Ancient Egyptian Burial Practices at the British Museum
What to do on an overcast Tuesday afternoon in London? Well, if you are low on cash, but want high on culture, a trip to the British Museum might be right up your alley! The museum is massive and I’m a bit of an oddball in that I’m one of those sad people who like to take their time to read most of the little informational plaques that tell you about the objects behind the glass. This makes quick trips to the museum a miserable experience for me. Fortunately, I can keep going back to the British Museum again and again since I now live in London. If you have the time, take it to see this magnificent exhibit on Ancient Egyptian life and funerary rites. The British Museum is free, so you can go repeatedly and not break the bank while still immersing yourself in ancient culture.
I spent all of this visit in the Egyptian Room. The first part of which is dedicated to the lives of the not-so-glamorous Egyptians we rarely get to hear about: farmers, and commoners. There are tools, shoes, and inscriptions explaining life on the Nile as lived by those who didn’t get ornate burial tombs, or pages in history books.
The exhibit spans the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms, as well as the later Ptolemaic period. There are many beautifully inscribed coffins and several well preserved mummies.
A Brief Background to Ancient Egyptian Funerary Practices…
Egyptian funerary practices spanned from approximately 2686 BC to 395 AD. Funerary practices and beliefs were important to Ancient Egyptian society. The journey from our world to the afterlife was carefully planned and orchestrated. The gallery at the British Museum shows the evolution of these rituals and beliefs during this vast period.
Pre-Dynastic and Early Dynastic Egypt
During the Pre-Dynastic period, the earliest graves were simple with little fanfare or ornamentation. The number of grave objects gradually increased and bodies were placed in the graves in a fetal position facing east for the rising sun and west, in the direction of the land of the dead.
In the Early Dynastic period, Egyptians began to build tombs called Mastaba, which means “Eternal House”. Wealthy and common people were buried in these structures. Grave goods increased at this time and included: furniture, weapons, decorative jars and cosmetics for the Afterlife. Egyptians started carving their names into gravesites. These slabs of stone were known as Stela.
The Old Kingdom
Coffins were now commpnplace during the Old Kingdom and the first king’s pyramids were built. Mummification was also standard by this point. Mummification stemmed from the Egyptian belief that the body of the deceased needed to be preserved in order for their souls to enjoy the Afterlife. The body would be reunited with the soul before being presented to Osiris, the God of the Dead. They believed if the dead were improperly buried, they would come back to haunt the living. Coffins were longer and bodies were no longer laid out in a fetal position but fully extended. The body of the deceased was set on its left side and often faced north-south in the tomb.
The First Intermediate and Middle Kingdoms
The interior of coffins were painted with colourful images that depicted the objects the dead were bringing with them into eternity. During the First Intermediate Period, there were often spells from the Coffin Texts inscribed in these tombs to protect the dead. Initially, these texts came from earlier religious writings known as the Pyramid Texts which were reserved for royalty but came to be used by common people as well. Many of these spells were later copied into the Book of the Dead, known to Egyptians as the “Book of Coming Forth by Day” an Ancient Egyptian funerary text that was used later in the New Kingdom. Grave items during this period inlcuded: food offerings, jewellery, wooden model boats, and Shabti (also known as Ushabti). Shabti were funerary figurines that were believed to carry out tasks or act as replacement workers for the dead in the Afterlife. They also acted as servants for the deceased in eternity because the deceased could be called upon by Osiris to do work in the Afterlife. Although they made their first appearance in the Middle Kingdom, they were not regularly buried with kings until the 18th Dynasty. The earliest Shabti was made for King Amhose I (1550-1525 BC). From King Amenhotep onward, the inclusion of royal shabtis increased steadily. Tutankhamun had 400 in his tomb! The shabti were made of wood, stone and occasionally metal and could be very simple in design or extremely intricate. The inclusion of wooden boats in burials was common from the end of the Old Kingdom.
The New Kingdom and Ptolemaic Period
Elite burials moved away from Pyramids and into rock cut tombs in the Valley of the Kings. The inclusion of daily items decreased as special items were made specifically for use in the Underworld. Religious events dominated in tomb decoration replacing the everyday scenes that had been popular since the Old Kingdom. The Antropoid coffin shape became standard and the image of the Goddess Nut was a common scene depicted on coffins. During the Ptolemaic Period, Classical and Egyptian styles fused and the imagery of both cultures appeared in tombs.
Ancient Egyptians often mummified animals to join the departed on their journey into the Afterlife. They were mummified to provode comfort to the dead in the Afterlife, to provide food, as sacrificial offerings to a particular God or lastly, as representations of specific Gods, like Bast, the cat Goddess. Bulls were sacred to several Gods and were mummified and buried with wealthy Egyptians. The worship of the Apis Bull cult originated in approximately 800 BC. Bulls were symbols of strength and fertility to the Ancient Egyptians and in some cases, bulls were believed to be oracles capable of communicastion with the Gods. Mummies like this bull were found in burial sites like Saqqara. The mummification process for bulls was elaborate and not far from that used on humans. They were buried in stone tombs along with amulets, jewellery and shabti.
This is an exhibit well worth a visit if you’re in London and looking for something relatively cheap and fun to do.
Follow us on Twitter: @historyancient
Like us on Facebook: History of the Ancient World
History of the Ancient World Instagram:@historyoftheancientworld
Follow the British Museum on Twitter: @britishmuseum
Like the British Museum on Facebook: The British Museum
For more information about your next trip, please visit the British Museum website: www.britishmuseum.org