Much of what we know today about ancient Egypt has been pieced together by archeologists using artifacts and information gathered from the tombs of pharaohs and other high-ranking individuals. The Egyptians observed a complex series of rituals when burying dead pharaohs, designed to aid the dead king’s transition into the afterlife. Mummification and burial were deeply significant for the Egyptians because they believed that the survival of a person’s remains was vital in their soul’s continuation into the afterlife.
Creation of the Tomb
Preparation for an Egyptian pharaoh’s burial started long before his death, with the creation of a suitable tomb. The type of tomb changed markedly through time, from the earliest “mastaba,” or mud-brick mound, to the huge pyramids erected during the Fourth Dynasty for Pharaoh Snefu and his descendants. Grave robbers targeted the rich stores of objects buried with pharaohs, meaning that later Egyptian kings were buried in more secret locations, in chambers cut into bare rock.
Pharaohs were entombed with all the objects Egyptians believed they would need in the afterlife, like supplies of food and oil, clothes and even furniture. The inventory taken when Tutankhamun’s tomb was excavated in the 1920s records numerous items for use in day-to-day life, including sandals, jewelry, robes and bows and arrows.
In the pyramids of the New Kingdom, the walls of the chambers where the objects were stored were decorated with scenes showing the journey of the pharaoh’s soul to the afterlife and his meeting various deities.
Once the pharaoh died, his body would be preserved by mummification, a process so expensive that only the wealthiest in Egyptian society could afford it. Over 70 days, experienced embalmers worked with the corpse to preserve it. First, the internal organs, except for the heart, were removed before embalmers covered the body with natron, a type of salt, to draw out the moisture. The dried body was then wrapped in hundreds of yards of linen, with warm resin applied between layers, along with amulets and written prayers.
Finally, the mummified body was placed in a specially prepared casket, known as a sarcophagus. Ancient Egyptians believed that pharaohs were living incarnations of the god Osiris, so their sarcophagi often include symbols related to kingship, such as the flail and crook and the cobra-like “uraeus” symbol carved into the sarcophagus of Ramesses III. Other symbols, such as the scarab beetle, were intended to assist the pharaoh’s transition into the afterlife. Most sarcophagi were carved from stone, but some pharaohs, including Tutankhamun, were buried with ornate metal funerary masks covering their shoulders and head.
- The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago: Teacher Resource Center, Ancient Egypt Burial Customs
- Encyclopedia Smithsonian: The Egyptian Pyramid
- Encyclopedia Smithsonian: Egyptian Mummies
- Dartmouth College: A Brief History of Ancient Egyptian Tombs
- UNESCO World Heritage Convention: Memphis and its Necropolis
- The Griffith Institute: The Howard Carter Archives, List of Objects
- Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum: Burial Practices, Afterlife and Mummies
- Fitzwilliam Museum: Ancient Egyptians, Sarcophagus Lid of Ramesses III
- Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History: Eternal Life in Ancient Egypt, The Mummy’s Tomb
- The Griffith Institute: Photographs of Egypt by John Ross
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images