Ancient History & Civilisation





Once the Egyptian had his mummy, he needed some place to put it. Simpleminded as this may sound, it is the basic reason for a tomb—a place in which the body can be protected. Like Egyptian mummies, Egyptian tombs are the quintessence of the type. Nothing bigger in the way of tombs exists than the Great Pyramid; no ruler’s mortuary equipment ever outshone the treasures buried with the pharaohs.

Like those of people everywhere, the earliest Egyptian graves were holes in the ground. The bodies, unembalmed except for the natural action of dry air and sand, lay on their sides with knees drawn up and hands folded before the face, in the attitude of a sleeper or a child in the womb, awaiting birth. (I’ve always wondered how the Egyptians knew about that last position. Logical inference? There’s not room in there for the infant to stretch out.)

As time went on, the holes were tidied up, squared at the corners and lined with mats and planks and bricks. Over the grave pit the earth was piled up in a low mound. As all gardeners know, refilling a hole after you have planted something in it—tree or body—results in extra dirt. According to the accepted theory, this heap of leftover soil or sand came to represent the primeval mound, where the creator god Atum stood and did what ever it was he did to start things moving.

In the two elements, pit and mound, we see the constituents of the later tombs. Archaeologists call the pit the substructure; the superstructure is the part of the tomb that shows aboveground. At the very beginning of the dynasties the Egyptians had developed these two elements into a surprisingly complex and handsome tomb, all the more amazing because of its nearness in time to the prehistoric grave pits. First Dynasty royal tombs at Abydos have substructures consisting of several rooms, with the body in the central, largest room. Surrounding rooms were used for the storage of goods designed for the benefit of the dead. By the Second Dynasty the substructure had developed into an imitation house or palace, complete with bathroom and toilet.

The superstructure was of a type called a mastaba—a flat-topped, rectangular structure with sides that often slope in a bit as they go up. The earliest mastabas, some of which are as large as 180 by 90 feet, were made of brick, with complex niches all around the outside. Later the niching disappeared except for one recess, which developed into a mortuary chapel.

Up to the Third Dynasty there does not seem to have been any stylistic difference between royal tombs and those of the nobility. Djoser and his brilliant architect Imhotep apparently introduced the pyramid as the king’s tomb. Djoser’s tomb started out as a large mastaba. Several additions extended it out and up, into the first pyramid. It was built in steps, as were others of the period; later ones had the steps filled in to make a smooth-sided structure. The first true pyramid was built by Snefru, the first king of the Fourth Dynasty. Once he got started, he didn’t seem to know when to stop. At least three major pyramids are attributed to him, one at Medum and two at Dahshur, and he may have built several other, much smaller, pyramids scattered around Egypt.


Reconstruction of niched mastaba

It required a certain amount of experimentation to work out the problems of stress and weight that arose when such giant monuments were piled up. The Medum pyramid has lost its shape—it looks like a tower, in several stages—and one of Snefru’s pyramids at Dahshur changes the angle of its slope halfway up, perhaps because it had begun to develop structural difficulties. (Maybe that’s why Snefru built so many pyramids; it took him a while to get it right.) He and his architects finally succeeded with the second of the Dahshur pyramids, called “the Red.”

There was probably a theological reason for the popularity of the type. One of the most plausible theories is that both step pyramid and true pyramid were symbols of the ascent to the regions of Re, where the dead king hoped to go. The Pyramid Texts mention ladders and stairs as methods of ascent, and the step pyramid does resemble the hieroglyphic sign for a staircase. As for the later pyramids, one ingenious explanation compares their smooth slopes to the slanting rays of the sun—another way of climbing to the celestial regions, according to the Texts. On a cloudy day at Giza the rays of sunlight streaming through rifts in the clouds may take on the appearance of a shining, transparent pyramid of light, with the same angle of slope as those of the three great tombs.


Giza mastabas

Snefru’s successor, Khufu (called Cheops by the Greeks), only built one pyramid, but it was a masterpiece—the largest such structure ever constructed, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the only Wonder still standing. The two other Giza pyramids belong to Khafre and Menkaure of the same dynasty; they are smaller, but still pretty big.

As we have seen, and will see, the various elements of the pyramid itself and its subsidiary structures had both practical and religious meaning. What they did not have was any relationship what ever to the continent of Atlantis, prophecy, visitors from distant galaxies, or modern mysticism. That is one of the few flat, unqualified statements you will find in this book; I’ve said it before and I will say it again, since theories of that sort keep popping up, with slight variations, every few years, and people still fall for them. They are like weeds, and Egyptologists feel like frantic gardeners; you can smack the little rascals flat with rational argument, but just turn your back and there they are again.

The pyramid was only one part of the king’s funerary complex. The earliest royal tombs at Abydos had separate enclosures, some distance from the tomb, in which (presumably) the mortuary cult was carried on—offerings, ceremonies, and such. The Step Pyramid at Sakkara is surrounded by a complex of other structures that played a part in Djoser’s spiritual survival. In its classic form the pyramid complex included two temples, one against the pyramid and one at the edge of the cultivated land, a causeway to connect the two, a small subsidiary pyramid (whose function is still being debated), and other small pyramids for the burial of the king’s wives. Stone-lined pits contained huge boats. In 1954 an Egyptian archaeologist, Kamal el Mallakh, found one of these boats in almost perfect condition; it had been partly dismantled, but the wood of which it was built was still sound. These boats have been called sun boats, but it is likely that they have some other significance. The spirits of the dead needed such transportation, for the Land of Eternity had many rivers and lakes. Boat pits have been found in connection with First Dynasty mastabas, so they were not restricted to pyramids. Some rulers had a whole fleet of boats.

The substructure of the pyramid in the Old Kingdom was fairly simple. Like that of the Great Pyramid, it consisted of a shaft going down under or into the superstructure and leading eventually to the burial chamber. The same type continued in the pyramids of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties, which resemble their predecessors in general plan but not in size or building technique. Rulers of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties moved from Giza to other sites near Memphis, notably Sakkara. Their pyramids are shoddy affairs of mixed stone or rubble, held together by a limestone facing. When the outer layer of stone was removed by scavengers, chief among whom were kings of later times, the whole structure slid down into a limp heap. The late Fifth and Sixth Dynasty royal pyramids are notable for one thing, however—the famous inscriptions known as the Pyramid Texts on the walls of the burial chambers.

The mastaba continued to be the most popular type of nonroyal tomb during the Old Kingdom. One Fourth Dynasty king built his tomb in this form. It has been suggested that this was a break with the solar religion, of which the pyramid was the symbol, but we do not have enough evidence to determine whether or not this theory is right. At Giza mastabas were built by other Fourth Dynasty kings for their friends and relations; they were laid out like genuine cities of the dead, in neat rows, with streets between them. These private tombs are stone-built and fairly simple, being smooth-sided except for the enclosed chapel, and having substructures which consisted of a shaft down into the ground, culminating in a tomb chamber.

The chapel, like the mortuary temple of the royal pyramid, represents the second reason for the building of tombs. The tomb itself sheltered the body; the chapel allowed for contact with the soul. At the far end of the small room was a “false door,” shaped like a portal but made of solid stone. The figure of the dead man which was painted or carved on the door symbolized his coming forth into the regions of the living in order to enjoy the offerings left for him.

The dead were also represented physically by life-size statues of stone or wood, painted in vivid colors. The statue was kept in a tiny room called the serdab, built into the superstructure and walled off from the outside world except for a small opening high in the wall, through which the statue could “see.” The most famous of the Old Kingdom private statues came originally from the serdabs. In some Giza tombs are also found the so-called reserve heads. This idea, that the heads were meant as “reserves” in case the statue was lost or destroyed, is now questioned; when you come right down to it, a decapitated head isn’t a very effective substitute for the whole body, but nobody has come up with an explanation for them that is entirely convincing.

At Giza we also find the first of a new type of tomb which was to become as important as the mastaba—the rock-cut tomb. In one sense, of course, all tombs were rock-cut in part; the substructure went down into the ground. But the real rock-cut variety has no superstructure, only a room or series of rooms cut into a cliff face. As the Egyptians were to discover, rock-cut tombs had one great advantage over the type with a superstructure. They were not so conspicuous. As far back as the Fourth Dynasty, when King Khufu buried his mother in a deep, unmarked shaft near the causeway of his pyramid, he and his associates must have been aware of the need for secrecy; it is thought (by some people, not me) that the queen’s original tomb had already been plundered, and that this was a reburial. Khufu could not know that his pious undertaking would survive forty centuries untouched; the hidden tomb was not discovered until A.D. 1925. But it is hard to understand why he would have sought such security for his mother, and then have himself buried in a monument that was visible for miles in every direction.

It was almost a millennium later before the kings of Egypt learned the painful lesson that secrecy was preferable to bombast in tomb building. Even the earlier private rock-cut tombs sometimes defeated this advantage by adding porticos and courtyards and chapels—an “X marks the spot” for any interested tomb robber, of whom there were multitudes.

By the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties private mastabas had become very large and elaborate. You could get lost in the tomb of Mereruka, who served as vizier under King Teti of the Sixth Dynasty. Several rooms were added to serve the burials of his wife and son, and the walls were covered with beautiful reliefs. Not only are the reliefs aesthetically pleasing, but they offer invaluable information on Egyptian life, since they depict the activities in which a wealthy man of that period engaged.

During the First Intermediate Period the country broke up into a number of separate states. With the collapse of royal power the kings’ tombs diminished so thoroughly that they have practically disappeared; they were still pyramids, but that is about all we can say of them. Conversely, tombs of local chiefs, or nomarchs, became more elaborate; some of the handsomest are the rock-cut tombs of Beni Hassan, with their fine pillared porticos. The reliefs of these tombs and others of the same period have given us some of the most delightfully animated of all scenes of daily life—children playing, vigorous dancers, and wonderful, lively animals—but the technique of painting and carving is sometimes crude compared with the delicate sophistication of the Old Kingdom reliefs.

When the reunification of the country was begun by the vigorous Theban rulers of the Eleventh Dynasty, the royal tombs adopted a new style. A great courtyard (called a saff) was dug into the cliff on the west bank of Thebes. It ended in a rock-cut facade surmounted by a small brick pyramid—no longer a tomb in itself, for the king was buried underground, beneath and behind the rock face. It was at one of these Eleventh Dynasty tombs that Maspero found the stela of Intef and his five dogs—the Cook Pot, Blackie, the Gazelle, and the others.

Very little remains of these tombs today, but one can still make out the badly damaged foundations of the greatest Eleventh Dynasty tomb, which was built by the first of the kings of this dynasty. His name was Mentuhotep Nebhepetre—the man who completed the reunification and brought all of Egypt under a single king for the first time in many years. It stood against the western cliffs of Thebes in the same bay of Deir el Bahri where Hatshepsut would later construct a bigger and better temple. Mentuhotep’s structure was impressive and unusual, though, for its time; when it still stood, in all its glory, it must have been one of the handsomest buildings in Thebes. A courtyard, filled with the waving green branches of tamarisk and fig trees, ended in a ramp which led up to a monumental colonnaded portico. Atop this was another set of colonnades, and surmounting the whole a pyramid lifted up toward the sky. Or maybe it was a mound instead of a pyramid—there isn’t enough left to be certain. The prevailing theory favors the latter, but by the time this book is published experts may have changed their minds again. The king’s tomb was under the temple, and behind the pyramid another court and a pillared hall served his mortuary cult.

Mentuhotep buried several of his wives in or near the temple, so that they could accompany him into the West. The tomb of Queen Neferu, later a tourist attraction, was one of them, and six other ladies found their last resting places within the temple precincts. One of them was a rather pitiful case; within the big, adult-size coffin lay the body of a little girl only five years old, wearing the pretty necklaces with which she had dressed up during her brief lifetime. Her name was Mayet—“Kitty.” But of the king, her husband—or, surely, husband-to be—there was no trace.

Pyramids continued to be royal tombs during the Twelfth Dynasty. The “substructure,” inside the pyramid now instead of under it, became infinitely complicated, a real labyrinth of corridors and hidden chambers. The Labyrinth itself, mentioned by Strabo and other Greek tourists, was perhaps the mortuary temple of one of these Twelfth Dynasty pyramids. It covered an area greater than that of the temple of Karnak, but nothing remains of it today except acres of stone chips on the ground. The Middle Kingdom pyramids were built, in part, out of stones pilfered from earlier royal tombs. The Twelfth Dynasty kings got what was coming to them; later generations treated their pyramids in the same way, and today there is not much left of the tombs—and nothing of the men who built them.

For private tombs, rock-cut types continued through the Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period. In this latter period the country again fell into political anarchy, assisted, perhaps, by the mysterious invaders from Asia who are called the Hyksos. These people, whose origins are still debated, adopted Egyptian customs, including their burial habits.

The Eighteenth Dynasty marks the beginning of the New Kingdom, with another unification of the country under Theban kings, and with a dramatic change in royal burials. The lesson that should have been obvious centuries before finally sank in, reinforced, perhaps, by an increase in tomb robbing as a result of the breakdown of royal power—the failure of massive monuments to fulfill their major function, the protection of the royal body. The most logical conclusion would have been the practicality of a humble burial, without the gold and rich oils that tempted the poor tomb robbers. But royal majesty and human pride could not face such a decision. They strove to attain safety through secrecy.

There is something about royal tombs that grabs the imagination, even of us believers in democracy. Egyptian kings were buried in a number of different places, including some I’ll bet you’ve near heard of—Zawaiyet el Aryan, Mazghuna, Tanis, Abu Roash, Abusir. However, the two biggies are unquestionably Giza and the Valley of the Kings at Thebes.

Actually there are two valleys, the East and the West. The East Valley is the one where the great majority of the tombs are located. It contains sixty-three tombs, the last having been located in 2005 by a team of American excavators. (Or, to be entirely accurate, sixty-three tombs have been discovered thus far; I agree with those who think the Valley still contains unknown tombs.) Not all are kings’ tombs, and not all are decorated or even finished, but they include the burial places of the great pharaohs of the New Kingdom.

The architect of King Thutmose I boasted that he had excavated his king’s tomb in secret—“No one hearing, no one seeing.” A slight exaggeration, to say the least. The men who worked on the tomb—stonecutters, painters, draftsmen, sculptors—knew its location; so did their friends and families and anybody who wanted to look on. The idea that the workmen were summarily executed after they had finished the job is pure fiction. That would have been impractical, time-consuming, and a waste of skilled labor.

The tombs themselves are pretty much the same. Most Egyptologists would howl at that statement; they have produced detailed analyses of the orientation and internal arrangement of royal tombs. Ah, well, perhaps I had better go into more detail.

Except for the extraordinary tomb of “King” Hatshepsut, which burrows and squirms almost seven hundred feet into the gebel, royal tombs of the Eighteenth Dynasty are comparatively simple. (Compared to later tombs, that is.) A flight of stonecut steps led down to a series of passages and chambers dug into the cliffs. Some of the entrances to the tombs are easily accessible; others, like that of Thutmose III, are high up in the cliff and must have been reached by wooden stairs which were later demolished. The most famous of all the tombs in the Valley, that of Tutankhamon, is much smaller than the tombs of greater pharaohs and may have been taken over from another, nonroyal owner when the king died at the early age of eighteen.

It is possible that the young king had begun a tomb in the West Valley, where his grandfather (I’m sticking to that) Amenhotep III had excavated his own tomb. Tutankhamon’s immediate predecessor, Akhenaton, started his own royal valley at Tell el Amarna, where his tomb may still be seen, if you fancy a three-mile walk or know somebody who owns an all-terrain vehicle. Except for minor variations, the plan resembles that of earlier royal tombs. There’s nothing in it today. The theory is that after the court had moved back to Thebes the inhabitants of the Amarna tombs were also moved, for safekeeping.


Isometric plan of tomb of Amenhotep III

The only other finished royal tomb in the West Valley at Thebes belongs to Ay, Tutankhamon’s successor. The Ramesside rulers returned to the East Valley. The most impressive tomb is that of Seti I. It is over three hundred feet long and is beautifully decorated with scenes of the king being welcomed and protected by various gods. Perhaps the most unusual tomb in the Valley is KV5 (tomb number five in the Valley of the Kings, that is), which appears to be a multiple burial of the sons of that industrious progenitor Ramses II. So far the excavator, Kent Weeks, has found over one hundred rooms, and he’s still looking.

The Ramesside kings no longer attempted to conceal the entrances to their tombs. In earlier times the portals were closed by walls of mortared stone, and sometimes the entrance stairs and corridors were filled with rubble. Ramesside tombs closed the entrances with wooden doors and decorated the jambs and lintels.

Ramses II had so many offspring that he had to double (qua druple, sextuple) them up. Other princes had their own tombs, some in the King’s Valley, some in the so-called Valley of the Queens. What about the queens? That’s a good question. Some tombs, like that of Amenhotep III and the royal tomb at Amarna, have separate rooms, or suites of rooms, which may have been intended for the burials of the royal ladies, but Hatshepsut had a separate tomb of her own as queen, even before she took over the throne and dug herself another one in the Valley of the Kings, and the jewel-like tomb of Nefertari Merenmut, wife of Ramses II, was hers alone. It is in the Valley of the Queens, along with those of other royal ladies and princes of the later dynasties, but the burial places of most of the royal ladies of the Eighteenth Dynasty have not been located, and neither have the mummies of many of them. Egyptologists are still looking.

Even the hidden tombs were robbed, perhaps by the very workers who had constructed them. Only one survived the ages, and it did not go unmolested; there is evidence, in Tutankhamon’s tomb, of two successive attempts by robbers who succeeded in making off with some of the contents. The only thing that saved it from being stripped was the fact that, in a later period, workmen’s huts were built over it by a king who was constructing his own tomb nearby, and the location of Tutankhamon’s last resting place was forgotten. However, the tomb robbers have recently found defense lawyers. Recent studies suggest that the final stripping of the royal burial equipment may have been done by priests of a later dynasty, under the direction of the king himself. This notion sheds a different light on the “pious priests” who tenderly rewrapped and recoffined the battered remains of earlier monarchs; they did, but not until after the last scraps of gold and other recyclable wealth had been removed to the royal treasury.

Since the hidden tombs in the Valley of the Kings had no external chapels, the kings’ mortuary cults were served by separate temples, built on the edge of the cultivation near the river. Most of them are in ruins today. That of Amenhotep III survives only in the gigantic and sadly battered Colossi of Memnon, which once guarded the pylon gates. Like the humble chapels of the private tombs, the royal funerary temples served the cult of the dead and were as necessary for the dead man’s resurrection as was his tomb. Here the offerings were made which would give him nourishment in the next world. The royal mortuary temples also served as homes for the gods. At Hatshepsut’s temple there were shrines to Amon, Anubis, and Hathor.

Hatshepsut’s temple is a masterpiece and, according to many, the finest of all Egyptian temples. It resembles the Eleventh Dynasty temple-tomb of Mentuhotep, having a series of colonnaded terraces which rise up in several levels toward the cliffs behind it. Comparisons are invidious, since most of Mentuhotep’s complex is gone, but it’s hard to believe his could have been as elegant as hers. The two structures, now more or less side by side, differed in function; Hatshepsut was not buried in her temple, though it has been suggested that she originally intended to push her tomb in the Valley of the Kings clear under the mountain, with its burial chamber under the temple. Maybe not. It was heading in the right direction, but the undertaking would have been impractical.

A more typical temple is the one belonging to Ramses III, which is now called Medinet Habu. It has the elements we have already described as characteristic of the standard religious edifice: pylon, enclosing wall, pillared courts, and sanctuary. The temples of Seti I and Ramses II (the Ramesseum) are of the same type.

After the Twentieth Dynasty the royal necropolis was moved from Thebes to Tanis, in the Delta. The royal tombs in this city were built within the temple precincts; they are sad degenerations of the great rock-cut tombs of Thebes, but a few of them went unrobbed until the twentieth century A.D. They yielded up an astonishing amount of precious metal in the form of coffins, vessels, and gorgeous jewelry. Much of it probably came from the burials in the Valley of the Kings.

Even before pyramids were abandoned by royalty they were, like other kingly elements of the mortuary cult, taken over by commoners. Some of the little mastabas of the Middle Kingdom at Abydos have diminutive pyramids of brick perched on top of them—how art the mighty fallen! Private tombs at Deir el Medina, the workmen’s town of the New Kingdom, also had small pyramids. The Nubian pharaohs of the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty took the pyramid form back with them to Cush; the pyramid fields of Napata and Meroe are the last survivors of the form.


Deir el Medina tombs

Back in Egypt the rock-cut and free-standing tombs of the New Kingdom had become very elaborate, with courts and porches, all handsomely decorated. The king’s official residence was at Memphis, and although he was always taken back to Thebes, to the Valley, for burial, many of his officials built large, temple-type tombs in one or another of the Memphite cemeteries.

Early in the nineteeth century some of these great New Kingdom tombs were discovered by Karl Lepsius, the indefatigable German scholar whose survey of Egyptian monuments was published in a series of enormous volumes. One has to give the man credit for being ahead of his time insofar as accuracy and thoroughness were concerned; but the museums of Europe were greedy for artifacts, and Lepsius had to satisfy his sponsors. He may not have been the one responsible, but by one means or another a number of beautiful carved blocks and statues from these tombs ended up in museums, and the tombs themselves were left to be buried by the ever-encroaching sand.

A hundred and twenty years later an English Egyptologist, Geoffrey Martin, observed large, rectangular depressions in the area south of the causeway of the pyramid of Unas at Sakkara. He was, of course, well acquainted with Lepsius’s work, and he finally persuaded the Service des Antiquités to allow a joint expedition of British and Dutch scholars to look for Lepsius’s lost tombs. One he hoped to find was that of Maya, Tutankhamon’s treasurer, who was well known from other sources, including a magnificent, life-size dyad (double statue) of Maya and his beautiful wife Merit in the Museum of Leyden. Lepsius had made a map, but as the excavators were to discover, it wasn’t as accurate as it might have been. When you are shifting tons of sand, being a few yards off can make quite a difference. Maya’s tomb wasn’t where it was supposed to be, but the excavators were not disappointed; they hit on the tomb of Harmhab, another of Tutankhamon’s advisers, who built himself a royal tomb in the Valley of the Kings after he claimed the throne.

Maya’s tomb turned up a few years later, by which time the excavators had found the burials of several other officials and princes. These great private tombs had burial shafts under superstructures consisting of chapels and colonnaded courtyards and pylons. Though piteously despoiled, they yielded fragments of carved and painted relief of breathtaking beauty. Some of the missing sections could be restored, using casts of the blocks that had been looted by Lepsius and others and given to various museums. There’s always a silver lining….

Martin believes that there are at least thirty-eight more great tombs out there under the sand. And that’s just one part of one cemetery.

Theban tombs of high officials become very pretentious; that of a man named Pedamenopet is a miniature brick temple up above. The substructure, below the temple, contained a court, many rooms, stairs, and long corridors. During the Saite or Twenty-Sixth Dynasty, there was a curious development in decoration. So great was the admiration of the men of this time for the wonders of their country’s past that they copied not only scenes but whole tombs of the Old and Middle Kingdoms in their own burial places. Some are done so well that it is hard to tell which is a copy and which the original.

The tomb builders of this period at some of the Memphite cemeteries came up with an ingenious solution for the protection of the mummy. A series of passages, vertical and horizontal, surrounded the sarcophagus chamber. After the burial, props were knocked out of the openings, so that sand flowed into the passages, completely filling them and the burial chamber. If a thief wanted to get at the mummy he had to excavate the whole tomb. Astonishingly enough, some of them did.


One thing leads to another. As tombs got more elaborate, coffins and other equipment went from bad to worse—if we look at the process from the point of view that coffins are pure vanity.

Next to the tomb, the coffin itself was the most important piece of equipment. The oldest coffins are plain boxes of wood, just big enough to hold a body in the contracted position then in vogue. As the body was extended, so was the coffin; by the Middle Kingdom it had become a sophisticated piece of carpentry painted inside and out with pictures and texts. The Herakleopolitan coffins, from a period just before the Middle Kingdom, show how elaborate the type could be. One important motif was the pair of eyes painted on one side of the coffin opposite the spot where the eyes of the corpse would be as it lay on its right side. The texts on these coffins—called, logically enough, the Coffin Texts—now fill six fat printed volumes. Not every coffin had all the texts; each bore a sort of anthology of the owner’s favorites. Ultimately the texts derive from the Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom, although some spells have been discarded and new ones have been added.

A new fashion in coffins came in during the Second Intermediate Period with the adoption, by kings and commoners alike, of the type now thought of as typically Egyptian—the anthropoid, or human-shaped, coffin. For men and women, king and humble scribe, the form was the same: that of a wrapped mummy figure with a linen headdress. The earliest anthropoid coffins are of the so-called rishi type; the word means “feathered,” and it appropriately describes the decoration, which looks like wings spread protectively over the body. The rishi type died out, to be replaced by the coffin with bands of inscriptions and rows of miniature scenes or divine figures. These continued until late times, but the rishi type survived in certain royal coffins, such as those of Tutankhamon, where the delicately inlaid feathering takes on real beauty of technique and conception. The sweep of the wide wings, those of a protecting goddess, eloquently represents her tender care of the dead.

We would know very little about royal burial equipment were it not for the fabulous discovery, by Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter, of Tutankhamon’s tomb. From it we learn that kings of this period had not one but three coffins. Although they were made of wood, Tutankhamon’s outer coffins are miracles of the jeweler’s art, covered with sheet gold and marvelously inlaid. The innermost coffin had to be seen to be believed; it was 2,448 pounds of solid gold. That this incredible coffin was not unique we may deduce from late royal burials at Tanis. At this period royal power had declined tremendously, and yet Psusennes, an undistinguished pharaoh of the Twenty-First Dynasty, could still amass enough wealth to make his innermost coffin of solid silver. We must always remember, in assessing Tutankhamon’s equipment, that it was that of a minor king who not only died young but who lived at a time when the imperial revenues from Asia were comparatively low. Sometimes I dream of the impossible and imagine finding the tomb of a king such as Amenhotep III still intact—the tomb of a king who had over thirty years to prepare his equipment and the resources of Nubia and Asia with which to pay for it. This can never happen except in dreams; the tomb of Amenhotep the Magnificent is rifled and empty, as are the other known tombs of the mightiest rulers of Egypt.

Tutankhamon’s tomb not only demonstrates the incredible wealth with which pharaohs were buried, but it illustrates the Chinese-box character of these burials. The three coffins, nested one inside the other, were all contained inside a sarcophagus. The sarcophagus, as distinct from the coffin, was of stone—often wonderful stone such as quartzite and granite. Sarcophagi had to be big to hold a body and three coffins; they are so heavy, weighing in tons, that even the masterful tomb robbers of Thebes, who ought to be made patron saints of the burglaring profession, could not carry them off. I am sure they would have stolen them if they could have moved them; they stole everything else. The weight of the sarcophagi explains why we have a number of them with us today, while the coffins and the mummies which once lay within them have disappeared.

Few commoners could afford a sarcophagus; they usually had to settle for a coffin, and for only one of those. Royal sarcophagi go back a long way, at least to the Third Dynasty. In the earliest time they were plain stone boxes, with separate lids of equally heavy stone. One exceptional Third Dynasty sarcophagus had, instead of a lid on top, a sliding panel at one end. By the New Kingdom, sarcophagi were covered with bands of inscription and with carved figures of the divinities who protected the dead.

Tutankhamon had three coffins, a sarcophagus, and three shrines—seven layers of physical protection, not counting the walls of the tomb itself. Yet the physical protection of the body was only one part of the mortuary cult, and most of the objects placed in the tomb served another purpose.

Originally a tomb may have been just a hole to hold the body, but its walls came to be used for texts and pictures designed to equip the dead with magical substitutes for the objects he would need in the hereafter and to guide him through the prescribed rituals to various gods. A coffin could also kill two birds with one stone: enclosing the body and bearing still more magical texts. The anthropoid coffin itself was a simulacrum of the dying god Osiris, with whom the dead man was identified so that he could share in the death and glorious resurrection of the god.

Among the specifically funerary objects placed in the tomb, one of the most important was the structure which contained the viscera, removed from the body during the process of embalming. In the Late Period the embalmed entrails were replaced in the body, but before that, beginning in the Old Kingdom, they were put into four pots called canopic jars, which in turn were enclosed in a canopic box or shrine. The canopic jars have a characteristic shape; at first they had plain stoppers, but later these were superseded by lids in the form of portrait heads of the deceased. One of the loveliest sets of these lids was found in the so-called Tomb of Queen Tiye. It was first thought to be a portrait of Akhenaton, then of Smenkhkare; now scholars believe it is the head of a lady of the Amarna Period, possibly Akhenaton’s eldest daughter, Princess Meritaton or—the latest idea—his wife Kiye. Whoever it is, he or she was very handsome.

Instead of “portrait” heads, the later canopic jars have the heads of the four mortuary genii, the sons of Horus—baboon, jackal, hawk, and human. Each of them protected specific organs of the body. The canopic shrine, in which the jars were placed, also had a standard shape, and as one might expect, the most elegant known is that of Tutankhamon. To me it is one of the loveliest objects ever found in Egypt, with its four protective goddesses standing with outspread arms on each side of the gilded box.


Canopic jars

Food, shelter, and clothing, the three basic necessities, were provided for. The tomb gave physical shelter, and there was a formula which promised the spirit the means to build a house in Paradise. Tomb paintings of houses were another form of insurance. Middle Kingdom and First Intermediate tombs included house models, some of them delightfut little miniatures of a rich nobleman’s estate. As for clothing, we have seen the extent and richness of Tutankhamon’s wardrobe. But if these could be provided for, why not other things that would make the next life even more pleasant?


Jars of fine oil, perfumes, and unguents were highly desired gifts for the living and hence for the dead; they were also irresistible to tomb robbers, who sometimes brought little leather bags so that they could raid the contents of the heavy oil jars. All the amusements were provided for; a hunter had his bows and arrows, boomerangs and daggers. Women took into the tomb their elaborate toilet tables, complete with an extra wig or switch of false hair. More indolent men took their game boards along.

Human sacrifice died out in Egypt at the beginning of the dynasties. Since slaughtered servants were de trop, the Egyptians provided for their services as they provided for other necessities—by magical substitutes. In the Old Kingdom the wall paintings which showed scenes of daily life included multitudes of servants, making bread, reaping grain, carrying offerings, combing their mistresses’ hair, and dancing for the amusement of their masters. In the First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom, when models came into style, we find charming little groups of miniature workers going about their chores. But the most enduring answer to the “servant problem” was one which has filled museum cases all over the world—the little human figurines called ushebtis or shawabtis or shabtis. They are made of all sorts of materials, from cheap faience to gilded wood, and represent all degrees of skill, from crude figures just recognizable as human to beautiful little statuettes. All were designed to satisfy the same need—the need to avoid doing any work in heaven. Written somewhere on the figure was a text, another of the standardized mortuary formulae:

O thou ushebti! If the deceased [So-and-so] is appointed to do any work which a man does in the necropolis—to cultivate the fields, to irrigate the banks, to transport sand of the East to the West—“Here am I!” thou shalt say.

This is really an admirable thought; I suppose the only reason it hasn’t occurred to us is because we don’t expect anyone to work in paradise.

Most of the objects placed in the tomb can be interpreted as pleasures the dead man hoped to go on enjoying. Some attempts have been made to find a symbolic meaning for each of them. The weapons represent the battle against the enemies of Re, the game board stands for the struggle between the powers of good and the powers of evil, and so on. Of course, we can find a deeper significance in almost any object if we try hard enough; I don’t recall that anyone has explained the symbolism of the cosmetic box, but I feel sure it could be done. Even the little female figurines with the decorations emphasizing the pubic region have been described as “fertility goddesses,” or, more ponderously, “figures evocative of the female principle,” which symbolized the rebirth of the dead man, procreated by himself.

Interpretations of this nature may do more credit to the fertile imagination of the interpreter than to the speculative habits of the Egyptians. In particular, the habit of finding fertility symbols scattered all over the cultural landscape seems to be spreading from some schools of prehistorians into Egyptology. The other day, while reading a book on prehistoric religion, I ran across a statement which seems to me to represent the ultimate absurdity of this type of argument. The author denied, indignantly, that a certain object found in a Paleolithic context could be a phallic symbol. Paleolithic man, said the author—probably correctly—knew nothing about the male role in procreation. How then, he demanded, could a phallus be an object of worship?

I am sorry to say that this naive statement brought an unladylike grin to my face. Certain Christian doctrines insist that the procreation of children is the only legitimate aim of the sexual act; my prehistorian wants to go the theologians one better, by maintaining that it is the only aim. Surely it is nonsense to suppose that this abstruse doctrine was held by Paleolithic, or any other ancient, people. I am not completely convinced that at some times and under some circumstances the little naked ladies were not “magical concubines.” Every other need and desire was provided for, why not that one?

Another magical object found in many tombs was the Osiris bed, or “germinated Osiris figure,” as it is called. A silhouette of the god was made out of wood and filled with rich earth; seeds were planted in the dirt and watered, so that when the figure was placed in the tomb it was a green, living symbol of the resurrection of god and man. The popular but erroneous notion of “mummy seeds” may have had its origin in these figures. Like the mummies of men and women, the seeds found in ancient tombs have never known a physical resurrection.

It is literally impossible to describe all the objects found in the tombs; the single burial of Tutankhamon included hundreds of separate items, and even private tombs of well-to-do persons were well stocked with furniture, linens, and ornaments. We ought to mention, though, some of the things found on the mummy itself. One important object, in vogue from the late Old Kingdom down to Christian times, was the mask placed over the head of the dead man. Tutankhamon’s mask was gold, and it is a gorgeous piece of work, like everything else he owned. Common masks were of the cartonnage type, made of layers of linen coated with plaster or stucco and molded while wet. They covered the whole head, not just the face. These helmet-type masks continued, off and on, into Ptolemaic times, along with other variations; but by the Roman period the three-dimensional mask was often replaced by a portrait painted on wood or linen.

The mummy was richly furnished with jewelry of various types—which led, inevitably, to the destruction of the precious body by hasty tomb robbers. The most popular piece of jewelry, in death as in life, was the broad collar made of beads or semiprecious stones. Not all the jewelry placed in the tomb had been worn; some was so fragile that it could only have been designed for the inactive dead. Bracelets, collars, and rings might be purely ornamental in purpose, but some jewelry had a specific religious meaning. The broad vulture collars symbolized the care and love of the goddess Mut, and various amulets stood for particular qualities the dead hoped to be endowed with.

The most important amulet was the heart scarab; after the Middle Kingdom all mummies of any pretensions had them. The scarab amulets are well known; they are still being sold to tourists, and 99.99 percent of them are modern fakes. The heart scarabs were bigger than the usual variety, and according to the magical texts, they ought to be made of a dark green stone. On the flat base there was a short inscription from the Book of the Dead.

There are dozens of other amulets, some made of metal, some of faience, some of stone. They were hung around the neck or tied to the wrist or to another part of the body. Some took the shape of Bes and Taweret, the hideous but beloved house hold gods, and others were made in the shape of hieroglyphic signs which signified life, stability, health, and other desirable attributes. A particularly vital amulet was the “Horus eye.” It recalled the loss of the young god’s eye during the battle against his father’s murderer, and it was the symbol par excellence of offering to the dead.


But coffin, tomb, and sarcophagus were only necessary prerequisites to immortality. They were not sufficient in themselves. A soul had to be fashioned out of the dead husk of the corpse.

Perhaps this process began with the embalming, but we have only a vague idea of the rites performed during the process of mummification. The vital ceremony was part of the funeral service; so let us see what happened after the mummy had been restored to the sorrowing family.

On the day of the funeral, a long procession set out for the tomb. Leading it was the mummy, on a sledge topped by an open shrine and pulled by oxen. Friends and relatives of the dead man lent a hand on the ropes, and the chief female mourners—wife and daughter, or wife and mother—walked at the head and foot of the bier. Priests accompanied the hearse. Other mourners walked behind, and all of them, male and female, expressed their grief in dramatic gestures. The women, as they were expected to do, exhibited less self-control than the men; with garments torn and streaming hair, they poured dust on their heads and cried aloud. When there were not enough women in the family to make a goodly show, or when the survivors wanted to be pretentious, professional female mourners were hired. Naturally they outshouted the ladies of the family, and the reliefs show them with rows of symmetrical tears flowing down their cheeks onto the ground. One painted scene depicts a little girl apprentice among the professionals; she seems to have considerable aptitude for the trade, and she always makes me think of poor little Oliver Twist, who made such a handsome mute—especially for children’s funerals.

Following the mourners came servants carrying food, furniture, and chests containing clothing and other grave-goods. Another small sledge held the canopic box, with the four jars containing the entrails.

In essence the funeral ritual was a recapitulation of the Osiris legend, and an identification of the dead man with the god. The coffin itself was made in the Osiris shape. The two mourning women who accompanied the bier represented Isis and Nephthys, weeping for their husband and brother. However, there are several elements of the ritual which do not obviously fit in with the Osiris cult, and which are still mysteries.


The tekenu

One of them is the strange figure called the tekenu. In some funeral scenes it is only a muffled, ambiguous shape resting on a sledge drawn by two men. Other scenes show it more clearly—it seems to be a man wrapped in a cloth or skin, seated or lying in a doubled-up position.

What function does this peculiar personage play in the funeral ritual? No one knows exactly. To some scholars the pose suggests the fetal position and the tekenu represents the rebirth of the dead man into eternal life. Others see in it a symbolic survival of ancient human sacrifice—a shedding of blood to give strength to the strengthless dead—which may have been practiced in prehistoric Egypt. It has also been suggested that the bundle contains the leftovers from materials used to embalm the body, which were given a separate burial. The tekenu had a short period of popularity; there is no sign of it—or him—in the Old Kingdom scenes, but then these are not normally scenes of funerals. For the present the tekenu must remain one of those lost Egyptian mysteries that the occultists are so fond of.


Muu dancers

When the funeral procession had toiled up to the desert plateau and reached the tomb, it was met by another unusual group—the muu dancers. These men were distinguished by strange crowns of reeds, whose shape and material strongly suggest the royal White Crown of Upper Egypt. There ought to be some clue in this as to the origin and function of the dancers; but in fact none of the theories suggested by it really sound convincing. The dancers performed a weird, jigging dance, something like a Highland fling with finger snapping.

After the dance the mummy was lifted from the sledge and propped up in a standing position before the door of the tomb. The ceremony of the “Opening of the Mouth” was about to begin. It was conducted by the Sem or Setem priest, with his distinctive leopard-skin mantle and shaven head. First, the mummy was sprinkled with water and censed. Sacrifices of various animals were made. Then came the heart of the ceremony, the touching of various parts of the body with specially designed instruments which would restore the lost senses of the mummy. The mouth, as the organ of speech and of nourishment, was of particular importance. More censing and incense burning followed, and then the funerary meal was served; the dead man now had power to partake of it, and he was joined by his living relatives and close friends. It is significant that the “Opening of the Mouth” could be performed on a statue as well as on the mummy; as long as some physical representation of the dead man was operated on, his nonphysical aspect received the benefits of the operation.

A new soul had been born. The members of the bereaved family, turning away to return to their homes, must have felt a lightening of their sorrow as they thought of the newly hatched spirit, safely launched on the beautiful roads of the West, where they would one day join it—but not, they hoped, too very soon.

The act of rebirth was completed. But the newborn soul, like a newborn child, had to be kept alive. If we could visit the tomb once again, on the day after the funeral, we would find that the burial chamber had been sealed. But one part of the tomb was still accessible, and there certain activities were going on. Inside the painted chapel a priest deposited loaves of fresh bread and jars of water on the low altar. Every day of the year, from now to forever, the dead man was fed at this altar.

Food and drink were always buried with the dead. The poor man had a few jars filled with beer and some loaves of bread. The royal dead dined sumptuously—jars of vintage wines, haunches of beef, cakes, and the finest white bread were piled in heaps in the storage chambers of their tombs. But it was necessary to renew the food supply when it was used up, and so the funerary offering was instituted.

In theory the offering was made by the devoted son of the dead man, playing Horus to his Osiris, just as the son was responsible for all the other necessities of his father in the world to come. Some sons were as pious and dutiful about these responsibilities as they were supposed to be. In one inscription a man tells us that he caused himself to be buried in the same tomb as his father, not—and I love this touch of sinful human pride—because he could not perfectly well afford a tomb of his own, but because he loved his father so much that he wanted to be with him always. Still, human nature being what it is—and was—the wise Egyptian took steps to remove temptation from his offspring by providing for as many of his postmortem necessities as he could while he could. Among these necessities was a daily food offering, and this was arranged by formal contract.

The contracts were made with ka-priests like old Hekanakhte, whom we have already met; they agreed to substitute for the pious son, who naturally had no time to go traipsing over to his father’s tomb every morning. Early in the game the methodical Egyptians formalized the problem of mortuary contracts, and some tomb owners had copies of them written on the walls of the tomb. The language of the texts is rather amusing, for its dry, legal tone seems far removed from the lofty business of immortality. Some contracts list not only the days on which offerings are to be made, but the precise number of loaves and jars which must be given. On festivals and holy days, extra food was provided.

A rich man might endow his tomb with five fields and their produce; a king could leave the riches of a dozen towns. The offerings themselves were not the only expenses involved, for the “wages” of the priest and his family also came out of the total. Such wages were paid in goods, since there was no money in pharaonic Egypt.

By now the economics majors among my readers are probably trying to calculate how long it would be before the entire national economy was sunk in tombs and tomb maintenance. It would not have taken long if the contracts had actually been honored; they provided for food “in perpetuity.” Luckily for society, if not for morality, there was a constant redistribution of wealth. Time passed, families died out, and the contracts quietly lapsed. Or else there was a change in dynasty, or confiscation, and contracts were reabsorbed into the treasury. Another class of people helped to keep the wealth in circulation, although the kings who gobbled up old mortuary contracts would have resented being compared with them—the tomb robbers. Something good can be said about them after all.

The Egyptians were well aware of this process. They knew that if their tombs were maintained for a century they were lucky. So what did they do? If the actual loaves of bread stopped coming, they could be replaced by magical substitutes. The tomb paintings which show rows of comely young women carrying food were magical insurance against the failing of forgetful ka-priests; so were the loaded offering tables which are depicted on tomb walls, stelae, and funerary slabs. A second line of defense in case of neglect was a written list. This became a formula; it is probably the best known of all Egyptian texts to beginning students, who can rattle it off with their eyes closed or read it glibly off the wall of any tomb. I have often done this to impress my non-Egyptological friends; I don’t do it for Egyptologists, because they know the formulae are all alike.

The offering formula goes something like this: “A boon which the king gives, to Osiris, Lord of Abydos [or some other god], that he give invocation offerings of bread and beer, oxen and fowl, alabaster and clothing, and every good and pure thing for the ka of the venerated [So-and-so].”

The process seems unnecessarily complicated; the king pays Osiris or some other god who then makes the offerings to the ka of the dead man. Occasionally the king’s “boon” may have been a real offering, made for a favorite courtier, but by the Middle Kingdom these formulae are inscribed for all sorts of people, including “nobodies” whom the Lord of the Two Lands did not know existed. The term translated “invocation offerings” is extremely significant; it means “a going-forth of the voice,” and it suggests that the boon is a purely magical offering, a supply of spiritual food through the power of the spoken word. Although the lists of offerings vary, they include the staples of the Egyptian diet, beginning with the basic bread and beer; and they end with one of the typically Egyptian “et ceteras” to cover anything that might have been overlooked.

There was a last line of defense against spiritual starvation, in case all the others failed. Some tombs carry an inscription which appeals to passersby—to any casual stranger who might be strolling in the vicinity of the tomb:

Oh you who live and exist, who love life and hate death, who shall pass by this tomb: as you love life and hate death, so shall you offer to me that which is in your hands. If there is nothing in your hands, you shall speak thus: “A thousand of bread and beer, of oxen and geese, of alabaster and linen—a thousand of all good and pure things, for the venerated [So-and-so].”

Inscriptions like this fill me with mingled pity and admiration—pity for the resigned acceptance of human frailty, which can visualize the necessity for such a desperate last resort, and admiration for the determination which refuses to give up the ghost—or rather, the means of maintaining the ghost.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!