Burial Practices of Ancient Egypt
Candice Mott
Image from google images

The Ancient Egyptians are perhaps best known for their very intricate burial practices. Their best known practice is mummification, which includes embalming and wrapping. There is also a lot of religious context that goes into these rituals. Much of Egyptian life, especially burial practices, is based around the Osiris myth. Such as the use of amulets, grave goods, and different tomb styles. These all stem from religious tales. These practices also require different technologies that the Egyptians had invented, such as the natron table pictured below. To fully understand the importance of these practices it is necessary to mention and explain all of this in detail.

I think is is important to note here that I verified my information from Cooney with information from Dr. Tosha Dupras. I was a little skeptical of the information provided from Cooney since the information was pretty old and it was a book review with a lot of opinion intertwined into the article. I also only used sources from Google Scholar and the UCF library in an effort to have credible sources since I find articles only posted in blogs or directly on a website less credible than those published. For example, when I search on google for Egyptian Pyramids the site

http://www.outerworlds.com/likeness/aliens/aliens.html comes up which uses pseudoarcheology to claim that aliens built the pyramids of Egypt.

The Myth Of Osiris

Before explaining the processes of burial in the Ancient Egyptian world, I think it is important to understand the religious myths behind the practice. Every ritual or "tradition" that starts usually starts due to an old myth of the civilization. Much of the symbolism used in Ancient Egyptian burials does not make much sense, unless one knows the mythof Osiris, the godof the afterlife.

Photo from Wikipedia

Geb(the god of earth) and Nut(the goddess of the sky) gave birth to Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys. Before Osiris became the god of the afterlife, he was the god of agriculture and vegetation (this is why his skin is sometimes shown as green). He was the first god to walk the earth, as well as the first Pharaoh. He teaches the people on earth about the gods and agriculture, and he builds a temple. Osiris was well liked by the people of Egypt, making his brother Seth very, very jealous of him. And of course, Seth plans to get rid of Osiris in order to take his glory.

Seth sets up a beautiful banquet for Osiris. He has a beautiful human shaped box made and announces he will give it to anyone who can fit into the box. Not surprisingly, it fits Osiris perfectly. When Osiris steps into the box for his turn at the game, Seth and his 72 accomplices seal the box with Osiris in it using molten lead. They send the box to float down the Nile, leaving Osiris to suffocate and die. The box washes up in Byblos against a Tamarisk tree, which grows and encloses the chest.

The King of Byblos orders for the tree to be cut. This releases a scent that attracts Osiris's sister and future wife, Isis. She brings Osiris back to Egypt. Seth ends up finding the body of Osiris. Enraged, Seth cuts up Osiris’ body into 14 pieces and scatters them all over Egypt. Isis searches all of Egypt for the pieces of Osiris’ body, puts him back together and conceives Horus by Osiris. After Osiris’ body is put back together he can no longer return to earth. And thus, becomes the king of the afterlife. This is the reason behind mummification. Like Osiris, one’s body must be whole to enter the afterlife. And mummification allows the body to stay together.

Horus, the son of Osiris, spends his life avenging his father’s death. He gets into many battles with Seth over time and loses an eye. This is called the “Eye of Horus”, which will come up later when describing the process of mummification. Horus also becomes known as the healer god, his eye being the symbol for healing. ( Entire section Griffiths 2008)

To learn more about these Ancient Egyptian gods and others, visit the Ancient Egyptian Religion page.


Now that I've explained why the Egyptians used mummification, I can explain how. Mummification was a process that slowly developed over time. The Egyptians were always looking for better ways to preserve the body, so that one would be able to pass into the after life whole, just as Osiris had.

By the New Kingdom, mummification had become an artisan skill, something that it wasn't before. The art of embalming was passed down from generation to generation. The embalmers were even a class of their own, "per nefer." There are no found Egyptian records of mummification, it is thought that this may have been a secret and sacred procedure few would know about. All that we know about the rituals and process of mummification comes from Heratus who writes that he was told by priests.

The body would be taken to the embalmer to be mummified. First the body was washed. This would be done on the embalming table which was usually made out of stone and sloped with a hole at the bottom so liquids could be collected in jars. The body was washed with water and wine and rubbed with spices. The organs and soft tissues were removed from the body, evidence that the Egyptians were well aware of the body’s process of decay.
Canopic Jars. Image from google images.

To remove the organs a small incision was made on the left side of the body. They removed the stomach, intestines, liver and lungs. They never removed the heart because they believed the heart was the “seat of intelligence" in other words, had the duties of what we know now the brain has.The organs were then preserved in natron and went through their own mummification process. Liquids (such as blood) were put in jars and buried outside of the tomb or put in the tomb. The dried organs were placed into “Canopic Jars”. The stoppers on the canopic jars represent the four son’s of Horus. Duamutef protected the stomach, Qebehsenuf protected the intestines, Hapi protected the lungs, and Imseti protected the liver. The organs were put into jars so that they could later be reunited with the body in the afterlife. They removed the brain with a sharp instrument which was inserted up through the nose, hooked onto the brain and then twirled until it became a liquid form and was poured out through the nose.
Natron Table http://www.ancientegypt.co.uk/mummies/story/main.html

After the organs were removed the body was then washed with wine, which acts as an antiseptic, and then cover with natron for forty days. The natron table is created with slabs over a flat surface so that the natron can be places both over and under the body (pictured to the left). This creates leathery, hard skin. In order to soften the skin perfume and sacred oils are applied.
After the organs are removed and the body is dried and cleaned the process of wrapping is can begin. The head priest, who is depicted wearing leopard skin, says incantations over the body as it is being wrapped. The eye of Horus is placed over the small incision that was used to remove the organs to encourage healing. The body is then dressed in jewelry, covered in linen shroud and then bound in linen. In the New Kingdom, Egyptians began to place the name of the mummy on the ends of the linen, four amulets were placed in between the layers. The four amulets are the ankh, which
Amulets. Image from google images.
represents life, the djed, which represents strength and stability, tet, which represents the protection of the limbs, and the scarab which represents rebirth and regeneration.

Each layer is coated with a resin called bituman which is made up of tree sap and oils. Each limb, each finger, each toe is wrapped separately. The legs are wrapped together and the book of the dead is placed with the mummy. This book is an instruction guide on how to get to the afterlife. If not in the form of a book placed with the mummy, it is written on the walls of the tomb.

It guides the deceased through the many tests before getting into the world of Osiris, including the most famous test and final test; the weighing of the heart. In the weighing of the heart, the heart of the deceased is placed on a scale against the feather of truth. If the heart sinks, the deceased can not enter the afterlife. If it balances or rises, he can.

A face mask (such as Tuts pictured above) is then placed over the head and shoulders of the mummy. The mask could be made of gold, wood or cartonrage (a material similar to paper mache made from linens and plaster), and could also be gilded. The mask was made in the likeness of the deceased. This was done to insure the ba and ka (the spirit and soul) would recognize the deceased and reunite with them in the afterlife. Later, in the Roman period of Egypt, the likeness of the face of the person was often painted onto a piece of wood and placed over the mummy.

Progession of mummification. Google images.
After the body was mummified, there were many rituals that followed. The funeral process for a king was most elaborate in the New Kingdom. The mummy was transported by embalmers across the Nile on a boat. The mummy would then be transported on a bier (sled) with up to eight oxen pulling it to the Valley of the Kings. Servants carried sacred offerings and belongings of the deceased. Priests followed in procession reciting spells and prayers over the mummy. Mourners were present and at times professional mourners were hired. The mummy was then placed into the tomb, the mourners feasted at the tomb entrance, and the next ritual, the opening of the mouth, began. In the opening of the mouth ceremony the head priest would touch the mummy's lips with an instrument to restore the mummy's senses. The mummy would now be able to eat, speak and breath in the afterlife. One that ceremony commenced, the tomb was sealed.

I find the Third Intermediate period the most interesting for mummification since this is when a lot more detail went into preserving the body. Not only was mummification now wide spread enough to even be used for commoners, but Egyptians started to focus on making the body look more “natural” and less shriveled. They did this by putting fillers underneath the skin. They often used mud, linen, sand, and saw dust as fillers. Extra incisions were made to fill the body, even the face. Over filling often caused the skin to burst, thus defeating the purpose of mummification.

All in all, mummification is another example of how myth often shapes a culture and daily life of a society. Because of the myth of Osiris, much time and technology was spent over the centuries in improving mummification. This also created jobs, and a separate social class for those who were embalmers. Ancient myths often have a snowball affect that will end up touching more aspects of a society than those in the society may realize, and this often strengthens over time. As in the case of mummification becoming more involved, detailed and important through time. (Entire section Taylor 2001)

Tombs Through Time
Burials in predynastic Egypt were simple, oval sized holes dug with the body of the deceased sometimes wrapped in a mat, laying in the fetal position. The body was preserved only by the heat and dry climate . The grave goods that were included were few plain pieces of pottery, likely those of daily use. Throughout predynastic Egypt, small occurrences of simple and less effective mummification, decorated pottery, lined graves (with stone and wood), and more extravagant burial offerings such as figurines,
Mastaba. Image by robertabarresi.com
silver, and stones appear. In the Old Kingdom mastabas( mounds with a burial chamber underneath),head rests for the head of the dead made of alabaster ivory or wood are found. Gowns, gold, and jewelry are all found as grave goods increase. (Taylor 2001)

The rule of Djoser brought a new way to bury the elite: Pyramids. Djoser's pyramid, or the step pyramid, at Saqqara is basically a series of mastabas stacked on top of each other. Djoser's son, Sneferu, was the next to build. He tried to smooth out the sides of the pyramid, and in the process made the bent pyramid, which has collapsed in on itself. He then went on to build the red pyramid, which was his final resting pyramid. Cheops (Khufu), Chephren (Khafre), and Mycerinus (Menkaure) all built the pyramids at Giza, Cheop's being the "greatest" or biggest one. Chephren is responsible for the sphinx, and Mycerinus has the smallest pyramid of the three. It is believed that the Egyptian government began running out of funds to support such lavish burials around Mycerinus' time, and this is why his pyramid is smaller (Cooney 2008).
Step Pyramid. Image by TourEgypt.com

By the New Kingdom, pyramids were long out of fashion. Rock cut tombs seemed to be favored by the wealthy and powerful at this time. Tombs, which were made of stone, were considered more important than one's own house, which were made of mud brick. Also by the New Kingdom every class was expected to prepare for the afterlife, it was no longer just for the wealthy. The tomb was essential for the afterlife of the deceased.
Also at this time, the heir was expected to bring offerings of food and drink to the tomb to feed the Ka. A neglected tomb was believed to result in a starved Ka. For the duty, a servant may have been employed for those who could afford to do so. Statues were also placed in the tomb to serve the owner in the afterlife.
One theory as to why Pharaohs abandoned the idea of pyramids in favor for the Valley of the Kings, is the idea that rock cut tombs may have been less vulnerable to tomb robbing. (David 1998).

The Valley of Kings. Image by touregypt.net

Protecting against tomb robbing was very important to the Egyptians not only to protect riches, but also because the Egyptians believed that the afterlife was a continued version of life on Earth. As seen in the mummification section and in the myth of Osiris, one needs to have his/her entire body in order to use it in the afterlife. Using this logic, originating from the Osiris myth, it is assumed that if one can use their physical body from his/her Earth life, he/she must also be able to use their physical materials from his/her Earth life in the afterlife. And thus, if their graves are robbed, they are not going to be able to do what they need to in the afterlife, since they will no longer have their possessions. This is another big part of Egyptian life that is based on the afterlife myth. Building these tombs affected the economy, gave commoners jobs, and affected the political world of Egypt. This after life myth indirectly began to affect almost every part of Ancient Egyptian living.

For more on the pyramids, visit the architecture page.

When studying a culture many people focus on the questions who, how, and when. However, the question of "why" may perhaps be the most important. "Why" is one of the most commonly asked/answered questions in Anthropology. To fully answer that question and get as close to the "big picture" as possible, Anthropologists must look at not only direct factors but indirect factors of each part of life in a civilization. A civilization's religious myths are very important and usually determine the how whens and whos,as well as the whys, of burial practices in that society. This is especially true in Egypt where religion was the center focus of society. Myths, such as the Osiris myth, touched and affected every aspect of Egyptian life through burial practices. As Burial practices changed and became more intricate through time, new jobs were created, which changed the daily life of many commoners. Social structure was also changed with the development of the art of embalming. In politics, a ruler who was the most powerful was the most divine, and had the best tomb, grave goods, burial, and mummified corpse to show for it. Burial Practices are the mode for which myth reaches the people and indirectly touches every aspect of every day life. Without myths, the "whys" on a civilization would be very fuzzy. And without burial practices, it would be very, very difficult for myths to become as important as they were in Ancient Egyptian civilization.

Works Cited

Cooney, John D. Review: Egypt’s Pyramids

Science, New Series Vol. 134 No. 3483 Sept. 29, 1961. pp936-938
Published by American Association for the Advancement of Science.
URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1708209

David, Rosalie
1998 Life in Ancient Egypt. Oxford University Press, New York.

Dupras, Tosha. Personal communication 2008

Griffiths, John Gwyn. The Origins of Orisis and His Cult.
Published by BRILL, 1980
ISBN 9004060960, 9789004060968

Taylor, John H. Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt.
Published by University of Chicago Press. 2001
ISBN 0226791645, 9780226791647272

Misc. Wiki Module Assignments.

This article has a lot of information on predynastic Egypt. It starts out by describing the four periods of predynastic Egypt. The four periods are Badarin, Amratean, Gerzean, and Semainean. In this article Murray states the the more important people in a community recieved a burial in the early times of ancient Egypt. She also states that there are very few burials of women and children. She explains that since not all people were burried, those who were "commoners" or not important enough for a burial probably had their bodies thrown into fields or into the river. This may explain why scavanger animals such as the crocidile, vulture and jackal are the earliest recorded dieties found in Ancient Egypt.

Death and the Afterlife in Ancient EgyptBy John H. TaylorPublished by University of Chicago Press, 2001ISBN 0226791645, 9780226791647272 pages

I found this book online through scholar.google.com. Since it comes from a published book (looks like a text book) and since I've seen many of John H. Taylor's books on University websites, I've concluded that his information is trustworthy. This online book covers information about burial practices through all of the periods of Ancient Egypt, including the intermediate periods. I found the third intermediate period especially interesting. According to Taylor, this is the time where mummification practices are perfected. Also the natural appearance of the body in life was also important in death. To try to prevent the body from looking shriveled, embalmers would insert packing underneath the skin in order to retain fullness.

The floodplains along the Nile constitute an important but as of yet little utilized series of laboratories for the comparative study of the origins and interactions of ancient civilizations.


The Origins of Osiris and His Cult
By John Gwyn Griffiths
Published by BRILL, 1980
ISBN 9004060960, 9789004060968

Death and the Afterlife in Ancient EgyptBy John H. TaylorPublished by University of Chicago Press, 2001ISBN 0226791645, 9780226791647272 pages