Burials and Grave Goods in Ancient Egypt

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Chephren cemetery viewed from the Second Pyramid

Egyptian dead were always buried, never cremated. Up until Islamic times, the dead in Egypt were buried facing the rising sun in the East with the head pointing to the north. Cemeteries were always on the western side of the Nile because the sun set in the west. Often they were close enough to the river so that funeral processions coming down the Nile could easily reach the graves.

Ancient Egyptians who died around 3500 B.C. were often laid to rest lying on a mat on their left side in the fetal position, facing the west and the setting sun. In some cases the bodies were decapitated after death and placed back on the body in the tomb, which appears to indicate ritual dismemberment and reassemblage.

Most mummies were anonymous. The likenesses on the coffins often looked nothing like the mummy inside but were idealized representations. Royal mummies were placed in a series of coffins, which went inside a sarcophagus which went into a series of shrines. The inner coffins and the tombs were inscribed with hieroglyphic texts of protective spells. Some coffins were made of basalt. Some sarcophagus were made of red granite. the lid of a large sarcophagus could weigh 2.7 tons and be covered with hieroglyphics on one side and the goddess Nut in a transparent gown on the other. There were also reusable coffins. The outer coffin for King Tutankhamun was adorned with garlands of willow and olive leaves, wild celery, lotus pedals and cornflowers which suggests he was buried in the spring. See King Tutankhamun (King Tut).

Anna Stevens of Cambridge University wrote: ““Another practice that brought the deceased into the domestic realm was the interment of infants and fetuses within settlements. It has been suggested that the practice, best known from Lahun, reflects a foreign origin. Such burials are, however, recorded from other sites in Egypt, including Abydos and South Abydos, Deir el-Medina, and el-Amarna, and the practice is probably an indigenous one. Sometimes the burials include objects, suggesting that some funerary rites were carried out and that the infants were believed to have an existence in the afterlife. Did the families seek to keep them close, protecting and sustaining them in their journey through the underworld? Or did the liminal status of the infants offer to the living a channel of communication with the divine world? Much more work is needed on the subject to elucidate its meaning and origins within Egypt.” [Source: Anna Stevens, Amarna Project, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, escholarship.org ]

Human sacrifices may have been practiced by the earliest pharaohs (See History). Real people were not sacrificed and buried with the dead as was the case sometimes with the Mesopotamians and other cultures. This practice may have been practiced in the early days, which possibly is how the custom of burying substitutes and shabti figures began.

Websites on Ancient Egypt: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, escholarship.org ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Discovering Egypt discoveringegypt.com; BBC History: Egyptians bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians ; Ancient History Encyclopedia on Egypt ancient.eu/egypt; Digital Egypt for Universities. Scholarly treatment with broad coverage and cross references (internal and external). Artifacts used extensively to illustrate topics. ucl.ac.uk/museums-static/digitalegypt ; British Museum: Ancient Egypt ancientegypt.co.uk; Egypt’s Golden Empire pbs.org/empires/egypt; Metropolitan Museum of Art www.metmuseum.org ; Oriental Institute Ancient Egypt (Egypt and Sudan) Projects ; Egyptian Antiquities at the Louvre in Paris louvre.fr/en/departments/egyptian-antiquities; KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt kmtjournal.com; Ancient Egypt Magazine ancientegyptmagazine.co.uk; Egypt Exploration Society ees.ac.uk ; Amarna Project amarnaproject.com; Egyptian Study Society, Denver egyptianstudysociety.com; The Ancient Egypt Site ancient-egypt.org; Abzu: Guide to Resources for the Study of the Ancient Near East etana.org; Egyptology Resources fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk

Predynastic Burials in Egypt

Pre-Dynastic burial

Alice Stevenson of the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford wrote: “In ancient Egypt, the primary evidence for the Predynastic Period, principally the fourth millennium B.C., derives from burials. In Upper Egypt, there is a clear trend over the period towards greater investment in mortuary facilities and rituals, experimentation in body treatments, and increasing disparity in burial form and content between a small number of elite and a larger non-elite population. In Maadi/Buto contexts in Lower Egypt, pit burials remained simple with minimal differentiation and less of a focus upon display-orientated rituals [Source: Alice Stevenson, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, escholarship.org ]

It was from Upper Egyptian cemetery sites such as Naqada and Ballas and el- Abadiya and Hiw that the Predynastic was first recognized and classified. Over 15,000 burials are documented for Upper Egypt, but less than 600 Maadi/Buto graves from Lower Egypt are known. From the content and form of these burials, the chronological framework of the fourth millennium B.C. has been constructed and the nature and development of social complexity during the rise of the state charted. There has been a particular focus upon aspects of wealth and status differentiation following the work of Hoffman. The clear trend identified in these studies, for Naqadan burials at least, is for a widening disparity between graves in terms of the effort invested in tomb construction (size and architecture) and in the provision of grave goods. Less attention has been paid to other aspects of social identities represented in burials, such as gender, age, and ethnicity, although recent excavations at Adaima, Hierakonpolis, and in the Delta are providing firmer foundations for more nuanced interpretations, together with a reassessment of early twentieth century excavations.

“In comparison to Neolithic fifth millennium B.C. ‘house burials’, interred in what are probably the abandoned parts of settlements at el-Omari and Merimde Beni-Salame, most graves known from the Badarian and fourth millennium B.C. are from cemeteries set apart from habitation. Nevertheless, in both Upper and Lower Egypt some interments, predominately those of children, are still found within settlements, sometimes within large ceramic vessels (‘pot-burials’). This may account, to some extent, for the under-representation of children within most cemeteries.”

Location of Predynastic Burials in Egypt

Pre-Dynastic burial

Alice Stevenson of the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford wrote: “In Upper Egypt, the earliest identified burials date to just before the fourth millennium B.C. and are considered to be Badarian burials. These are known principally from the locales of Badari, Mostagedda, and Matmar, although more limited evidence has been recognized further south to Hierakonpolis. [Source: Alice Stevenson, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, escholarship.org ]

“Naqada I burials are known to stretch further south into Lower Nubia, but none are attested north of the Badari region. These cemeteries were usually placed at the low desert above the floodplain, thus facilitating their preservation. More detrimental to the mortuary record has been grave robbing, an occurrence not restricted to modern times, and many interments were plundered shortly after the funeral by perpetrators who were aware of the goods interred within.

“From Naqada IIC on, burials with Upper Egyptian characteristics began to appear in Lower Egypt at Gerza, Haraga, Abusir el-Melek, and Minshat Abu Omar. These are associated with the spread, and eventual predominance, of Upper Egyptian social practices and ideology across Egypt. In Upper Egypt, the contrast between an emerging elite and non-elite is manifest starkly at three sites, hypothesized to be regional power centers of Upper Egypt, where discrete elite cemetery areas were maintained apart from the others. These comprise: Hierakonpolis, Locality 6; Naqada, Cemetery T; and Abydos, Cemetery U.

“Far fewer burials of the Maadi/Buto tradition are known in Lower Egypt, possibly due to Nile flooding and shifts in the river’s course, as well as the fact that such burials were only archaeologically recognized and published relatively recently. Those that have been found are roughly equivalent to mid- Naqada I to Naqada IIB/C. The eponymous settlement site of Maadi and associated cemetery Wadi Digla hold the largest concentration of material, with other notable remains at Heliopolis. Eleven graves at el-Saff represent the furthest south that burials of this sort are attested.”

Naqadan Burials

Alice Stevenson of the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford wrote: “Predynastic burials were subterranean pits dug into the ground. Initially, during Badarian times, oval pits were the norm, but over the course of the Predynastic Period there was a trend towards larger, more rectangular graves. Nonetheless, many burials remained shallow and only large enough to accommodate a contracted body wrapped in a mat. Quantifying the proportion of such poor burials is problematic as they often went undocumented in early excavation reports or have been destroyed on account of their shallowness. [Source: Alice Stevenson, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, escholarship.org ]

“In late Naqada II, some funerary offerings in larger tombs came to be placed in separate niches, presaging the compartmentalization of Pharaonic Period tombs. A small percentage of Naqadan II/III tombs were plastered in or over with mud, or were lined or roofed with wood. Wood and pottery coffins are known by Naqada III. The use of mud-brick for the construction of subterranean tombs is attested at a few sites in late Naqada II, but by early Naqada III, this had been adopted as a standard feature of high-status burials, such as at Minshat Abu Omar. The series of Naqada III brick-lined tombs at Abydos, some with multiple chambers, form direct precursors to the 1st and 2nd Dynasty royal tombs that extend south from this location.

“The presence of an above ground feature demarcating burial plots may be assumed from the infrequency of inter-cutting graves and underlines the importance of social memory to ancient communities. There is limited evidence for the form these memorials might have taken, but a simple hillock, as has been observed at Adaima, is one possibility. In the elite cemetery at Hierakonpolis, Locality 6, post holes have been found around some graves, including a Naqada IIA-B tomb (Tomb 23), implying that some form of covering was erected over the burial chamber. Measuring 5.5 meters by 3.1 meters, it is the largest tomb known for this date. Also unique to Hierakonpolis is a large (4.5 x 2 x 1.5 meters deep) mud-brick-lined pit with painted plaster walls, known as Tomb 100; it is dated to Naqada IIC, which attests to an early date for tomb painting in an elite context. On a white mud-plastered background, images of animals, boats, and humans in combat are portrayed in red and black.”


Treatment of Corpses at Naqadan Burials

Alice Stevenson of the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford wrote: “From Badarian times onward, great care, attention, and reverence was conferred upon the disposal of the dead. There is the general tendency to interpret these mortuary contexts as simply being for the benefit of the deceased and their afterlife, but the social significance of these practices for the surviving community should also be acknowledged. With regard to the latter, scholars have interpreted Naqadan funerary rituals in terms of competitive status display, identity expression, and social memory formation. [Source: Alice Stevenson, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, escholarship.org ]

“In Badarian burials, corpses were generally contracted on their left side with heads positioned south, facing west, and with hands clasped in front of the face. Bodies were carefully laid upon a mat and wrapped in animal skins, with occasional addition of a pillow made from straw or rolled-up animal skin.

“Naqadan graves are similar, and although single inhumation was the standard arrangement, multiple burials do occur— usually two to three bodies, much more rarely four or five. It has been suggested that multiple burials are more common in earlier Naqada I Periods, but a statistical survey is wanting.

“In Naqada I, bodies were also predominately placed on the left side with the head to the south and face to the west. This position was still the most common in Naqada II, although more deviations in alignment occurred, particularly for those Naqadan burials in the north. At Gerza, for instance, several combinations of position are evident. In Naqada III, the cemeteries of Tarkhan and Tura display a greater alternation in alignment; on average, about 70 percent were positioned with heads pointed to the south and 30 percent to the north, 72 percent were faced west and 28 percent east.

“In addition to inhumation of the complete corpse, other body treatments are known but are far less frequent. These include post- interment removal of the skull, rearrangement of skeletal remains within the grave, and the first occurrence of mummification in the form of resin-soaked linen pressed upon the hands and around the face of some Naqada IIA-B cadavers.”

Grave Goods in the Naqadan Burials

Alice Stevenson of the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford wrote: “The Neolithic burials at Merimde were usually without grave goods, and at el-Omari only one small pot was generally included. In contrast, from the Badarian onward, the investment in burial symbolism was more pronounced, and the dead could be accompanied to the grave by numerous types of accoutrements, the number of which varied considerably depending upon period and social factors, including status. In all periods, several interments were still entirely devoid of offerings, although decomposition of organic offerings as well as grave robbing may account for some of these absences. Yet other graves contained numerous artifacts, with the average number of grave goods increasing from the Badarian through to mid-Naqada II; approximately only 2 percent of graves contained more than 10 goods in Badarian times compared to roughly 13 percent in Naqada I and II. From Naqada I-III, fewer and fewer individuals were buried in graves that possessed abundant grave goods. [Source: Alice Stevenson, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, escholarship.org ]

Naqada grave good

“Ceramics are the most prominent offerings in all periods, but the profile of pottery types changed significantly. In Naqada I, ceramic offerings were primarily fine-wares made up of black-topped (B-ware) vessels (comprising over 50 percent assemblage), red polished (P-ware) vessels, and occasionally white cross-lined (C- ware) vessels. In Naqada II, these fine black- topped ceramics declined in number, C-ware disappeared, and there was a shift towards the inclusion of larger quantities of coarser fabric vessels (rough-ware), sometimes numbering in the hundreds in elite tombs, as well as the introduction of marl clay vessels. This shift from fewer fine containers to greater numbers of rougher forms has been related to the increasing importance of storage of offerings and vestiges of complex burial rites. These include: remains of bread, beer, and animal products, remnants perhaps of a funeral feast shared with and presented to the deceased; charcoal and ashes, possibly from a ‘great burning’, the residue of which was transferred to the grave; or ‘dummy offerings’ of sand, earth, or mud. This diversity of contents reflects the increasing complexity of mortuary rituals and social obligations that were conducted at and around burials.

“Other than pottery, beads, sometimes of a wide variety of materials, are the most common artifacts found, but a diverse array of stone vessels (especially in Naqada II), mudstone palettes, flint bladelets, and knives are also fairly frequent. Clay figurines, stone maceheads, animal bones, pendants, and ivory spoons or pins are found more sporadically. Notable is the increasingly wide repertoire of goods, such as lapis lazuli, obtained via long- distance exchange during Naqada II, interpreted as forming part of a prestige- goods economy. In particular the imported Canaanite jars (over 400) from the early Naqada III, twelve-chambered tomb U-j at Abydos give some indication as to the social abilities of emerging leaders.

“Grave goods were often carefully arranged around the corpse, and it has been remarked that Naqadan mortuary traditions included a ‘formula’ in which “… each object had its appointed position” and that there were “fixed rituals for funeral observance”. There is certainly a recurring structure to many tombs, particularly those from Naqada IIC onwards, with wavy- handled jars usually placed above the head, large storage jars below the feet, and objects such as small stone jars and palettes neatly placed near the head and hands. It may not be possible to have insight into the complete symbolic content of these practices, but perhaps in the patterns created by their repetition it is possible to gain a sense that there were socially specific understandings of how a burial should be properly, and efficaciously, conducted, in a manner that suggests the grave could act as an arena for display-orientated practices. Nevertheless, to say that mortuary rituals were ‘fixed’ is an overstatement as no two Predynastic burials are identical. Rather than there being a universal set of rules governing arrangement, there seem to have been general principles that permitted an improvisatory performance of burial.

“Such choice in funeral arrangements is also clear from the objects selected for inclusion in the tomb. It was previously assumed that some objects were made specifically for mortuary consumption, such as decorated pottery (D-ware). Examination of use-wear and settlement deposits has demonstrated, however, that this is not the case and that the majority of tomb paraphernalia derived from daily life. Nevertheless, with the benefit of concurrent excavation of cemeteries and settlement at Adaima, it is evident that whilst all the pottery recorded from the cemetery is attested in the settlement, only certain forms from the settlement were deemed to be appropriate in a funeral context. Comparison of the types of flints found in settlement and burial contexts also reveals preferential selection for blades, bladelets, and knives for use in mortuary arenas. Palettes may also have been used differently in funeral contexts in comparison to everyday life, with green malachite staining predominant in burial contexts but red ochre more common on settlement palettes.”

Lower Egyptian/Maadi/Buto Burials

Pre-Dynastic burial

Alice Stevenson of the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford wrote: “In comparison to Upper Egyptian tombs, Maadi/Buto burials in Lower Egypt are simpler and are poorly represented in the archaeological record. These graves were oval pits into which the deceased was laid in a contracted position, sometimes wrapped in a mat or other fabric, with the head usually positioned south and facing east. No collective burials are known, but the single inhumations display minimal differentiation in size and provision. Interspersed amongst the human burials were individual burials for goats and a dog, which were accompanied by some ceramics. [Source: Alice Stevenson, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2009, escholarship.org ]

“Grave goods are scarce, and most burials at Maadi and Wadi Digla were devoid of offerings. Some contained a single vessel, although a minority contained more—the maximum found at Maadi was eight and at Heliopolis ten. Inclusions of other artifact classes within the burials are rare. Aspatharia rubens shells, flint bladelets, gray ore, and malachite pigmentation were documented in a few of the graves at Wadi Digla. One rhomboid palette, an ivory comb, and a single stone vessel were exceptional additions to a few graves in the Wadi Digla cemetery.

“Thus, in contrast to the Naqadan burials, the body at these sites was the primary focus of the grave rather than acting as a foundation around which meanings, relationships, and social statements could be represented by the juxtaposition of several categories of artifacts. This dearth of material is more likely to be a matter of social custom rather than a reflection of the poverty of this society, for the associated settlement deposits displayed evidence for significant amounts of copper, stone vases, as well as examples of locally styled, decorated pottery and anthropoid figures. Therefore, the simpler nature of these burials is not to suggest these communities were any less complex in the social management of death, which may have been conducted away from the cemetery site or in an intangible manner.”

Burial Chambers of the Pyramids

Burial chamber of the Pyramid of Cheops

On what is inside the Great Pyramid in Giza, Dr Aidan Dodson wrote for BBC:“At first, the burial chamber was to be placed deep underground, with a descending passage and an initial room being carved out of the living rock. It seems, however, that it was decided that a stone sarcophagus-not previously used for kings-should be installed. Such an item would not pass down the descending corridor, and since the pyramid had already risen some distance above its foundations, the only solution was to place a new burial chamber-uniquely-high up in the superstructure, where the sarcophagus could be installed before the chamber walls were built. The architects of later pyramids ensured that there was adequate access to underground chambers by using cut-and-cover techniques rather than tunnelling. [Source: Dr Aidan Dodson, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“Two successive intended burial chambers were constructed in the body of the pyramid, the final one lying at the end of an impressive corbel-roofed passage, which seems originally to have been intended simply as a storage-place for the plug-blocks of stone that were made to slide down to block access to the upper chambers after the burial. Corbel-roofing, where each course of the wall blocks are set a little further in than the previous one, allowed passages to be rather wider than would have been felt to be safe with flat ceilings, and are a distinctive feature of the earliest pyramids and tombs of the Fourth Dynasty, to which Khufu belonged. |::|

“The burial took place in that final burial chamber, nowadays dubbed the King's Chamber. An impressive piece of architecture, this granite room was surmounted by a series of 'relieving' chambers that were intended to reduce the weight of masonry pressing down on the ceiling of the burial chamber itself. At the west end of the chamber lay the sarcophagus, now lidless and mutilated. |::|

“It is unclear when the pyramid was first robbed, although some Arab accounts suggest that human remains were found in the sarcophagus early in the ninth century AD. As for what else may have been in the chamber when Khufu was laid to rest, there will have been a canopic chest for his embalmed internal organs, together with furniture and similar items. Examples of such simple, but exquisite, gold-encased items were found in the nearby tomb of Khufu's mother in 1925. |::|

“So-called airshafts, only 20cm (8in) square, leave the north and south walls of the chamber and emerge high up on the corresponding faces of the pyramid. These also were found in the original high-level burial chamber, and seem to have been aimed at particular stars, implying a stellar aspect to the king's afterlife-although as we have seen he was later more closely associated with the sun. Interestingly, the pyramid for Khufu's immediate successor, Djedefre, bore a name that described the king as a 'shining star'.” |::|

Supplies for the After-Life in Ancient Egypt

palm trees

According to the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago: “The tomb-owner would continue after death the occupations of this life and so everything required was packed in the tomb along with the body. Writing materials were often supplied along with clothing, wigs, hairdressing supplies and assorted tools, depending on the occupation of the deceased. [Source: ABZU, University of Chicago Oriental Institute, oi-archive.uchicago.edu ==]

“Often model tools rather than full size ones would be placed in the tomb; models were cheaper and took up less space and in the after-life would be magically transformed into the real thing. The images presented here include a headrest, glass vessels which may have contained perfume and a slate palette for grinding make-up. Food was provided for the deceased and should the expected regular offerings of the descendants cease, food depicted on the walls of the tomb would be magically transformed to supply the needs of the dead.” ==

Items excavated from tombs include include “a triangular shaped piece of bread (part of the food offerings from a tomb) along with two tomb scenes. The latter contain representations of food items which the tomb owner would have eaten in his lifetime and hoped to eat in the after-life. The two tomb scenes show the tomb owners sitting in front of offering tables piled high with bread. The representations of food, along with the accompanying prayers were thought to supply the tomb owner once the actual food offerings stopped.” ==

Ken Johnson wrote in New York Times that the ancient Egyptians believed that life “was only a prologue to the main attraction, the afterlife, and they devoted much of their tremendous creative and technological ingenuity to ensuring that their dead — the wealthy ones, anyway — would have everything needed on the next plane of existence. They pickled the bodies of the deceased, stocked their graves and tombs with food, drink, jewelry, furniture, pets, reading material and whatever else that might come in handy upon awakening in the next dimension." [Source: Ken Johnson, New York Times, March 11, 2010 ***]

Grave Goods in Ancient Egypt

In 2010, the Brooklyn Museum hosted an exhibition called “To Live Forever: Art and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt," which focused on objects for the afterlife and explored all facets of the Egyptian funerary industry. Organized by Edward Bleiberg, the museum's curator of Egyptian art, the exhibition presented more than 100 objects, from massive stone sarcophagus covers and elaborately decorated wooden coffins to statuettes and elegant ink drawings on sheets of papyrus. ***

“One of the exhibition's least prepossessing objects," Ken Johnson wrote in the New York Times, “is a terra-cotta sarcophagus lid molded rather crudely into a cartoonish, bust-length portrait of a man. Made sometime between 1292 and 1075 B.C., it is like the work of an untrained folk artist imitating the kind of deluxe Egyptian artistry that museums have made more familiar. It is included to demonstrate that the quality of a coffin depended on what the family could afford. Just like today, in ancient Egypt professional coffin makers offered a range of options priced according to the cost of material and labor. Clay, painted to resemble royal sarcophagi, was the material of choice for budget-minded customers. [Source: Ken Johnson, New York Times, March 11, 2010 ***]

“Another revealing piece, and a more beautiful one, is an 8 ½-inch-tall figure of a man smoothly carved in lustrous dark wood, from about 1400 to 1336 B.C. It is a particularly lovely example of a shabty (see below).. Rich people had shabties made of precious materials, including wood, which was a rare commodity. The less fortunate had to settle for shabties made of faience, a glazed earthenware...Faience pieces did not necessarily look cheap, however, so rich as well as poor had shabties made from it. Among the exhibition's most striking objects is a weird jade-green faience sculpture less than three inches high representing a dwarf standing with each foot on the head of an alligator and each hand gripping a snake by the neck. Identified as Pataikos or a form of the dwarf-god Bes, this little fellow was put into a tomb to protect the dead.”

Treasures from Tutankhamun’s Tomb

headrest from Tutankhamun's tomb

Robert Partridge of the BBC wrote: “In 1922 the discovery of the virtually intact tomb of Tutankhamun became probably the best known and most spectacular archaeological find anywhere in the world. The small tomb contained hundreds of objects (now housed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo), many richly decorated and covered in gold, that would be needed by the king in his afterlife. [Source: Robert Partridge, BBC, February 17, 2011]

“A Ushabti figure: Tutankhamun's tomb contained 413 Ushabti figures, intended to represent the king and to help him with certain duties in the afterlife. Some are very simple, but others, such as the one here, were carved from wood and are portraits of the king. The figure is shown as a wrapped mummy wearing a gilded crown and holding the royal emblems, the Crook and the Flail. |::|

“The king's mannequin: This unusual mannequin or effigy of Tutankhamun is life-sized and shows his upper torso and head, but without any arms. It is made of wood, covered in plaster and painted, and it is a very life-like representation of the king. The exact use of this figure is not certain, but it may have been used to display Tutankhamun's robes or necklaces and collars. |::|

Gold mask: Found covering the head and shoulders of Tutankhamun's mummy, this is perhaps the most famous Egyptian antiquity ever found, and a splendid example of the art of the goldsmith. Made of solid gold, inlaid with semi-precious stones and coloured glass paste, the face is an idealised portrait of the young king. Two protective animals, the cobra and vulture, are shown on the forehead, and the king wears the Nemes head-dress, the false beard of the gods and a broad inlaid collar. |::|

“The goddess Selket: The king's internal organs were placed in a Canopic Chest, which was enclosed in an elaborate wooden gilded chest, each side of which was protected by a statue of a goddess. |This goddess is Selket, who wears her emblem, a scorpion, on her head. The figure is highly naturalistic, with her arms outstretched to protect the chest and its contents, and her head is inclined slightly to one side. |::|

“Stoppers from the Canopic Chest: The Canopic Chest for Tutankhamun's internal organs was made of a large block of delicately veined and translucent calcite, with four compartments, each sealed by a stopper carved to represent the king. Each compartment contained a miniature coffin holding the organs. Tutankhamun is shown wearing the Nemes head-dress and with the protective cobra and vulture on his brow. |::|

Oldest Egyptian Funerary Boat

In 2012, archaeologists announced that what was originally thought be a wooden floor is in fact the oldest Egyptian funerary boat. The 20-foot boat dates to 2950 B.C. and was found at the cemetery of Abu Rawash, eight kilometers north of Giza, near Cairo. [Source: Eric A. Powell, Archaeology magazine, December 6, 2012]

Eric A. Powell wrote in Archaeology magazine: “Egyptologist Yann Tristant was reading a 1914 excavation report on a First Dynasty (ca. 3150–2890 B.C.) tomb at the elite cemetery of Abu Rawash when he noticed something strange. The author, legendary French archaeologist Pierre Montet, wrote that just north of the mudbrick tomb, or mastaba, he had uncovered a wooden floor. That seemed bizarre to Tristant, of Macquarie University in Sydney, because he knew that no other archaeologists have reported finding wooden floors around mastabas. Sensing a mystery, he directed his team to excavate at the same spot Montet had almost a century before. The hunch paid off and led Tristant to a pit bounded by a brick wall that held the oldest boat found in Egypt.

“It’s clear the boat played some role in the burial ceremonies of the tomb’s owner, a high-ranking official. Tristant uncovered artifacts nearby that point to a lavish funerary feast, including ceramic beer jars and bread molds. Ceremonial boats have been found at tombs at royal cemeteries; they were intended to symbolically carry pharaohs into the afterlife. But since so few boats have been found at nonroyal tombs, Tristant hesitates to speculate exactly what religious function the Abu Rawash vessel served. “It’s a good example of why we must sometimes re-excavate sites,” says Tristant. “I never would have expected to find a boat at a tomb like this.”

Ancient Egyptian Tomb Sculptures

Small statues of the deceased called ushabti (shabtis) were placed in tombs next to the mummy. These were not intended for the public to see or as a memorial. They were a substitute for the person should something happen to the mummy, or they could be offered by the deceased as substitute if he was called on to do something unpleasant in the afterlife.

The sculptures were often made of stone with the understanding that that meant they could last for eternity. If something happened to the mummy the pharaoh's Ka , or vital force, could move into the sculpture. Because they possessed ka, statues were regarded as powerful and even dangerous.

Some tombs contained "reserve heads" made from plaster casts of the mummified head which served the same purpose. The face on the sculpture had to recognizable, lest the ka get confused and inhabit the wrong statue.

Ushabti were also included with the dead to perform the labors of the gods. These were often small exquisite small statues of ordinary people — such as potters, butchers and cooks, performing their daily chores such as rolling dough, cutting meat, kneeling at a harp and working a pottery wheel — that were brought along to perform these duties in the afterlife. Some men brought along carved stone "divine concubines" The sculptures were often incredibly lifelike. The eyes of some statues were inlaid with quartz crystal.


shabati of Khabekhnet and Iineferty

Shabtis were small burial figurines that served like magical servants, doing chores for the deceased in the afterlife. Rich people often had had many shabties. According to an Brooklyn Museum catalog on ancient Egyptian grave goods the wealthy might have a different shabty for every day of the year, “40 shabties were an ideal number to own in the Ramesside Period” because that provided “enough workers for each of the 30 days of the month plus overseers and foremen." [Source: Ken Johnson, New York Times, March 11, 2010]

According to the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago: “During and after the annual flood of the Nile, the population were subject to compulsory labour on state projects such as building and maintenance of the irrigation system. In life it would be possible to avoid this by providing a substitute; in death, mummiform figurines or "Answerers" could serve the same purpose. The Egyptian words for these statuettes (usually called shabtis in English), are ushabti and shawabti. These words are of uncertain origin but may have been derived from the Egyptian word wSb(1) meaning "answer." [Source: ABZU, University of Chicago Oriental Institute, oi-archive.uchicago.edu ]

“The backs of these figurines were inscribed with Chapter 6 of "The Book of the Dead." This spell ensured that if the owner of the shabti was called upon at any time to do any kind of compulsory labour the shabti would respond and perform the duty instead of its owner. The practice of including these figurines in burials started during the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2040-1640 B.C.(2)) when only one was usually included in the burial. The practice continued and by the Third Intermediate Period (ca. 1070-712 B.C.)there were sometimes so many in a burial that the shabtis were put in a special box: the custom had become to have one shabti for every day of the year with 36 overseer shabtis. The practice of including these figurines in burials died out in the Ptolemaic Period (332 B.C.-395 AD).

Henk Milde wrote: “A shabti is a funerary figure that is usually mummiform in shape and originally represented the deceased in his dignified status. Some New Kingdom shabtis, however, are clad in the dress of daily life. Background of the shabti-concept was the need for food that had to be produced in the realm of the dead as well as on earth. There was an ambiguity in function: a shabti represented the deceased and a shabti substituted the deceased. On the one hand it was a means for the deceased tobenefit from the food production, on the other hand it created a possibility to escape from the burdensome labor required for the food production. Whenever the deceased was summoned to cultivate the fields in the hereafter, a shabti was supposed to present itself on his/ her behalf saying, “I shall do it, here I am.” The substitution was secured by an incantation that— after the Middle Kingdom—used to be written on the shabtis themselves. The spell is also known from the Coffin Texts and the Book of the Dead. Towards the end of the New Kingdom, the number of shabtis per burial grew considerably. A total of c. 400 was not uncommon in the Late Period. By then shabtis had become mere slaves. [Source: Henk Milde, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, escholarship.org ]

Definition, Typology and Entomology of Shabtis


Henk Milde wrote: “Shabti is a funerary figure. If confined to statuettes belonging to the tomb equipment , Osirian statuettes buried elsewhere are not to be classified as shabtis. But it is difficult to deny, as a rule, votive figurines from various other sacred places the status of sha(wa)btis, several of them being designated as such. Pumpenmeier (1998) called attention to extrasepulchral shabti- depositories. The oldest occurrence of the word so far dates from an 11th Dynasty tomb, where SAbty is a designation for a member of the household bringing fowl. On coffins of the Middle Kingdom, the spelling SAbtyw is found, seemingly a plural, but constructed as a singular. The etymology of the word has been much discussed. There might be a connection with words for food, like SAbw, SAbt, Sbw, Sbt. [Source: Henk Milde, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, escholarship.org ]

“An interpretation based upon SAbt, “corvée”, turned out to be untenable argues for a derivation from Sbd, a Semitic loanword meaning “stick,” “staff”. In the 17th Dynasty, the variant spelling shawabti turned up. This designation has been connected with the word shawab, “persea tree”. A shawabti, therefore, would be a “statuette made of persea wood.” However, shabtis of persea wood are virtually absent, as Petrie already observed. What is more, the rubric of CT Spell 472 stipulates: “to be recited over a statue of the master as he was on earth, made of tamarisk (jsr) or zizyphus wood (nbs) and placed the chapel of the glorified spirit”. Here, too, shawabti may be derived from Sbd.

“During the late New Kingdom, the word shebti (Sbty) is found, apparently a derivation of the verb Sbj, “to replace”. A shebti, therefore, is a “substitute” for the deceased. “Whereas shabti remained in use, the word shawabti gave way to another spelling. From the 21st Dynasty onwards, we usually read ushebti. The new expression is obviously a folk-etymology: an ushebti (wSbty) was understood as an “answerer” (wSb). In the 21st Dynasty, the word occasionally occurred with an extension: ter-ushebti. The prefix “tr-”qualifies the ushebti as being “diligent.”

“In his study on the Leiden shabtis,Schneider established a general typology starting with an indication of period, material, and iconography, followed by a sequence number of the Leiden Collection. Further information is classified in section and type codes, such as class (Cl.), wigs (W), hand positions (H), implements (I), bags and baskets (B), attributes (A), text position (Tp), and version of the shabti spell (V). Finally, specific data about the object are given.”

Meaning of Shabtis

shabti of Queen Maatkare

Henk Milde wrote: “Shabtis originated from the tomb imagery of the Old Kingdom. Their meaning is ambiguous. A shabti represented the deceased, functioning as a vehicle for the ka-soul in order to receive offerings. And a shabti substituted the deceased, functioning as a servant involved in food production. Dedication of shabtis by relatives or servants was not unusual in the 2nd millennium B.C.. In the 18th Dynasty, these statuettes could also be granted “as a favor by the king.” Since the end of the New Kingdom, the ambiguity was solved in that the individual shabti disappeared in gangs of slaves, supervised by overseer (reis) shabtis. [Source: Henk Milde, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, escholarship.org ]

“Background of the shabti-concept was the need for food that had to be produced in the realm of the dead as well as on earth. Just as the pharaoh imposed conscripted agricultural labor, so did the gods in the hereafter. High officials tried to escape these obligations by a king’s decree (wD nsw). In a similar way, dignified deceased persons resorted to an exonerative text, an incantation that was not only recited but, since the Middle Kingdom, written down as well. The purpose of these texts was to avert the burden of menial labor in the hereafter from the deceased to a personal substitute, eventually to masses of slaves. Activities, however, like plowing, sowing, and reaping were commonly accepted in the iconographical repertoire (Spell 110 of the Book of the Dead in tombs or on papyri). But the issue here was not menial labor that the deceased was obliged to do. Here it was about an aspect of the blissful life in the Field of Offerings to which the deceased willingly committed himself. Therefore, no shabtis appear in this context ; for the same reason these substitutes were not wanted for eating, drinking, and having sex.

“The ancient idea of a ka-statue representing the owner survived in the dedication of so- called “stick”-shabtis by relatives on the occasion of funerary celebrations in or near tomb-chapels and in the votive use of shabtis put in sacred places. In this way the deceased remained present to relatives and stayed in the vicinity of important divine rulers like Osiris (Abydos), Sokar (Saqqara, Giza), and Apis (Serapeum) in whose offering rituals he could partake.”

Development of Shabtis

Henk Milde wrote: “Precursors of the shabtis date from the First Intermediate Period: tiny figures of wax or clay showing the human body as on earth, with legs together and arms by their side. Wrapped in linen, they were placed in little rectangular coffins. The first mummiform statuettes appeared in the 12th and 13th Dynasties. Name and titles occurred occasionally, a (simple) shabti text just in a few cases. Although the rubric of the shabti spell refers to a statue of the master “as he was on earth,” we see the deceased in a sah-status, a dignity acquired after mummification. Originally these figurines seemed to represent the deceased person, although the idea of substitution by a servant existed already. [Source: Henk Milde, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, escholarship.org ]

“After the Middle Kingdom, the shabti phenomenon faded into the background, but it recurred in the 17th Dynasty at Thebes. Most of these shabtis are crudely cut wooden statuettes, so-called “stick”-shabtis, placed in little coffins and often inscribed with a short text. They have usually been found outside the tomb- chamber.

“From the New Kingdom onwards, shabtis generally show an inarticulate body, from which only the head (with wig) protrudes. Often the hands are visible, especially when they hold tools or other attributes. In general, the size varies between a few centimeters and c. 50 cm. One of the largest known statuettes is the shabti of Khebeny, measuring 58.5 cm. Shabtis of Amenhotep III in the Louvre Museum even surpass this giant, one of them measuring 67 cm. Royal shabtis are generally marked by regalia like crowns and nemes-headdresses. An iconographical novelty that came into being in the New Kingdom (1550–1070 B.C.) gave shabtis their characteristic appearance: the statuettes were carved or painted with agricultural tools like hoes, picks, and bags, but also yokes with waterpots and brick molds. Such implements were occasionally added separately as models. Shabtis also grasp attributes like ankh-signs, djed- and tit- amulets, hes-vases, scepters, and pieces of cloth. Occasionally they even embrace a ba-bird, an image recalling the vignette of Spell 89 of the Book of the Dead . Special figures have been found, such as animal-headed shabtis (especially from Apis burials at Saqqara), pairs of shabtis, shabtis reclining on biers, and kneeling shabtis grinding corn

After Amarna, a new type appeared, showing the deceased not as a mummy but in the then fashionable clothing. Towards the end of the New Kingdom, the number of shabtis per burial grew considerably, whereas their size decreased proportionally. The so-called “peg”-shabtis (à contours perdus) also date from this period. The increase in number caused mass production in molds. On the conceptual side, the development was even more drastic, which is reflected in terminology. A ushebti is no longer a familiar servant, but an indifferent slave (Hm) who has “to answer” (wSb) to summons. A slight metathesis in spelling (Swbty wSbty) reflects a considerable change in status. When personal ties fade, responsibility wanes. This may have led to the creation of overseer (reis) shabtis from Dynasties 20 - 25, clad in daily dress and carrying whips to stress their authority. The rare expression tr-wSbty from the 21st Dynasty may confirm this development. For shabtis, being diligent was no longer a matter of course. In an oracular decree, Amun declares that he will see to it that the ter- ushebtis perform their duties for Neskhons. Because it is for her exemption that they were bought. A receipt from the 22nd Dynasty mentions the delivery of no less than 401 ushebtis, “male and female slaves” (Hmw, Hmwt), 365 workers (one for each day), and 36 overseers. It has been suggested that the payment not only compensated the manufacturer but also covered the “wages” of the ushebtis. This view has persistently been contested by Poole. Male and female ushebti-slaves also figure in Spell 166 of the Chapitres Supplémentaires. Since they were bought, they should perform their duties at the right time instead of the deceased whenever he is remembered. Shabtis of this (Third Intermediate) period generally wear a seshed- band around their head. The general decline in craftsmanship was countered by the rulers of the 25th Dynasty. Kushite statuettes are rather thickset figures. Large stone shabtis even recurred.

“In the Saite renaissance, a new standard was developed displaying a characteristic feature of ancient statuary: the dorsal pillar, which could be inscribed with the so-called “Saitic formula” (see below). Overseer shabtis cannot be distinguished any longer. Text-versions, too, recalled the past. They resumed the structure of the Middle Kingdom Coffin Texts. The shabti stands on a pedestal (sometimes maat-shaped). The hands grasp two hoes or a hoe and a pick, as well as the rope of a basket hung over the left shoulder. The face displays a “Greek” smile and is adorned with the long Osirian beard, even in the case of women. Individual shabtis can be male or female (mainly marked by the wig, sometimes also by dress or breasts), according to the persons in question. Sexual differentiation among the depersonalized shabtis of the Late Period reflects the general composition of personnel. From the Persian Period onwards, texts also appeared in a T-shaped arrangement.”


Shabti Spells and Formulae

Henk Milde wrote: “Schneider distinguishes between seven versions of the spell, each with several variants. The oldest version, CT Spell 472, has been found on two coffins from Deir el-Bersha. The text is a compilation of two variants, concluded by a single rubric and introduced (at least in B2L) by a single title, “Spell for causing a shabti to do work for his master in the realm of the dead”. The first variant fell into disuse, the second underwent several adaptations, but had a comeback in the Late Period due to renaissancistic tendencies. [Source: Henk Milde, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, escholarship.org ]

In the Book of the Dead, the spell occurs occasionally, either separately (Spell 6 of the Book of the Dead) or as part of the captionsconcerning the burial chamber (Spell 151 Ai of the Book of the Dead). In the papyrus of Nu, we read: ‘Spell for causing a shawabti to do work in the realm of the dead. To be recited by N: “O these shawabtis, if one counts off the Osiris N to do any work that should be done there in the realm of the dead, and he, indeed, is to obey there in order to act like a man at his duties, then one is counting off in respect of you, at any time on which one should serve, be it tilling the fields, irrigating the riparian lands, transporting by boat the sand of the West (and) of the East, ‘I shall do it, here I am,’ you shall say.” (Spell 6 of the Book of the Dead).’ The idiomatic use of Hwj sDb, “to obey”, has been suggested by Heerma van Voss in a Dutch translation of the text on a shabti in a museum in Leeuwarden. The interpretation of “sand” is quite mysterious. It might be sand from the desert blown over the arable fields that should be removed, or material for building dykes around the fields, or some type of fertilizer comparable to the sebakh used by present-day fellahin. The wording of the spell illustrates that the owner is not playing the part of a landlord demanding statute labor, but that he himself is subject to conscription, for which he is seeking substitution.

“From the 17th Dynasty onwards, the spell appeared more regularly on shabtis themselves. Only a few simple versions are found earlier. During the Middle Kingdom, the inscriptions, if any, were limited to the name (and titles) of the deceased, sometimes introduced by a hetep di nesut formula. This offering formula gave way to the introduction sHD (Osiris) N, “illuminating (the Osiris) N” or “the illuminated (Osiris) N,” found on most statuettes. A variant text has been found on statuettes from Abydos: the “Amenhotep III formula.” Characteristic is the address to the gods at the side of Osiris. They should pronounce the owner’s name in order to secure his share of the evening meals and the offerings at the Wag-festival.

“Principal object of the so-called “Khamuas formula” is the wish to see the sun disk and adore the sun in life. This recalls older formulae under Akhenaten. Most private shabtis of this period, however, provide the conventional wording. In the “town-god formula” the divinity in question is implored to stand behind the deceased. This is represented iconographically by a dorsal pillar, the benben or sun pillar being a manifestation of the town-god. The formula already occurred in the 18th Dynasty, but is often found on the dorsal pillar of Saitic shabtis. That is why the “town-god formula” is also known as “Saitic formula.” On the whole, most shabtis display a very short text, often no more than sHD plus name.”

Material, Manufacture and Storage of Shabtis

Henk Milde wrote: “From the 12th Dynasty to the end of the New Kingdom, statuettes were made of wood, but not exclusively. With the exception of the Second Intermediate Period, there were also stone and faience shabtis. Stone shabtis recurred under the Kushite rulers, whereas the ever popular faience remained in use into the Ptolemaic Period (304–30 B.C.). Other materials were pottery, clay, glass, and bronze. [Source: Henk Milde, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology 2012, escholarship.org ]

“Stone and wooden shabtis were individually cut and carved. Faience figurines were made in molds, after which further details were applied. The finishing touch determined most of the quality. Typical for faience statuettes is their glaze. The shabtis found by thousands in the Deir el-Bahri Caches are renowned for their deep blue glaze. The majority of the Late Period shabtis is green.

“The value of shabtis was dependent on material and quality. According to ostracon IFAO 764, the price for 40 shabtis was one deben . The low price might be an argument for the obtainability of shabtis even for the poor. However, the entire ostracon deals with decoration prices only. The “bill of sale for a set of ushabtis” does not mention a price, unfortunately. Mass production also influenced the storage of shabtis. In the Middle and New Kingdom, individual shabtis were placed, like mummies, in miniature coffins or, like divine images, in little shrines with vaulted lids. Originally the coffins were rectangular, later rishi-shaped and anthropoid. In the Ramesside Period, shabtis were also stored in pottery jars locked with jackal-headed lids.

“With the increase in number of shabtis per burial, they were stored in multiple shrines and eventually stacked in painted boxes. Shabtis have also been found freestanding near the mummy, in holes, or arrayed elsewhere in or in the vicinity of the tomb. They have also been dug out from depositories at other sacrosanct places. From ostracon Turin 57387 may be inferred that shabti box and shabtis were bought together.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, escholarship.org ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Egypt sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Tour Egypt, Minnesota State University, Mankato, ethanholman.com; Mark Millmore, discoveringegypt.com discoveringegypt.com; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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