Seeking eternity: 5,000 years of ancient Egyptian burial

While the ancient Egyptians’ hope for eternal life remained constant, their burial practices were ever-changing. Dr Margaret Maitland, senior curator at National Museums Scotland, charts the remarkable changes in Egyptian tombs and the extraordinary objects that filled them…

The Pyramids of Giza, Egypt. (Margaret Maitland)
The Pyramids of Giza, Egypt. (Margaret Maitland)

Evidence of ancient Egyptian belief in life after death emerged as early as c4500 BC. Over the following millennia, the Egyptians’ preparations for eternal life changed significantly, with different styles of tombs, evolving mummification practices, and a wide variety of funerary objects. 

Egypt’s dry climate, secure geographic position, and wealth of resources means that we have been left with an abundance of evidence about burial practices. In the early 19th century, Europe’s race to uncover ancient Egyptian mummies and treasures amounted to little better than tomb looting. However, recently the archaeological recording of burials and a systematic approach to their study have made it possible to make sense of Egypt’s changing funerary traditions.

An upcoming exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland, The Tomb: Ancient Egyptian Burial, charts the development of burial in ancient Egypt, and examines one of the first tombs to be excavated and recorded in detail: a tomb that was used and reused for more than 1,000 years.

 

An eternal holiday

The ancient Egyptians saw the afterlife as a potential extension of their lives on earth – but an idealised version, almost an eternal holiday. Preparations for the afterlife are first evidenced in prehistoric Egypt (c4500–3100 BC) by the placement in burials of pots containing food and drink for the deceased. Through this period an increasing number of provisions were placed alongside the dead, such as stone or pottery vessels, eye makeup palettes, flint tools, and beads. 

In this early period, the dead were buried in pits, usually laid facing west, towards the setting sun. Throughout ancient Egyptian civilisation, the sun held particular importance. To reach the afterlife, the Egyptians hoped to join the sun god, who set every evening and was reborn at dawn each morning on his eternal journey. The pyramids built to house the tombs of Egyptian kings evoke the descending rays of the sun – a stairway to heaven – and were often given names with solar associations, such as ‘King Snefru Shines’. The Great Pyramid was named ‘The Horizon of King Khufu’. 

Some of the earliest detailed information about Egyptian beliefs comes from the first funerary texts, inscribed on the walls of the burial chambers in royal pyramids around 2400–2250 BC. These were magic spells intended to protect the king’s body, and to reanimate it after death in order to help him ascend to the heavens. Some spells were intended to be recited at the funeral, while others were written in the first-person, to be spoken by the deceased king addressing the gods. 

These pyramid texts reveal that, as well as wishing to join the sun god, the deceased hoped to become like the god Osiris. According to myth, Osiris was the first king of Egypt. He was the first person to be mummified and brought back to life after death, thus becoming ruler of the afterlife. This dual system of afterlife beliefs, relating to both solar and Osirian rebirth, was to characterise burial through the rest of ancient Egyptian history.

 

Clay statue of the afterlife god Osiris, from Umm el-Qaab, Abydos, c1295–1186 BC. (National Museums Scotland)
 

Inside the tomb

The tomb itself was intended help magically transform the dead into a semi-divine being like Osiris. Pyramids and royal tombs even had associated temples in which the king would be worshipped as a god after his death. Wealthy individuals had a decorated tomb-chapel – a public part of the tomb above ground, separate from the actual burial chambers – where relatives could visit to remember the deceased, and priests could make offerings and recite prayers. 

In prehistoric burials, bodies were sometimes preserved naturally through the dry heat of the desert sand. The earliest active attempts to preserve human bodies involved wrapping the dead in resin-soaked linen, but the first real mummification took place during the pyramid age, or Old Kingdom (c2686–2134 BC). The body was dried using natron, a naturally occurring mixture of salts, and wrapped in linen. Sometimes the internal organs, the parts most likely to decay, were removed and mummified separately. The Egyptians believed that a person’s soul had the potential to leave the body to enjoy the afterlife, but it needed the preserved body as a resting place to return to each night.

During the Middle Kingdom (c2030–1800 BC), the funerary spells originally written inside royal pyramids began to appear on the coffins of priests and high officials. God of the afterlife Osiris also grew in importance. Rectangular coffins were slowly replaced by anthropoid coffins that depicted the deceased holding royal regalia, transformed into Osiris to ensure their resurrection. Wooden models depicting food and craft production were initially introduced to burials to magically provide for the dead and transfer their wealth and status into the afterlife. These developed into funerary figurines called shabtis, initially intended to act as a substitute for the deceased, in case they were called up by conscription to perform physical labour in the afterlife.

 

Wood anthropoid coffin of the estate overseer Khnumhotep, with gilded face, from Deir Rifa, Middle Kingdom c1940–1760 BC. (National Museums Scotland)
 

A major change in royal burial came In around 1530 BC, after a period of foreign occupation, when Egypt was reunified under the rule of a king from Thebes. Burial traditions in Thebes favoured rock-cut tombs in the cliffs on the west bank of the Nile, so royal pyramids were abandoned in favour of tombs hidden in the Valley of the Kings.

This period, the New Kingdom (c1550–1069 BC), marked the height of the ancient Egyptian empire. The civilisation was extremely wealthy; a fact reflected in the hundreds of tombs constructed by officials opposite the capital city of Thebes. In addition to magical items produced specifically for burial, such as coffins, canopic jars, and shabtis, the prosperous now wanted to take their wealth with them. They filled their tombs with all the beautiful things that they enjoyed in life, from jewellery to furniture. Another new innovations of this time was the Book of the Dead, a collection of magical spells developed out of the texts written inside royal pyramids almost 1,000 years earlier. For the first time, these spells were written and illustrated on papyrus scrolls, shrouds and amulets for the wealthy to take with them to the afterlife.

 

Clay shabtis and wooden shabti box, from Thebes (Luxor), c747–656 BC. (National Museums Scotland)
 

Our exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland focuses on a tomb built in the New Kingdom period for a chief of police and his wife. When it was excavated in 1857, detailed records and plans were made of the tomb’s layout and the objects found within it. It was enormous, carved 38m into the desert cliffs, followed by a shaft 6m deep leading to several burial chambers, making it larger than some of the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Ironically, while the chief of police was in charge of the security in the Valley of the Kings, he wasn’t able to protect his own tomb, which was eventually robbed. The only surviving object from his burial is a beautiful pair statue [a statue depicting a couple].

 

Sandstone pair statue of the chief of police and his wife, c1290 BC. (National Museums Scotland)
 

A change in fortune

As Egypt lost control of its empire and became politically unstable (c1069–650 BC), the country fractured between the north and south and eventually succumbed to foreign rule. This change in fortune meant that people looked to cut costs in their burials – the people of Thebes could no longer afford to build new tombs and fill them with lavish burial goods. Since wood was scarce and expensive, a new form of mummy-case made from linen and plaster (cartonnage) was invented. Old tombs were reused and recycled. A number of objects excavated in the tomb featured in our exhibition reveal that it was reused by several individuals during at least two different time periods between 800 and 650 BC.

With widespread tomb looting and reuse, Egyptians worried that organs stored in canopic jars might become separated from the body. The integrity of the body was important, so internal organs were mummified individually and then returned to the body. Canopic jars were technically no longer needed, but some people still made solid dummy canopic jars for the sake of tradition and symbolic protection.

Objects from daily life were generally no longer placed in the tomb; instead the focus was entirely on magical items made specifically for burial. Originally just one single shabti figurine had been placed in the tomb, but this number quickly grew (as quality decreased significantly), eventually becoming a workforce for the afterlife.

Over time, funerary objects like shabtis and canopic jars began to disappear, and even coffins became rare. By the time Egypt became part of the Roman empire in 30 BC, burials were focused entirely on the body itself; the most commonly used burial items were shrouds and either a mask or classical-style portrait placed over the face of the mummified person. The realism of classical portraiture may have appealed to those wishing to preserve the body and bring the dead back to life: in a portrait, they appeared alive again. On the other hand, traditional practices invoked ancient magic: gilded mummy masks aimed to make the dead semi-divine, based on an age-old belief that the skin of the gods was made of gold.

 

Mummified man with a portrait-board fitted over the face, excavated at Hawara c80–120 AD. (National Museums Scotland)
 

The final reuse of the tomb featured in our exhibition was by an important Egyptian family who lived under the last pharaonic ruler Cleopatra and witnessed the conquest of Egypt by the first Roman emperor. The burials of the high-official Montsuef and his wife Tanuat can be dated specifically to 9 BC, by inscriptions on their funerary papyri. Unlike the earlier standardised Books of the Dead, these were personalised with vignettes about the couple, attesting to the virtuous lives they had led. The new Roman influences in this era are evident in the gold and copper wreath Montsuef’s body wore over a traditional gilded mask, a classical symbol of victory re-interpreted as a symbol of triumph over death.

Montsuef’s funerary canopy is an amazing object – completely unprecedented in the history of Egyptian burial. Yet other elements of it are entirely traditional, such as its Egyptian temple shape, royal cobras and winged sun-disk motifs. Like other objects from this period, it demonstrates how much Egypt was being transformed by external influence, but also just how determined the Egyptians were to hold onto their traditions in their pursuit of the afterlife. While shrouds decorated with ancient Egyptian symbols were produced until around the late third century AD, with the introduction of Christianity to Egypt, followed by Islam, burial practices that had lasted thousands of years were finally abandoned. Nevertheless, the ancient Egyptians still live on today, given eternal life through their extraordinary burial objects.

 

Wooden funerary canopy of Montsuef from Thebes, 9 BC. (National Museums Scotland)
 
Dr Margaret Maitland is senior curator of Ancient Mediterranean collections at National Museums Scotland. The Tomb: Ancient Egyptian Burial presents the story of one extraordinary tomb, built around 1290BC and reused for more than 1,000 years. The exhibition runs from 31 March until 3 September 2017 at the National Museum of Scotland and comes ahead of the opening of a new permanent Ancient Egypt gallery in 2018/19.
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