottery symbolized the food provision. Commonly found were a flat bowl (drinking bowl) and a tall jar (container of liquid). At this phase, the contracted position of the body was becoming less and less common.
From Late Middle Kingdom to Second Intermediate Period (about 1850-1550 BC)
Again, at the end of the Twelfth Dynasty, burial customs witnessed a dramatic change. While many previously-typical burial goods, coffin texts, and wooden models disappeared, others came into use. Notably, two main types of burials were common, namely, court-type and non-court type burials. The court-type burials belonged to the highest officials and members of the Court. In these burials, a set of royal insignia (such as mace heads) was placed next to the dead body, which was treated as Osiris (who was the Ruler of the Underworld). The non-court type burials, on the other hand, had no standard for the characteristics of the burial equipments they contained. However, new burial equipments appeared in these tombs: shabtis, magical wands, and small faience or limestone figures. Also common were faience figures of desert-edge or river creatures, such as the hippopotamus as well as religious texts written on various objects, such as a few coffins, papyri, jars, and pottery vessels. At certain burials, some faience figures might have a magical function. It was not until the Twelfth Dynasty that the first anthropomorphic (human-shaped) coffins appeared. Sometimes placed in a box, four canopic jars were commonly found. Parts of the coffin were often covered with gold. At all periods, jewelry was common in burials, but it was especially fine in the Middle Kingdom. Commonly found were miniature pottery vessels. In the 'Tomb of the Two Brothers', there were burial anthropomorphic coffins with golden pendants in the shape of fish, a popular amulet in elite burials.
The Eighteenth Dynasty (Valley of the Kings)
During the late Second Intermediate Period, objects of daily use became the main burial equipments. The coffins, canopic boxes and (in some burials) shabtis were usually the only objects especially-produced for tombs. This may reflect the restricted resources available to the small kingdom of the Seventeenth Dynasty Kings: it seems that the Southern elite could not afford the luxury of special funerary workshops. In the far richer days of the New Kingdom (about 1550-1069 BC), more objects ─such as funerary papyri and canopic jars─ were produced as tomb equipments. The tradition of placing objects of daily use in tombs continued. From no other periods were so many different objects (furniture and jewelry) placed in tombs. The New Kingdom was a period of advances in securing good results from mummification. Following are the funerary objects placed in elite tombs: 1-Shabtis: in elite tombs of the early Eighteenth Dynasty, a single shabtis per tomb is common. In the late Eighteenth Dynasty, each tomb may contain more than one shabtis. 2-The Book of the Dead is included in many (but not all) elite burials. 3-The four canopic jars: commonly found, they had human-shaped heads and were often placed in a chest. 4- An anthropomorphic coffin: in the early Eighteenth Dynasty, rishi coffins were still in use and they were replaced later by the so-called the White and later by the Black Coffins. Garments, sandals, cosmetic objects, gaming boards, pottery, furniture, weapons and jewelry, all comes under the category of objects of daily use. They were found in tombs of a wide social spectrum. There were no undisturbed high-elite burials of the New Kingdom, but they illustrated the range found in tombs of the Eighteenth Dynasty.
The Ramesside Period (Valley of the Kings)
Burial customs changed in the early Ramesside Period. No longer put into tombs, objects of daily use placed in a tomb had been very typical for the Eighteenth Dynasty. Most of the grave equipments were now especially made for a burial. The burials of high elite officials included a coffin or sarcophagus, a canopic box with canopic jars, shabtis with one or several shabti boxes and a 'Book of the Dead'. Other objects included several amulets and a heart scarab. Much energy was put into the construction of the tomb's chapels. Multiple burials were also common. Some objects were commonly found in high elite tombs: heart scarabs, pectorals, amulets, coffins and mummy boards, shabtis boxes, as well as the Book of the Dead. On the other hand, in poorer tombs, burials of the not-so-well-to-do people were often without any further burials equipments. All 'money' was spent on a coffin. A set of crude shabtis was quite common; and some graves (mostly of children) contained amulets, shabtis, pottery and coffins.
Third Intermediate Period
Elite Burials: There is a wide range of tomb types for elite burials. At Thebes, many officials were buried in vast galleries together with many other people. In the North, kings, members of the Royal Family and some high officials were buried in small-tomb chambers built within a temple enclosure. In the Twenty-Second Dynasty, small chapels became popular. Elite Burials of the Twenty-First Dynasty: They contained coffin shabtis, stele, funerary papyri, canopic jars and other Osiris figures. Elite Burials after the Mid Twenty-Second Dynasty: The burial equipments were largely reduced: there were no shabtis, funerary papyri or canopic jars anymore.
The Late Period
Following are objects found in elite burials in the Late Period: 1-Shabtis (up to four hundred, one shabti for each day and some overseer shabtis). 2- Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figures as well as other wooden figures of deities (most popular Isis and Nephthys) 3-Amulets arranged on and inside the mummy wrappings. 4-Canopic jars. 5-A Coffin or sarcophagus. 6-The mummy was often decorated with an elaborate bead net. 7- The Book of the Dead (but not very common in the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty, and no examples securely dated to the Persian Period).
The funeral receptacles can be divided into two main types: the coffins and sarcophagi: 1- Coffins were invented as early as the Dynastic Period and were made of several materials (such as basketworks and wood). Later, they were covered with plaster and paintings, and then they were developed into anthropomorphic (human-shaped) coffins inscribed with coffin texts. 2-The other type of receptacles is sarcophagus which was used to place the coffin inside it.
The sarcophagi were invented as early as early the Old Kingdom, beginning from the Third Dynasty, in the reign of Djoser. Sarcophagi were made out of stone, such as alabaster, granite, or limestone. However, the sarcophagi did not have as much inscriptions as coffins. Instead, they were inscribed merely with the name and titles of the deceased. It is worth mentioning that the word 'sarcophagus' is an Ancient Greek word. Greeks also were used to preserve their dead bodies inside receptacles made of stone. When the Greeks found that the bodies decompose, they thought stone was the reason. This made them call it the eater of the flesh. When they came to Egypt, however, they found that the Ancient Egyptians also were burying their dead inside receptacles made of stone. Thus, thinking it was made of the same stone, they called it 'Sarcophagi'.
The names of the sarcophagi in Ancient Egypt:
1-The sarcophagus was mentioned in texts dating to the Old Kingdom as (bn n cnhw), which means 'the Stone of Life'.
2- In other eras, it was also given the name of (pr cnhw), which means 'the House of the Living'.
3-It was also called (Mn cnhw), which means 'the Living Monument'. From the above-mentioned names, one can deduce that these sarcophagi were not only receptacles to protect the body of the deceased, but they were also the house where the KA is believed to reside until the afterlife. That is why one always finds windows and a false door on the sides of the sarcophagi. This is because the Ancient Egyptians believed they were to allow the communication between this life and the afterlife. There are two major functions of the sarcophagus:
1-It was intended to protect the body of the deceased from being destroyed.
2-It was the house of eternity where the KA should reside till the afterlife