1-888-834-1448

Egypt: What Egyptians Took to the Afterlife


What Egyptians Took to the Afterlife

by Jimmy Dunn


There are more than a few similarities between the ancient Egyptian religion, and our modern religions of today. However, a belief that you "could take it with you" is a prime difference. In fact, they thought the dead could take a considerable number of items with them.


What Egyptians Took to the Afterlife

In many cases, the king who were buried in theValley of the Kings, as well as high officials and others began stocking their tombs with good long before their death. Our knowledge of what they attempted to take with them comes mostly from the intact tomb ofTutankhamun, but there is an abundance of other evidence, including remnants from the tombs of Tuthmosis III (KV 34),Amenophis II (KV 35), Tuthmosis IV (KV 43), andHoremheb (KV 55). Other tombs have provided a few items, and in some tombs such as Sethos II (KV 15), we even have wall illustrations of items placed in his tomb.

In many cases, the king who were buried in the Valley of the Kings, as well as high officials and others began stocking their tombs with good long before their death. Our knowledge of what they attempted to take with them comes mostly from the intact tomb of Tutankhamun, but there is an abundance of other evidence, including remnants from the tombs of Tuthmosis III (KV 34), Amenophis II (KV 35), Tuthmosis IV (KV 43), and Horemheb (KV 55). Other tombs have provided a few items, and in some tombs such as Sethos II (KV 15), we even have wall illustrations of items placed in his tomb.

In the Valley of the King, burials usually included the mummified body of the king, which was placed in a series of coffins nested one inside the other and placed in a stone sarcophagus. The sarcophagus was most often surrounded by gilded wooden shrines. But there were also many other items, including magical items to assist the dead king, and a variety of mundane objects for his use.

The mummy itself was prepared with various items to protect and sustain the king in the netherworld. While some funerary items were very beautiful, items such as the mask had specific purposes. The face mask, a sculpture of the king's own face, allowed him to be recognized by the deities in his death. Other items found on the mummy included various amulets, such as heart amulets and vulture amulets placed around his neck, all of which were to protect the king from specific threats.

What Egyptians Took to the Afterlife

Coffins in the Valley of the Kings, at least from the New Kingdom on, were mostly anthropoid, taking the shape of the kings body. This was thought to provide the king with an alternative body for the deceased spirit. In many cases, various figures of the goddesses Isis and Nephthys, the four sons of Horus and other deities were added to the decoration of the coffin walls in order to provide a ring of protection for the king. Another type of mummy case from the Second Intermediate Period is the rishi, or feather coffin. It was named for the feather pattern which decorated the coffin's lid. The feather pattern represented the mummy as a bird ba, or soul of the deceased. Such designs were often overlayed with goddesses such as Isis, Nephthys, Nut and Nekhbet with enfolding wings. This type of pattern continued to be used into the New Kingdom of Egypt, often in combination with the anthropoid shaped coffin.

What Egyptians Took to the Afterlife

From the time of Hatshepsut on, stone sarcophagi were used in burials. During the 18th dynasty, they were made of quartzite. The earliest of these resembled the coffins of the Middle Kingdom, but with the upper surface of the lid carved into a royal cartouche. Later, the corners of the sarcophagi were rounded, and the entire structure took on the shape of a cartouche. Around the middle of the 16th Dynasty, granite was favored for the sarcophagi, and beginning with Tutankhamun, the sarcophagi took on a more box like shape resembling a shrine, with cavetto cornice running around their tops. During the 19th Dynasty, the sarcophagi were much larger and constructed of red granite, though some of these had anthropoid inner sarcophagi off calcite.

During the mummification process, many of the body's organs would be removed, including the brain, liver, lungs, stomach and intestines. The heart remained, but the other organs were placed "in storage". We call the vessels which held the organs "canopic jars", though this is really a misnomer due to phrase coined by early antiquarians. The organs were placed in four jars, and during the early New Kingdom, the jars were then placed into a canopic chest. The canopic chests were at first made of quartzite, like the king's sarcophagi, and later were made of calcite. The canopic chest took on many of the aspects of the sarcophagi, including decorations of protective goddesses. The canopic chest was sometimes placed into a niche at the foot of the sarcophagi, or could also be stored elsewhere within the tomb. During the 20th dynasty, the canopic chest was abandoned in favor of individual jars. During all of this time, the jars themselves usually had stoppers designed in the shape of human heads.

What Egyptians Took to the Afterlife

Most royal tombs contained a wide variety of ritualistic objects. Often they were placed in upright, resin-coasted wooden shrines. In Tutankhamun's tomb, the most obvious items were the life size ka-statues that guarded the sealed entrance to the burial chamber. Other items notable from Tutankhamun's tomb include various statues of the king walking, harpooning, or on the back of a leopard. There were also some 28 statues of gods, includingAtum, Duamutef andSakhmet, along with more obscure deities. It is probable that other tombs were likewise equipped.

The tomb of Sethos was said to have contained as many as 700 to 1,000 shabti figures. These are "magical" fieldworkers for the next life, often produced of stone, faience or wood. Many tombs held for fewer Sethos, but for example, we know that Tutankhamun was buried with 413 shabti figures. In some cases, model hoes and other implements and tools for the shabti figures were also included.

Another class of ritualistic object was the Osiris beds. These are wooden trays in the form of the god, Osiris, which were planted with seeds of grain They were expected to germinate once the tomb was sealed, and were symbolic of the continuation of life after death.

There were any number of models buried along with many kings. While the early pyramid builders buried full size boats, at the Valley of the Kings, models of royal boats were included in the tomb, along with full size chariots and even couches. We believe these were a symbolic means of transporting the dead king. But even models of armies were buried with the king, along with full size knives and swords, and we can only imagine the purpose of these for the afterlife.

In fact, though we probably know more about religion than the common Egyptian household, much of the reasoning, or belief system responsible for such burials is obscure. Other ritualistic objects placed in royal tombs included faience forelegs, amulets and amuletic vessels, "magic bricks" and any number of other items. Magic bricks were surmounted by divine images, and rested in niches along the walls of the burial chamber.

Along with the ritualistic items, many, many ordinary items were also buried with the king. These were as varied as the kings interests and many items might vary from tomb to tomb. These items assured the king that he would live with the same level of comfort in the afterlife that he did before his death. Common to many tombs were clothing and shoes for the king, fine jewels, perfumes and cosmetics, games, musical instruments, writing materials, heirlooms, fine tableware made of precious metals, pottery and glass, and even food items including preserved meats, grain, fruits as well as wine and beer. Furniture was also provided, including chairs, beds, boxes, chests baskets and lamps.

It should be noted that, particularly around the Valley of the Kings, common burials included many of the same types of items, though poorer in nature, as the royal burials. Obviously, the ancient Egyptians believed that they could take along their wealth into the afterworld. In fact, for them it was a necessity to be well prepared to due just that, with all the essentials at hand.

Last Updated: November 14th, 2011

Who are we?

Tour Egypt aims to offer the ultimate Egyptian adventure and intimate knowledge about the country. We offer this unique experience in two ways, the first one is by organizing a tour and coming to Egypt for a visit, whether alone or in a group, and living it firsthand. The second way to experience Egypt is from the comfort of your own home: online.