Tombs of Ancient Egypt


Ancient Egypt is known for its magnificent and beautiful tombs. The most well known are within the pyramids in the Valley of the Kings or the tombs from the Age of the Pyramids (during the Old Kingdom, 2650 to 2150 B.C. spanning from 3rd to 6th Dynasty). While these elaborate tombs were quite ornate, the bodies of people from the lower castes met with humbler ends.

The tombs that were built can be classified by the status one had while alive. The poorest people were buried in shallow graves scooped out of the sand with a straw outer covering. These graves were common in predynasty. Many of these bodies were wrapped in linen and found in a fetal position. There would be some grave goods beside the body, but what was left was “a pot or two, a little meat, or perhaps a necklace of shells.”[9] Sometimes the poorer people would place the deceased “close to the graves of the rich, so that their relatives could share in the abundant grave goods left for the upper classes.”]

The tombs of Lower Egypt were located at the downstream end of a wadi, (a dry streambed) “which represented the downstream end of the the Nile River.”[17] These tombs were lined with mud bricks that surrounded the wooden and reed tomb structure. The wood and reed would also be painted. Then a low reed fence would surround the tomb. The tomb would sometimes have three to five mummies, so it was hypothesized these were family members who were buried together. In the case of royal families, these other members may have been of the royal court. ]

The Upper Egypt styled tombs were located at the upstream end of the wadi. These were tombs cut into subsoil bedrock. An example found in the necropolis, was a tomb that was excavated which “had a long narrow trench with an L-shaped hole cut into the middle of the floor. There was not any superstructure associated with it. Surrounding this stone tomb were animal burials, including hippopotamuses, elephants, crocodiles, baboons, cattle, goats, sheep, and dogs. Some of the animals were mummified and probably had civic-ceremonial significance.”[17] The stone cut tombs, even though they may not have been elaborate and not decorated, are indicative of a higher class status in the Egyptian society.

The descriptions of the stone tombs are similar to Mastabas, “rectangular, flat-topped stone-built structures that covered deep shafts leading to the burial of the tomb owner”. [9] Nobles and courtiers were found buried in Mastabas within the royal cemeteries.[9] Some of these tombs were more expansive in that their tombs would also have additional shafts or tunnels which would lead to other chambers for family members or valuables,.[9] Many of these tombs would have a serdab, a small chamber that would house a statue made to resemble the deceased. There would also be statues of the deceased at different ages of his life, and there could even be statues of the deceased’s family or slaves in this chamber.[9] This design was also carried on in the great pyramids with royalty.

The royal court or nobility were buried in royal cemeteries, but outside of the royal cemeteries of Giza, Sakkara, and Abusire some nobility chose to be buried in stone cut tombs cut into the cliffs facing the Nile. [9] There were large rooms which were likely tomb chapels. These had been cut out so ritual practitioners or possibly family could visit to say prayers or leave offerings. The walls of the chapel would be covered in reliefs, paintings, or hieroglyphics that would “depict the daily life of the nobles, and show the fertile fields which would grow their food for all eternity.”[9] The coffins would also have similar text or hieroglyphics carved out on the surface. Usually the text would be spells from the Book of the Dead , which was meant to protect and guide the deceased through his journey to the afterlife.[32] “During the Sixth Dynasty, some nobles chose to be buried near their hometowns, and not in the royal cemeteries.” This is believed to have happened because there was a decline in the power and prestige of the kings during this time.[9,17]

At Giza, archaeologists Dr. Zahi Hawass, Dr. Mark Lehner and the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities [17] discovered two incredible cemeteries that had mummies and tombs of the builders of the great pyramids. The lower cemetery has more than six hundred tombs that are believed to belong to the hard-laborers of the pyramids. Their tombs were built of mud-brick and stone rubble and appeared to have been for the less important workers. The mummies in these tombs had showed signs of hard labor, which were “degenerative arthritis in the lower spinal columns and in the knees. Men, however, seem to have lived on average, five years longer than women, dying at about thirty-five.” [9]

The upper cemetery had forty-three tombs that housed “the more important, better-paid craftsmen and overseers.”[9] These tombs resembled mastabas, stone and flat-topped, with a rectangular bench like construction, but on a smaller scale. There were even small or mini pyramids that looked like beehives, that were built from the left over debris from the larger pyramids.[9] Dr. Hawass found the tomb of Inti-shedu, a skilled carpenter of the pyramids, and he actually had good quality statues of himself made for his afterlife in his tomb. These statues were to represent his ka. These skilled craftsmen had a valued place in society, which is evident from the tombs, mummies, and artifacts found in this cemetery. “In principle, the King of Egypt owned all the land, and the labour of all workers, so a tomb was always called a gift from the king. A fine tomb and its contents could be rewards given by the king for work well done, or to acknowledge exemplary conduct.”[9]

The first royal pyramid built was for the pharaoh Zoser, in 2680 B.C. at Saqqarah.[17] This pyramid was a six step pyramid, a precursor to the flat sided pyramids at Giza. The pyramids at Giza were built during the Old Kingdom, which housed the tombs of the king and his family members and slaves. The main structures within Giza are The Pyramid of Khufu, the largest, the Pyramid of Khafre (second largest) , the Pyramid of Menkaure, his successors, and the three smaller pyramids of the Queens. The are hundreds of rock-cut tombs that flank these main pyramids, mostly comprised of courtiers. The Pyramid of Khufu has a series of internal passages and chambers and Khafre’s pyramid is almost as large as Khufu, but “the internal structure is much simpler, with a single tomb chamber at the base of the structure.”[17] The Pyramid of Mendaure is much smaller than Khufu and Khafre, and “its construction marks the end of the era of massive pyramid construction.”[17]

Schematic drawing of successive pyramid construction stages of the Pyramid of Zoser. [33]
Note the underground chamber for the tomb. The structure (a) was the top of the mastaba and the chamber directly below the center would have been the pharaoh’s burial chamber. The additional chambers were most likely to house objects of value, or to use in burial rituals for the pharaoh in his afterlife. This pyramid was designed by Imohtep, and it underwent a number of stages of construction before completion. [34]

The Pyramid of Khufu was more complex due to the series of passages leading to several chambers. It was customary to have the King’s chamber directly in the center and below the ground level of the pyramid. This was the case with the pyramid of Khufu, but the entrance was set at 17 m (55ft) above the ground level and was only intended to be used once for the burial. (Special scaffolding was used and then dismantled after Khufu was placed in his tomb.) The main entrance then branched into the Descending Passage which then went downward below the ground level into the bedrock until it reached the Subterranean Chamber. The Descending Passage spanned about 18 m (60 ft) from the main entrance, and this passage then branched out to the Ascending Passage, that was found with three large granite blocks sealing the passage. The Ascending Passage also lead to the Queen’s Chamber, but this was not actually the Queen’s Chamber after investigation. The belief was it was the chamber that housed the statue of Khufu, for his ka to reunite after death. The Queen’s chamber also intersected with the end of the Grand Gallery, another passageway at 47m long and 8.5 m high. It is believed this passage held some of the larger blocks that were used to block the passages after the pharaoh’s funeral. There is another tunnel that comes downward through the core of the pyramid and bedrock that ends where the Descending Passage and Subterranean Chamber meet, that was believed to provide air for the builders of the pyramid.[35] Lastly, “at the upper end of the Grand Gallery, another level corridor runs south into the King’s Chamber, a simple, rectangular room faced entirely with red granit. All that remains in the room now is a granite sarcophagus in which King Khufu was buried, near the western wall.”[34] There openings to shafts that run from the King’s and Queen’s chamber up to the exterior of the pyramid, that have been blocked, which might have also been air passages. Even with these deterrents robbers were still able to get inside and steal all the valuables.