The ancient Egyptians placed great importance on the afterlife. Historians deduce that the earliest Egyptians buried their dead in the ground to be mummified naturally. As Egyptian society grew more complex, increasingly elaborate tombs were constructed to house coffins made of a variety of materials.
Commoners in ancient Egypt followed similar burial practices as their wealthier counterparts but used less-costly means to prepare for the afterlife. They most often were buried in single coffins made from materials such as reeds or pottery. This may seem like a questionable practice considering that trees such as almond and palm grew from the banks of the Nile River, but these soft woods were generally not considered desirable for coffin construction.
Wealthy Egyptian Coffins
Members of the Egyptian upper class used quality hardwood for their coffins, typically imported from areas such as Lebanon and shipped by sea and the Nile River. The ancient Egyptians made glue from boiled animal cartilage and bone and also coated their coffins with a form of plaster. These practices helped increase a coffin's security and created a smooth surface for decoration. For paint, mineral powders were added to mixtures of egg white, gelatin or gum. Decorated with protective vultures, floral necklaces and Egyptian gods, the coffin of a dancer named Meresamun is one example of a high level of craftsmanship for a wealthy Egyptian coffin.
Egyptian royalty was entombed in the most ornate coffins of all, sometimes made of several nested coffins, one box within the other. Another feature of a royal tomb was the sarcophagus, an additional protective casing or outermost coffin that housed the wooden box within and was built to discourage grave robbers. Sarcophagi were typically composed of limestone, precious metals or granite and they were often just as richly carved and decorated as the wooden coffins.
There are several remarkable examples of coffins and sarcophagi that have been found by archaeologists. Remains recovered from the tomb of King Tutankhamen is one of the most recognized Egyptian artifacts today, including a gold funerary masked recovered from his coffin. The tomb of Psusennes I contained an impressive sarcophagus made entirely of silver and untouched by grave robbers. The largest sarcophagus was assembled for Merneptah and is seven feet wide, thirteen feet long and eight feet above the ground, containing four more nested stone boxes within.
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