The sarcophagus is one of the most striking and memorable types of artifacts surviving from ancient Egyptian culture. These ceremonial burial cases give archaeologists deep insight into Egyptian funeral rituals, as well as the beliefs their royalty held about their place in the afterlife.

The Purpose of Sarcophagi

Grave robbers plundered many Egyptian tombs.
Grave robbers plundered many Egyptian tombs.

Sarcophagi in ancient Egypt were used to protect the coffins of royals and elites from grave robbers and were typically made of stone. Depending on the individual's status, a sarcophagus might also depict symbols of divine protection or the accomplishments and identity of the deceased. Some were plain, such as the simple alabaster sarcophagus of Queen Hetep-Heres from the Fourth Dynasty. A more elaborate example is the limestone sarcophagus of Kawit, Mentuhotep II's wife, which is richly carved in symbols reflecting the activities of a princess.

Sarcophagus Materials

Types of stone used for sarcophagus construction included limestone, granite, alabaster and quartzite. Earlier quartzite sarcophagi resembled the coffins of the Middle Kingdom, but later examples show a preference for granite. The most lavish were made of precious metals, such as the silver sarcophagus of Psusennes I, the only one of its kind known. Sarcophagi were sometimes reused among Egyptian royalty for later burials. Egyptians of lower status did not possess the means to afford sarcophagi, and were buried in coffins made of wood, clay or even reeds.

Symbolism

Divine symbols were often portrayed on sarcophagi.
Divine symbols were often portrayed on sarcophagi.

Sarcophagi are a significant reminder of the emphasis that ancient Egyptians placed on the afterlife. In royal tombs the protective encasement was typically surrounded by various figurines, food and riches all intended to provide comfort for the deceased through eternity (Tour Egypt). The coffins within were highly decorated, but sarcophagi were sometimes carved or painted on the exterior, interior or both. The sarcophagus of King Tut is one example, etched with the goddesses Isis, Neith, Nephtys and Selket (Tour Egypt). Their wings and arms are outstretched, symbolizing divine protection over the remains within.

Prominent Examples

Many incredible sarcophagi have been recovered in Egypt.
Many incredible sarcophagi have been recovered in Egypt.

Since sarcophagi served simultaneously as sacred protection and a testament to a given ruler's prestige, it is not surprising to find astonishing examples from throughout ancient Egypt. According to Live Science, Merneptah's royal sarcophagus was made of red granite, with three more stone sarcophagi "nested" inside. At 13 feet long, 7 feet wide and 8 feet tall, it is the largest known sarcophagus. In comparison, the sarcophagus for King Tutankhamen is 9 feet long, 5 feet wide and 5 feet high.