Death and Burial in Ancient Egypt

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Death and Burial in Ancient Egypt

To every Egyptian death was seen as a desirable transformation, ‘the passage of the true eternal life’ (Guide to The Valley of The Kings page 159, 1996). Death in no instance was considered a tragedy or an end but as a welcomed transition into the Afterlife. As death was of such an importance it was necessary that great care be taken for a smooth transition to immortality, this is a major reason that the Pharaohs contents of the tomb were of such importance. Egyptians emphasis on the importance of rituals, customs and beliefs as well as funerary architecture can be seen clearly in the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamun.

The planning that went into every Pharaohs tomb was extremely complex, as each tomb was significantly different in terms of the tombs layout and wall decorations. The tombs structure and layout had to somehow reflect the formation and projection of the solar star. Wall decorations in the tomb don’t represent the Pharaohs everyday life but that of their Afterlife and the challenges the Pharaoh has to undertake in order to reach the Kingdom of Orisis - land of the Afterlife. So these beliefs are reflected on the style of decorations featured in the tombs from imitations of papurus to elaborate texts painted on the walls throughout the tomb. These sacred texts were taken from great magical religious anthologies of the time that one died, and were regarded to as ‘sacred architecture’ (Guide to The Valley of the Kings page 26, 1996).

Many tombs have been destroyed over the years, but historians have classified tombs into five types, such as the simple pit-graves, Mastaba tomb, Rock-cut chapels, Pyramid tombs and Mortuary chapel tombs. Pit graves were the simplest forms of burial and were more common in the poorer society in Egypt, and were still seen later on in the 20th Dynasty. It consisted of a hole in the ground that was a fraction longer then that of the deceased, and was covered with a number of bricks which were also used to line the walls of the pit. The other more complex type of tomb was that of the Mortuary Chapel tomb which featured later on in the Egyptian tomb development. These were introduced later in the Egyptian tomb development, and represented a grander model tomb then that of the simple pit graves.

These tombs were grand and consisted of a number of rooms and courtyards, tomb walls were usually stoned lined walls and limestone columns. This type of tomb was built below the ground, as usually the chapel was built on the surface and the burial chambers below the ground. Rock cut chapels were more commonly used by Pharaohs and those of the richer society as the rocky regions of Egypt best suited the building of these tombs. The Nile area was rocky and featured many cliffs, so these were excellent locations for the cutting of the tombs directly in the hillside. The most common chapel consisted of a door which lead into a transverse hall, behind which was a corridor that ran straight to the cliff. Over time rock tombs became more elaborate, and became more decorative and narrower as they now ran directly into the cliff, these tombs were the most impressing of all the tombs in Egypt, as they featured grand facades often with pillars and large stairways.

Tombs contained wall decorations, which dealt with the Afterlife and the path the Pharaoh will take to reach the kingdom of Orisis. A royal tomb could be completed within a few months for a simple tomb or for a more larger and complex tomb it varied from six to ten years. Decorations varied for each Pharaoh from elaborate paintings to imitations of papyrus. All texts painted on walls were taken from ‘the great magical religion anthologies of the time such as the Book of the Dead and the Book of the Earth’ (Guide to the Valley of The Kings page26, 1996). These magical and religious texts were drawn on the walls for the deceased to inform, and use as a valuable tool for them to make sure that they had enough knowledge of magical formulas for them to use during the Afterlife and they were also painted in sequence of events.

The New Kingdom royal tombs featured ceiling decorations, which included star maps, which represented the daily birth of the sun. Placing a burial underneath a symbolic symbol was considered of great importance for the resurrection of the body. Texts and drawings on tomb walls contained various colours; each colour used represent Egyptian rituals. Colours such as white represents Silver, Black represented death and eternal preservation and Red represents fire and blood. As a lead up to the star the life of the deceased is painted, including all aspects of the deceased families life.

Before a body was buried the process of embalming took place for seventy days. Historian Herodotus tells of three grades of mummification that depended upon the amount of money the deceased had. The most expensive procedure was the embalming which resembled the god Osiris. The ritual took place usually within seventy days and a contract was drawn up between the embalmer’s and the deceased family, which specifies the amount of time the embalming procedure will take place. The body was then placed on a wooden table and was purified by washing the body in a solution of Nutron. The brain was removed from the nasal cavity, and the abdomen was cut and all organs were removed and then purified with aromas. Once the organs were removed they were placed into jars and placed inside the tomb. The body is then stuffed with straw, sawdust, mud or linen; this assists in retaining the deceases bodies shape and is also wrapped with linen and bandages.

Egyptian rituals and beliefs also played an extremely important part in the lead up to a deceased burial, the instillation of the burial and its tombs content takes place outside the tomb. The transport of the body to the tomb took form of a ritual procession that normally began on the East bank of the Nile River. After crossing the river to the west the body was placed on a sledge and drawn by oxen to the tomb. Close to the mummy stood two women who normally were used to impersonate the diving mourners Isis and Nephthys who represented the wife and sister of the god Osiris followed by mourners of the deceased. The last mourner in the procession burnt incense and sprinkled milk at the procession as they wound their way to the tomb. Ritual dancers, known as Muu and a priest who honours the deceased now greet the procession. The ancient ritual of the opening of the mouth now takes place; this is the most significant part of the burial traditions as the purpose of this ceremony is to restore the mummy and their power of speech, sight and hearing.

The body has now completed the first part of Egyptian rituals. When the deceased approaches the Entrance of the tomb a priest who impersonates the god Anubis stands the body in an upright position. The priest now touches the mouth of the decease3d with ritual instruments, which now restores their senses. The next stage is the offering of clothes, ointments and offerings of food so the deceased can take them into the Afterlife. The mummy is now ready to be placed into it’s burial chamber, after the door is sealed all footprints around the tomb is swept away and the last rites are read.

The stages leading up to the burial of the deceased was an integral part of the Egyptians beliefs and rituals, as the Egyptians regarded the dead as being very much alive, living in their tombs like they had previously lived in their homes. This link between the house and the tomb was very important, the tombs chapel was commonly referred to ‘the house of eternity’ (Death In Ancient Egypt page76, 1982). Outside the chapel it was common to see lushes gardens, and tombs surrounding as Cemeteries were planned to look like miniature cities like the one at Giza.

All the above beliefs and rituals were clearly uncovered in November 1922 by British archaeologist Howard Carter when he discovered the intact tomb of king Tutankhamun. Analysis of Tutankhaman’s mummy reveals that he was between the ages of eighteen and years old when he died. The Kings life is still a mystery to this day as historians such as Carter believes that it’s almost impossible to say whether the King was a victim of illness, accident, assassination or was physically frail like his previous heirs when he passed away. Historians identified the month of his death to be that of January by analysing the types of fruit and flowers such as the cornflower which were buried with him. The cornflower usually reaches maturity in March, and from these findings it is believed that ‘Amenophis III last son died some time in January 1343’ (Tutankhamun and the Discovery of the Tomb page 158, 1972).

Tutankhamuns tomb features a simple design, which is typical of the Eighteenth Dynasty. The tomb features starts, corridors, and chambers. The king tomb has a number of rooms such as the Annexe, Antechamber, Burial Chamber and the treasury and all of these rooms featured significant decorations. King Tutankhamens tomb was so unique as the treasures inside the tomb lay undisturbed to robbers, and during excavation Carter recovered over three thousand five hundred articles such as grand elegant furniture, statues, jewellery, and shrines that were placed in his tomb to help him through to the Afterlife.

The kings death like other Pharaohs was a grand affair, and was mourned by all of Egypt as ‘Horus has rejoined the Globe’ (Tutankhamun and the Discovery of the Tomb page 161, 1972). Generally after a Pharaohs death there was a three-month interval between his death and his burial. During this time the complex ritual of embalming took place. The embalming of a Pharaoh was known as the ‘House of Vigor’ (Tutankhamen: Life and Death of a Pharaoh page 163, 1965) in which the Pharaohs body was purified and all impurities were removed. After the final phase of the mummification ritual takes place, the Pharaoh now passes into eternity, ‘You live again, you live again for ever, here you are young once more forever’ (Tutankhamun: Life and Death of a Pharaoh page 168m 1965).

When King Tutankhamuns body was bandaged, each layer contained a treasure such as golden objects. When the Kings body was unwrapped over 143 treasures were found such as pendants, amulets and golden fingerstalls. Like the treasures wrapped in between the bandages the tomb itself was flowing with treasures, ‘Nearly everything was made of precious material, and gold…this covered a wide assortment of articles necessary to ensure eternity for the dead’ (Tutankhamun and the Discovery of the Tomb page 70, 1972). All of the Kings rooms inside the tomb featured significant decorations. The Antechamber held the Tuta royal throne, which is one of the best known objects, found inside the tomb. This throne is engaged with wood with sheets of gold and its back is covered with a scene of the Pharaoh and his wife Ankhesenamun.

The burial chamber features the first wooden coffin and the Kings mummy. The scenes painted on walls show King Tutankhamun with his Ka at the ceremony of the ‘opening of the mouth’ (The Discovery of the Tomb Tutankhamun page 37, 1977) and his successor Ay. His burial bay the ‘red quartzite sarcophagus’ (The Discovery of the Tomb Tutankhamun page 39, 1977) coffin had five coffins, the first to the third were anthropoid wooden coffins, the forth was golden and the fifth was his mummy. The King Tutankhamuns burial was the same as any Pharaoh and followed all rituals and beliefs as well as mummification principles. The only difference was that the King was so young at the time of his death and that till this day no other tomb has been uncovered that all items inside the tomb are still intact.

It can be seen that Death and Burial in Egypt was of enormous importance within the Egyptian society especially when it was concerning someone of higher status like that of a Pharaoh. Egyptians believed in the Afterlife and this played an important part in reinforcing the rituals and beliefs of death in Egyptian society as death was not believed to be the end but the beginning of ones life. This is why rituals and beliefs as well as architecture and decorations of tombs were emphasised and carried out in the light of ones death. These cultural beliefs have made the Egyptians most fascinating for the time and effort they put into the preparations of ones death. Pharaohs deaths such as King Tutankhamuns were of most importance to Egyptian society as all of Egypt was involved in the preparation of the King to the Afterlife, though his death resembled like many other Pharaohs which can be seen in the wondrous treasures revealed in the excavation of his tomb.

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