For those who lived in ancient Egypt, life didn’t end at death. They believed that the afterlife was an extension of what they had experienced on earth. Thus, burial traditions focused on making preparations for this new life. Part of this involved tombs to hold the bodies of the departed. Tombs varied considerably, depending upon the status of the deceased in Egyptian society.
Ancient Egyptian kings were considered gods, which their tombs reflected. Tombs were built for royalty in the massive pyramids. The earliest pyramids, built around 2500 B.C. during the Fourth Dynasty, were sturdy and plain. The next two centuries saw the rise of the Fifth Dynasty, and the style of pyramids changed. They were somewhat smaller and were decorated simply using hieroglyphics, which provided information to help the deceased move on to the next world. After the Fifth Dynasty, pyramid construction died out. It resumed during the New Kingdom, from 1550 to 1070 B.C. The style was much different. The tomb with the body was far underground, and the walls had extensive paintings of the afterlife, showing the king or queen traveling to the next world.
Location, Location, Location
During the Old Kingdom, Giza, in northern Egypt, and the Nile River delta were the sites of royal tombs. However, during the New Kingdom, pharaohs were buried farther along the Nile in central Egypt. This area has become known as the Valley of the Kings. It's home to the well-known tombs of Tutankhamun and Ramses II. Although tomb entrances were hidden, many were robbed before the end of the era. They've also had more recent visitors: as of 2005, researchers had uncovered 63 tombs in the area.
During the Old Kingdom -- 2649 to 2150 B.C. -- families of the king and other members of the nobility were buried in mastaba tombs. Egyptian beliefs about death guided the construction of mastabas. Workers erected these rectangular structures on the west side of the Nile River. The west symbolized death because of its connection to the sunset. Egyptians believed the sun traveled to the land of the dead after it went out of sight. Care was taken when arranging the tomb's interior as well. Egyptians thought the soul left the body after death but would return if sufficiently motivated, so the body was protected from decay. Tradition called for statues to be placed in the tomb. One was of the deceased, while the others were to serve as slaves in the afterlife. Wall paintings showed the daily activities of the noble class. In addition, the tomb contained food and household goods that the deceased would use once the soul had returned to the body. During the Middle and New Kingdoms, the illustrations depicted not only mortal life but also the afterlife with the gods.
Burial for Builders
During the Fourth Dynasty, any pyramid builders who died during the construction period were given the privilege of a tomb burial. These structures were much smaller than the tombs of nobility. Made from mud and covered in plaster, they were cone-shaped. Unlike royal and noble tombs, no restrictions were placed on decorations, so there was a wide variety of wall illustrations. The workers’ tombs were placed near the royal pyramids to honor the efforts of the laborers.
- University of Chicago: The Oriental Institute: Death in Ancient Egypt
- Dartmouth College: Computer Science: Egypt
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Ancient Egypt: The 5th Dynasty
- Metropolitan Museum of Art: Egyptian Art
- Canadian Museum of Civilization: Mysteries of Egypt: Mastaba Tombs
- NBC News: Egypt Discovers Workers Tombs Near Pyramids
- University of California, Santa Barbara: Egyptian Religion: Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdoms
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images