The Significance Behind 6 Ancient Egyptian Tomb Features

Wikkimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Wikkimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikkimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

What we conventionally call "Ancient Egypt" spans about 3,000 years. Consider that the Great Pyramids (26th century BCE) were further back in time from Cleopatra (1st century BCE) than she is from us. While the customs stayed surprisingly consistent throughout the millennia, evolution was inevitable. We tried to capture the overall meaning and general development of these ritualistic tomb elements, but keep in mind that each kingdom had its own nuanced take.

1. False Door

Composed of stelae (pillars), the false door provided a link between the living and the ka, or soul, of the deceased. Although the "door" was actually an impenetrable slab, it was not simply symbolic. Ancient Egyptians believed that it acted as a literal doorway through which the spirit of the dead would regularly enter the tomb to partake of the food offerings left by surviving family members. The door, which gave the impression of depth through a series of concentric doorjambs, was inscribed with the deceased’s name and title, as well as a litany of offering formulas. The living were supposed to place regular helpings of food on the threshold of the false door, but it's more likely this practice was carried out by mortuary priests. In the event that no living family members were around to tend the tomb, the inscriptions on the false door would continue to address the spirit’s needs.

2. Serdab

Looking into the serdab. Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This small, enclosed chamber built into Old Kingdom (2686–2181 BCE) tombs contained a beautiful statue of the pharaoh with a small hole or two on the northern wall. The statue was not decorative—in fact, the chamber was built with a wall so even the priests and familial visitors to the tomb would never see it once the king was buried. Rather, it acted as a physical vessel for the King's ka to inhabit while witnessing the funerary rituals through the holes in the serdab wall. While priests burned incense and read from spiritual texts, the king's spirit would manifest in the statue.

3. Canopic Jars

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This long-standing tradition—stretching from the Old Kingdom through the Ptolemaic Period (332–30 BCE)—was part of the mummification process. Just like the body was preserved for use in the afterlife, so were the essential internal organs. The intestines were placed in a falcon-headed jar to be protected by Qebehsenuef. The stomach was guarded over by Duamutef, represented by a jackal-headed jar. Hapy, with the head of a baboon, looked after the lungs. And the human-headed Imsety guarded the liver. The heart was left inside the body and the brain was discarded. The four jars (not five—sorry, Brendan Fraser) were made of pottery, limestone, or wood and placed in canopic shrines within the tomb.

4. Animal Mummies

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A study from earlier this year found that many of the animal mummies from ancient Egypt were actually fakes. But this doesn't mean that ritualized murder and mummification of millions of animals—cats, dogs, birds, bulls, even bugs—wasn't a major part of the funerary traditions. A 2004 study found that the level of care and quality of materials were comparable to those used for humans. But why? The mummified animals fell into two main groups: pets and votive offerings. A high-status individual might have his pets mummified to accompany him to the afterlife. But many of the animals were mummified as offerings on behalf of a living relative.

"Animal mummies were votive gifts. Today you'd have a candle in a cathedral; in Egyptian times you would have an animal mummy,” Dr. Campbell Price, curator of Egypt and Sudan at Manchester Museum, told the BBC about the recent study. The particular animal often corresponded with the god whose favor was being solicited. Cats were seen as the incarnation of Bastet, the Apis bull represented Osiris, hawks were associated with Horus, and ibises symbolized Thoth.

5. Coffin Texts

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The Coffin Texts, dating to roughly the 22nd century BCE, represent an adaptation and reinterpretation of the earlier Pyramid Texts, which are believed to have been composed circa 3000 BCE, making it the oldest-known sacred text. Both contain incantations relating to the afterlife, but where the Pyramid Texts were reserved for kings, inscribed on the inner walls of their tombs, the Coffin Texts afforded all Egyptians (who could afford a coffin, that is) a chance at continued existence in the afterlife. The funerary spells were inscribed on the coffin itself, requiring the more dangerous hieroglyphs to be altered so as not to impart their vileness to the physical remains of the deceased. There are descriptions of what the afterlife will look like, protective spells for the deceased's ba and ka (components of the soul), and blessings for the dead.

The Coffin Texts are believed to be the first written example of the idea that each individual will be judged after death by his or her deeds during life before a council of gods, and that entrance to the eternal afterlife is contingent upon this judgment. Many of the Coffin Text spells become the basis for chapters in the Book of the Dead, which codifies all the various funerary texts from ancient Egypt.

6. Shabti Figurines

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These male or female figurines, shown mummified, represented anonymous workers who at first were stand-ins for the deceased when Osiris called for laborers—as the pharaoh did annually in the land of the living—and later simply slaves of the tomb owner. Each shabti was shown with specific agricultural tools to till the land and each came inscribed with a formula that would require them to "answer"—which is what shabti means—when the deceased called.

As time went on, the custom was to have more and more shabti, if you could afford it. By the New Kingdom (1550–1069 BCE), anyone of means had not only a shabti for every day of the year, but also an overseer for every 10 shabti—over 400 total figurines.