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Ancient Egypt: Death & Burial

Resources for the Ancient Egypt unit.

Source: British Museum

One of the things Ancient Egypt is most famous for is its mummies. In Ancient Egypt, death was not viewed as an end, but rather another step in a journey and the funerary rites of the time reflect this idea. Read through the resources below to learn all about funerals, mummies and other burial rites in Ancient Egypt.

Canopic chest

Rectangular canopic chest, painted wood, in the shape of a shrine with a sloping roof. Central line of inscription on lid; on each side, hieroglyphic text in four columns on left, and scene on right showing a goddess pouring a libation from a jar over a mummiform figure of one of the four Sons of Horus. Isis libates Imsety, Nephthys libates Hapy, Neith libates Duamutef, and Selkis libates Qebhsennuef. The inscriptions identify the owner of the chest as the Singer of the Interior of Amun Nesawered (?)

Tomb door

This door belonged to the tomb of a high priest of Amun named Khonsuhotep, and is made of six planks of wood fixed together with nails and supports on the back. A large protrusion survives at the bottom for insertion into the lower door socket. In the centre is an incised depiction of the owner adoring and offering to Osiris and Hathor of the West, with the outline filled with white paint. This scene makes it evident that it came from a tomb rather than a house. Nothing more is known about Khonsuhotep.

Very few Egyptian doors have survived, because of the poor survival of organic material in domestic contexts, the reuse of the tombs, and the high value of wood, which was not a common commodity. Doors in Egypt usually were made of a single leaf, with protrusions at the top and the bottom which fitted into sockets in the doorway on which the door pivoted; very similar doors are still in use in modern Egyptian villages. More often than not the principal traces of their existence are stone sockets in temples. Tomb doors are particularly rare, and few traces of sockets have been noted. Most doorways were probably closed with single-leaved doors, although larger doorways (as in temples) were probably made of two leaves and secured with bolts.

The best surviving tomb door is from the tomb of Sennedjem at Deir el-Medina (Cairo, JE 27303). This closed the doorway between the shaft and the burial chamber, and is thus smaller than Khonsuhotep's door (117 cm), which without doubt sealed the entrance to his tomb chapel, which would have been much grander. Sennedjem's door was also decorated, but in colour, with scenes of him and his family worshipping Osiris and the West, and an additional scene of the worship of Ptah-Sokar-Osiris and Isis. Perhaps bright colours were used because this was an internal door, to complement the bright painting of the burial chamber.

Coffin and Mummy of the Estate Manager Khnumhotep

Khnumhotep was an estate manager or steward during life, but both his mummy and coffin are designed to associate him with divinity and kingship in the afterlife. The elegant gold funerary mask on his mummy, still in its original condition, exhibits royal attributes such as the uraeus, transforming Khnumhotep’s body into an avatar of Osiris, king of the afterlife and god of resurrection. The inscriptions on the coffin proclaim that he is worthy of association with various deities. The coffin features a series of elaborate palace-facade motifs, an already ancient pattern that was believed to replicate early constructions made of organic materials.

Canopic jar

A set of four canopic jars was an important element of the burial in most periods of Ancient Egyptian history. Canopic jars were containers in which the separately mummified organs would be placed. The best known versions of these jars have lids in the shape of the heads of protective deities called the four Sons of Horus. The human-headed Imsety was the guardian of the liver; the baboon-headed Hapy looked after the lungs; the jackal-headed Duamutef was responsible for the stomach; and the falcon-headed Qebehsenuef cared for the intestines.

The lid of the jar here is removable, but the cavity is not large enough to hold an organ. The "dummy" jar dates to a period during which the internal organs were mummified and then placed back into the mummy, but canopic jars continued to be included as part of the burial equipment in order to ensure the protection of the four Sons of Horus.

Panel from beneath feet of a cartonnage, with scorpions on soles

This panel once adorned the exterior foot end of a wrapped mummy. It depicts the soles of two sandals with a scorpion crushed beneath each one. The imagery reflects the ancient Egyptians' desire to control the dangerous elements of their world, a concern that here is transferred to the world of the afterlife. On the mummy, the scene was intended to give power to the deceased over the inimical forces that he would encounter on his nightly journey through the netherworld to-ward rebirth each dawn.

Blue Kerchief from Tutankhamun's Embalming Cache

In December 1907 Theodore M. Davis, a wealthy American who was funding excavations in the Valley of the Kings, discovered a small pit near the tomb of Seti I. Inside the pit were approximately a dozen large sealed whitewashed storage jars (09.184.1). Among other things, the jars contained bags of natron (a kind of salt), pieces of linen with hieratic inscriptions dated to Years 6 and 8 of a king named Tutankhamun (throne name Nebkheperure). At the time, almost nothing was know about Tutankhamun, and Davis declared that he had discovered the king's tomb.

Davis received a number of the jars and their contents in the division of finds and, in 1909, he gave most of his share to the Metropolitan Museum. It was only later that Herbert Winlock, the field director of the Museum's excavations at Thebes, realized that the natron and linen were embalming refuse from the mummification of Tutankhamun.

Worn linen sheets and clothing were used for wrapping and padding mummies. Linens that weren't actually used for mummification were sometimes buried in embalming caches. Three mended and laundered head cloths (09.184.217–.219) found in Tutankhamun's embalming cache were originally identified as kerchiefs worn by guests at the king's funerary meal. We now believe that they were part of the leftover embalming linen. This blue kerchief, dyed with indigo, is quite small and may have belonged to Tutankhamun when he was a child. Whether it was worn by Tutankhamun or not, examples of dyed linen from ancient Egyptian times are extremely rare, making this a very precious object.

Estate Figure

This masterpiece of Egyptian wood carving was discovered in a hidden chamber at the side of the passage leading into the rock cut tomb of the royal chief steward Meketre, who began his career under King Nebhepetre Mentuhotep II of Dynasty 11 and continued to serve successive kings into the early years of Dynasty 12. Together with a second, very similar female figure (now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo) this statue flanked the group of twenty two models of gardens, workshops, boats, and a funeral procession that were crammed into the chamber's narrow space.

Striding forward with her left leg, the woman carries on her head a basket filled with cuts of meat. In her right hand she holds a live duck by its wings. The figure's iconography is well known from reliefs of the Old Kingdom in which rows of offering bearers were depicted. Place names were often written beside these figures identifying them as personifications of estates that would provide sustenance for the spirit of the tomb owner in perpetuity. The woman is richly adorned with jewelry and wears a dress decorated with a pattern of feathers, the kind of garment often associated with goddesses. Thus, this figure and its companion in Cairo may also be associated with the funerary goddesses Isis and Nephthys who are often depicted at the foot and head of coffins, protecting the deceased.

Outer coffin of the Child Myt

This is the outer coffin of the child, Myt. She was buried in a set of two wooden coffins that were laid one inside the other and placed in a limestone sarcophagus.The mummy of Myt showed that she died as a little girl, probably not more than five years old. The embalmers added substantial padding to her feet and her head, which made the mummy much longer so that it looked like that of an adult. Myt’s tomb was robbed in antiquity, but her sarcophagus was not opened, and five precious necklaces were still in among the wrappings (see the five necklaces 22.3.320–.324). Myt is the ancient Egyptian word for a female cat, and Myt’s name is therefore written with a seated cat hieroglyph (see the left end of the inscription on the front of the coffin). Her coffin also features the so called wedjat eyes that were painted on the side of the coffin and correspond to the position of the mummy’s head. In the Middle Kingdom, the mummy was usually lying on its side and facing East, the location of the sunrise, which was associated with rebirth in ancient Egypt.

Canopic box of Hatnefer

In 1936, the Museum's Egyptian Expedition discovered a rock-cut tomb on a hillside just below the offering chapel of Senenmut, one of Hatshepsut's best known officials. The tomb had been prepared for the burial of Senenmut's mother, Hatnefer, who had died in her 70s, early in the joint reign of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III. By this time, Senenmut had become an important official, and he could provide a comparatively rich burial for his mother, including this canopic box.

The box and lid are made of cypress which has been covered with a layer of linen and gesso, and painted white. Inside the two leaves of an inner lid pivot open to reveal four compartments that held the four canopic jars containing Hatnefer's internal organs (for a group of canopic jars from about the same period, see 12.181.253a–c). The box and lid have been constructed in the shape of a shrine and the base has two runners that imitate a sledge. Sledges were the most efficient way to transport large objects over mud roads and sand in ancient Egypt (see 24.1.84 for an actual sledge).

Shabti box and shabtis of members of the Sennedjem tomb

Essential items of funerary equipment from the New Kingdom on, shabti figures, of which there could be from 1 to over 400 examples in a single tomb, were meant to substitute for the deceased whenever he or she was called upon to perform manual labor in the afterlife. One example here is inscribed with a version of Spell 6 from the Book of Coming Forth by Day (better known as the Book of the Dead): "O, shabti...if I be do any work which has to be done in the realm of the shall act for me on every occasion of making arable the fields, of flooding the banks, or of conveying sand from east to west: 'Here I am,' you will say." (after Faulkner, The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead). The others bear the name of the deceased with whom they were associated.

The wooden shabti box is inscribed for Paramnekhu, a servant in the Place of Truth (royal artisan) who was a son or grandson of Sennedjem in whose tomb (TT 1) the box was found. The shabti figures, from left to right, are inscribed for Sennedjem's wife Iineferty and her eldest son, Khabekhnet (86.1.18); for another son, Khonsu (86.1.21); for Khabekhnet alone (67.80); and for a female relative named Mose (86.1.28). Although Khabekhnet and Khonsu had a separate tomb complex (TT 2) near that of their father, they are depicted with their siblings in the decoration of Sennedjem's burial chamber, and objects inscribed with their names (including Khonsu's coffins and mummy) were buried in the family tomb.

Outer Coffin of the Singer of Amun Nany

Nany was buried in a set of nesting coffins which included an outer coffin (30.3.23a, b), an inner coffin (30.3.24a, b), and the mummy cover (30.3.25). The faces may originally have been gilded, which would explain why each was removed in ancient times.

Sacred animal mummy containing small ibises

The Egyptians considered certain individual animals to be living manifestations of a god, such as, since earliest times, the Apis bull . Those individuals were duly mummifed when they died and buried for eternal life, then replaced by another single living manifestation. During the first millennium BC, many multiples of animals associated with certain gods were specially raised in temple precincts as simultaneous avatars of that god and then mummified in large contingents and deposited in catacombs for eternal life. The ancient perception of these multiples, the evolution of the practice in this direction, and variations within the practice are not easily accessible to us. But the hundreds of thousands of often elaborately prepared animal mummies found in catacombs and other locales testify to its ancient resonance.

Animal mummies

Research on animal mummies has shown that the majority of mummies found at the large animal cemetery sites are pre-adults who were purposely killed for use. Some of the mummies are actually ‘substitute’ mummies containing only a few bones or feathers or possibly just sticks or sand.

This ibis mummy was found at Abydos in the same area as 13.186.4a-c. Recently a review of the museum's animal mummies and their x-rays was conducted in consultation with an expert in their study, and brought to light a number of interesting points. Wrapped as a single ibis mummy in wrappings with a handsome pattern of large lozenges created in darker linen on the upper side, the package is actually a bundle of baby ibises.