Death & Afterlife in Ancient Egypt

Egyptian cultural beliefs on death and afterlife are represented by some of Egypt’s most famous monuments, from the pyramids of Giza to Tutankhamun's golden mask...

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  1. Burial Practices in Ancient Egypt: An Overview
    • Egyptians Funerary Practices
    • Predynastic Burial Practices
    • Early Dynastic Burial Practices
    • Pyramids: Old Kingdom Burial Practices
    • Valley of the Kings: New Kingdom Burial Practices
  2. Mummification
    • Research on mummification
    • Mummification process
  3. Beliefs in the Afterlife
    • Beliefs in the Afterlife during the Old Kingdom
    • Beliefs in the Afterlife during the Middle Kingdom
    • Beliefs in the Afterlife during the New Kingdom
  4. References & Credits

Some of Egypt’s most famous monuments, from the pyramids at Giza to the Tomb of Tutankhamun, are directly linked to death and the afterlife. Many of these monuments to the dead were so important that entire industries and towns developed around them, including the town of Deir-el-Medina which was inhabited by the tomb builders of the neighbouring Valley of the Kings.

Beyond monumental architecture, mummification is perhaps the best-known practice associated with the ancient Egyptian beliefs regarding death and the afterlife, with the mummified remains of ancient Egyptians found in museums across the world today.

But why was the afterlife so important to the ancient Egyptians? How did they develop such complex burial practices? And what evidence is there for this in the archaeological and historical record? How can we use this evidence to interpret ancient Egyptian attitudes towards death and the afterlife?

1- Burial Practices in Ancient Egypt: an Overview

As with most things in ancient Egypt, it is important to understand that attitudes towards death and the afterlife changed significantly over the years.

Fortunately, access to archaeological evidence, and in some cases written records, means that we can understand some of these complex practices.

Another crucial distinction is between royal and non-royal burials. Again, this changed over time but many of the practices which we think of as Egyptian such as mummification and monumental tombs were sometimes reserved for royal, and in some cases elite individuals, rather than the ‘ordinary’ Egyptians — at least in practice, if not ideologically.

Egyptians Funerary Practices

However, because of the monumentality of many of these royal and elite tombs, they have been the subject of much more study and research than the scarcer remains of the rest of society.

Early Egyptologists, transfixed by the splendid grave goods interred with elite members of society, were often more interested in the artefacts within the graves than the graves themselves. In more recent years, studies of non-elite cemeteries have become more extensive, but there is still much more research to be done.

Another limitation is that a significant number of graves, both elite and non-elite, have been plundered in Egypt, both in Antiquity and in more recent times. Yet others have suffered from earlier ‘archaeological’ research which emphasised the objects that burials contained over the subtler archaeological evidence researchers today value.

While there are examples of non-elite cemeteries, or parts of cemeteries, some Egyptologists argue that a significant amount of burials from the lower classes are missing from the archaeological record, even taking into account problematic past research and preservation issues1Baines and Lacovara 2002.

As well as helping us to understand more about attitudes towards death and the afterlife, many ancient Egyptian burial practices give interesting clues on multiculturalism in Egypt at the time.

This includes finding non-Egyptian objects in certain tombs, as well as more direct influences on burial practices themselves. During the Roman period for example, traditional mummy masks were sometimes replaced with so-called ‘mummy portraits’, which were very different, and arguably more realistic, representations of the deceased. As such, understanding conceptions of death and the afterlife through inferences based on the surviving material remains can offer unique insights into social, cultural, and political dynamics at play.

When trying to decipher beliefs concerning death and the afterlife from these material remains, Egyptologists can look at a number of different things, including:

  • The grave itself
  • The body, sometimes mummified
  • Coffins or sarcophagi
  • Burial goods and offerings
  • Textual sources

We can also begin to understand how beliefs in death and the afterlife changed over time. For example, in some time periods the superstructure of a tomb and associated inscriptions on the walls were emphasised, while in others grave goods were more important2Taylor 2010.

Although their construction changed over time, throughout most of Egyptian history, tombs were composed of a burial chamber underground for the coffin and burial goods, and a superstructure or chapel where offerings could be made, and the funerary rites performed3Dodson 2016 (Figure 1.1).

Example of an ancient Egyptian style tomb - Egyptian Burial Practices - Planet Archaeology
Fig. 1.1: Example of an ancient Egyptian style tomb with a superstructure above ground, and a burial chamber underground

In the Old and Middle Kingdoms this superstructure typically took the form of a flat mudbrick structure referred to as a ‘mastaba4Bard 2008. After the Old Kingdom, high quality grave goods are found across a range of burials, not just royalty. This is often attributed to economic growth5Baines and Lacoyara 2002 and there is evidence that many of the objects found in graves were created for this sole purpose6Taylor 2010, Dodson 2016.

Predynastic Burial Practices

Burials are crucial to the study of the Predynastic period as they are often the only remaining archaeological evidence from the time7Stevenson 2009. Although settlements do also survive, they have not been the subject of as much archaeological scrutiny8Hendrickx and Brink 2002. In fact, it was the excavation of cemeteries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries which led to the identification of the Predynastic period in Egypt9Petrie et al. 1896, Petrie and Mace 1901.

Although at first the excavators thought they had discovered the remains of a distinct culture10Petrie 1896, 1901, Challis 2016!

Predynastic burials tended to be relatively simple, shallow graves in which contracted bodies were placed into oval, and later rectangular, pits11Dodson 2016.

These developed into more extensive graves, sometimes built out of mudbrick and containing grave goods, often ceramics12Stevenson 2009, Dodson 2016.

These pottery remains have become crucial for the study and dating of Predynastic remains in Egypt. Flinders Petrie first developed this so-called ‘sequence dating’, establishing a chronological order for different types of pottery found in the burials based on their form or decoration13Petrie 1899, Dodson 2016 (Figure 1.2).

Types of Egyptian Prehistoric Pottery - Egyptian Burial Practices - Planet Archaeology
Fig. 1.2: Petrie’s ‘Commonest Types of Prehistoric Pottery’ published in 1901 (Petrie 1901)

The chronology of much of the Predynastic continues to be based primarily on evidence from cemetery sites14Hendrickx and Brink 2002.

At some sites in Egypt, there is evidence for separation between elite and non-elite cemeteries which may reflect shifting social boundaries and the existence of local rulers, which would soon lead to the rise of the Pharaohs. This includes larger tombs, sometimes lined with mudbrick and even painted decoration15Kemp 2005.

Early Dynastic Burial Practices

The burials of the first rulers of Egypt can be found at the archaeological site of Abydos in Middle Egypt16Dodson 2016 (Figure 1.3). Abydos is significant in its extensive mortuary landscapes, and one of the only places in Egypt which has evidence of continuous use as a cemetery site until the Islamic Period17O’Connor 2009, Effland 2014.

Egypt - Location of Abydos - Egyptian Burial Practices - Planet Archaeology
Fig. 1.3: Egypt - Location of Abydos (Oriental Institute, University of Chicago)

The importance of the site is directly linked to the burial of these early rulers in an area to the west of the site called the Umm-el-Qa’ab18Dodson 2016 (Figure 1.4). This is the Arabic for ‘mother of pots’ named after the numerous pottery fragments which litter the entire area.

Plan of Abydos Umm-el-Qaab - Egyptian Burial Practices - Planet Archaeology
Fig. 1.4: Plan of Abydos showing the location of the Umm-el-Qa’ab (adapted from O’Connor 2009)

Although there is evidence for earlier elite burials, the Umm-el-Qa’ab is also where all of the rulers of the 1st Egyptian Dynasty are buried. Their bodies were placed in subterranean chambers made of mudbrick, or sometimes stone19Bestock 2008, likely covered by an artificial sand mound20Dreyer 1991 (Figure 1.5).

Early Dynastic Tomb at the Umm-el-Qa’ab - Egyptian Burial Practices - Planet Archaeology
Fig. 1.5: Reconstructed Early Dynastic Tomb at the Umm-el-Qa’ab (© Chloë Ward)

Engraved stelae — stone tablets — found nearby mean they can be associated with specific rulers21Engel 2008. Surrounding, or placed near, each of these tombs were a series of smaller so-called ‘subsidiary graves’, containing individuals who are likely to have been buried at the same time as the King or Queen22Petrie 1900, O’Connor 2009.

As well as these tombs, each is likely to have had an associated mudbrick funerary enclosure in another part of Abydos known as the North Cemetery23O’Connor 1989 (Figure 1.6).

Although only 10 of these have been found by Egyptologists so far24Bestock 2008, O’Connor 2009, and only one — that of the last ruler buried at Abydos, Khasekhemwy — is still standing today.

Fig. 1.6: Mudbrick Enclosure at Abydos - North Cemetery (© Chloë Ward)

The others have been identified through excavation, not only by the ruins of mudbrick walls but in the existence of another set of subsidiary burials surrounding each of the enclosures25Petrie 1925 (Figure 1.7). These were likely interred at the same time around an empty rectangular space26Wengrow 2006.

North Cemetery and the subsidiary burial of Djet - Egyptian Burial Practices - Planet Archaeology
Fig. 1.7: Plan of the enclosures in the North Cemetery and the subsidiary burial around the enclosure of Djet (adapted from O’Connor 2009 and Petrie 1925)

It is still unclear what the exact purpose of these enclosures may have been. The empty space may have been used in funerary rites and the enclosures themselves seem to have been intentionally dismantled after their use27Bestock 2009, O’Connor 2009.

The subsidiary burials around both the tombs and the enclosure are somewhat mysterious. From their excavation it is clear that each row of graves was constructed at the same time — a single ditch dug out separated by mudbrick divisions28Petrie 1925 (Figure 1.7).

This suggests that all the individuals were buried at the same time, likely with the deceased king or queen. As this practice was discontinued in later periods and there are no written records attesting to it, Egyptologists can only speculate as to its importance for now.

Some have suggested that servants or courtiers were buried as part of the funerary rites, potentially for political reasons or to prevent the assassination of the ruler. Based on a later practice of including small human figurines, called shabtis, in tombs to serve the deceased in the afterlife29Kemp 1966, it is possible that the burial of these individuals is a precursor to this practice (Figure 1.8).

Fig. 1.8: Display of Shabtis at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology (© Chloë Ward)

The number of subsidiary burials included with each of the rulers varies significantly, perhaps diminishing over time. But, one ruler, Djer, has as many as 595 associated subsidiary burials across both the Umm-El-Qa’ab and enclosure in the North Cemetery30Petrie 1925.

This tradition of rulers having both a tomb and an associated structure or space for performance or funerary practices, is something which is also found in later periods. Many tombs and pyramids also had associated mortuary temples31Bestock 2008 (Figure 1.9).

Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir-el-Bahari - Egyptian Burial Practices - Planet Archaeology
Fig. 1.9: Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir-el-Bahari (© Chloë Ward)

While no subsequent rulers of Egypt were buried at Abydos, the site continued to be used as a significant mortuary landscape across several cemeteries. This may have included individuals from all over Egypt.

Part of the reason for Abydos’s continued popularity is that the burials at the Umm-El-Qa’ab came to be associated with the tomb of Osiris, the god of the afterlife32Engel 2008. The site has clear archaeological evidence of maintenance over the centuries with a main processional route through the site being kept clear well into the Roman Period33Richards 2005 (Figure 1.10).

Processional route at Abydos, a natural wadi - Egyptian Burial Practices - Planet Archaeology
Fig. 1.10: Processional route at Abydos, a natural wadi (dried riverbed) (© Chloë Ward)

That being said, even as some burial practices changed there seems to have been a continued preference to be buried near the Umm-El-Qa’ab, rather than having a more lavish and expansive tomb further away. As such, there is much evidence at Abydos for later tombs cutting into earlier ones, and individuals buried in relatively shallow graves34Naville et al. 1914.

This, however, is a prime example of the understanding of past societies which archaeologists can derive from haphazard or destructive practices in Antiquity.

Pyramids: Old Kingdom Burial Practices

Royal burials in the Old Kingdom change significantly with Djoser, the first Pharaoh of the Third Dynasty, and the first to be buried in a Pyramid (Figure 1.11). Nevertheless, similarities with the Early Dynastic can be seen, and the pyramid is surrounded by a mudbrick wall similar to the enclosures at Abydos35Bestock 2008, O’Connor 1991.

Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara - Egyptian Burial Practices - Planet Archaeology
Fig. 1.11: Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara (© Chloë Ward)

The first Pyramid was not so different in construction to the mastabas used by Kings previously, and in the Old Kingdom by the elite, and was in effect constructed by expanding an original mastaba, giving the pyramid its discreet ‘steps’36Lauer 1976, Bard 2008.

However, this still represents a significant shift in royal burial practices, now focused on permanent stone monumental superstructures37Malek 2000. The emphasis on monumental construction and interior decoration of the Pyramids means that grave goods seem to have declined in relative importance during the Old Kingdom38Baines and Lacovara 2002.

The construction of Pyramids was just as important to the economy of Egypt as it was to the Pharaoh’s burial39Malek 1986. There is evidence for extensive ‘Pyramid Towns’ being built near pyramids to house the many workmen, scribes, and artists necessary for their construction40Kemp 2005 (Figure 1.12).

Fig. 1.12: Giza Pyramids (© Chloë Ward)

Royal use of Pyramids was discontinued by the New Kingdom, although they continued to be used by other members of Egyptian society41Dodson 2016.

Valley of the Kings: New Kingdom Burial Practices

The New Kingdom again saw a significant shift in royal burial practices which moved almost entirely to the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens in Upper Egypt (Figure 1.13). This was a completely distinct location from where non-royal Egyptians could be buried42Baines and Locavora 2002.

Map of Egypt - Valley of the kings - Egyptian Burial Practices - Planet Archaeology
Fig. 1.13: The Valley of the Kings is located to the West of the Nile, near modern day Luxor (Oriental Institute, University of Chicago)

Many of these tombs are series of extensive underground chambers and tunnels which can be found all over the valley carved into the local rock (Figure 1.14).

Tomb of Seti I in the Valley of the Kings
Fig. 1.14: Sketch plan of the tomb of Seti I in the Valley of the Kings (based on Bard 2008 and Reeves and Wilkinson 1996)

Most are beautifully decorated and would have taken many years to construct. Unfortunately, many of these tombs were looted in Antiquity but they likely contained considerable offerings and grave goods for the Pharaoh’s continued existence in the afterlife43Price 2016.

The only example of an un-plundered royal tomb is that of Tutankhamun, famously discovered by Howard Carter in 1922. This provides an idea of the type and amount of material which may have been buried in each of the royal tombs.

However, it is possible that the amount of material crammed into Tutankhamun’s tomb was due to his young death, and he was given the tomb originally intended for someone else44Wilkinson 2014. The riches may have been a way to compensate for the lack of extensive decoration in his rushed tomb (Figure 1.15).

Wall fragment from the tomb of Nabamun - Egyptian Burial Practices - Planet Archaeology
Fig. 1.15: Decorated wall fragment from the tomb of Nabamun (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

The Valley of the Kings also shows continued maintenance of the surroundings and some of the tombs, in some cases in an attempt to stop plundering45Taylor 2016. It seems that the local priests even chose to move many of the royal mummies at some point to a hidden cache in order to protect them and ensure they were not destroyed by tomb robbers46David 2014. This cache was discovered in the 1880s and contained over 40 mummies47David 2014, most of which would originally have been deposited in the surrounding tombs.

The construction of tombs in the Valley of the Kings was supported by the so-called ‘workmen’s village’ at Deir-el-Medina near the valley48Bierbrier 2003 (Figure 1.16).

Fig. 1.16: Views of the ‘Workmen’s Village' at Deir-el-Medina (© Chloë Ward)

This settlement was excavated primarily by the Institut français d’archéologie orientale in the first half of the 20th century49Bruyère 1924, although research is still ongoing50Gobeil 2015.

From written and archaeological evidence51Demarée 2016, we know it was inhabited mainly by the many different individuals needed to build the nearby royal tombs52Bierbrier 2003. As well as the settlement, there are a number of tombs on the site which attest the skills of local workmen when building their own tombs as well as those of the royal and elite Egyptians53Gobeil 2015 (Figure 1.17).

Reconstructed tombs at Deir-el-Medina - Egyptian Burial Practices - Planet Archaeology
Fig. 1.17: Reconstructed tombs at Deir-el-Medina (© Chloë Ward)

2- Mummification

Mummification is perhaps one of the best-known practices performed by the ancient Egyptians. To some extent the practice seems to have been used as far back as the Predynastic period, when bodies were often buried in small pits in the sand, sometimes wrapped in reeds or skins (Figure 2.1).

Naturally mummified mummy - Mummification - Planet Archaeology
Fig. 2.1: Naturally mummified mummy (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

While the bodies were not mummified, as such, the sand dried them out in a process which is sometimes referred to as a natural mummification, although scientific analysis has suggested that the resins and other materials, later used in mummification, were already in use by this time54Jones et al. 2014.

Before the mummification process was fully developed bodies were sometimes covered in a form of plaster upon which some of the individual’s features could be depicted55David 2008. In order to slow decomposition some of the internal organs began to be removed in the Old Kingdom and the bodies were desiccated using natron56a naturally occurring mixture of sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate, sodium chloride and sodium sulfate and treated with various resins57David 2008.

Research on Mummification

There has been an extensive amount of research conducted on mummified human remains throughout the years. In the early days of Egyptology this often involved unwrapping the bodies in order to find the various amulets wrapped in the bandages and learn about the embalming process58Riggs 2016.

While there is some evidence of detailed note-taking during these ‘unwrappings’ or ‘unrollings’, many took place in public59Moshenka 2014 and were a popular spectacle in the 19th century above serious scientific endeavours60Stienne 2019.

This was not the only way that mummified human remains captured the public interest and they were used for all sorts of things, from medicine to paint — known as ‘mummy brown’ — and fuel for trains61Woodcock 1996, Elliott 2017!

Modern advances mean that it is no longer necessary to physically unwrap mummified remains in order to study them62Taylor and Antoine 2014. Technology such as CT scanning allows for digital unwrapping with little to no damage63Panzer et al. 2019.

However, many still question the ethics of such intervention. Nevertheless, they allow Egyptologists to find out much about the mummification process, the associated rituals, and even about the individuals themselves with modern bioarchaeological methods64Aufderheide 2003, David 2008, Nystrom 2018.

Mummification Process

The mummification process changed over the years, and some aspects of it are still open to speculation to this day. Some of the differences may be due to the individual being buried, the type of tombs, and where someone was being buried. This also directly affects the preservation of mummies which survive well in the dry desert environment but not in the more humid Nile Delta.

As well as the mummified bodies themselves, there are a number of classical sources which described the mummification process, notably described by Herodotus in his Histories (c. 500 BC). Herodotus details65Herodotus, Book 2, The Histories the process as first removing the brain through the nostrils with a metal tool, followed by the removal of the organs through a person’s side which is then filled with various ointments. The body is then placed in natron, a mineral, and dried out for seventy days. After this the body was wrapped in linen and placed in a sarcophagus, or series of sarcophagi.

While invaluable, historical sources such as these significantly postdate the origins of the mummification process itself. Archaeological evidence suggests that the description by Herodotus is more or less correct, although some of the process may have been more complex66Taylor 2010, and there may have been different options depending on price or personal choice. Various amulets were often placed on the body before it was wrapped, or within the wrappings themselves67Taylor and Antoine 2014 (Figure 2.2).

Egyptian Amulets - Mummification - Planet Archaeology
Fig. 2.2: Examples of Egyptian Amulets (CC Metropolitan Museum of Art and Cleveland Museum of Art)

There is also evidence that wrappings were sometimes placed inside the body as well to preserve a more life-like image68David 2008. The removed organs were placed in four boxes, or jars, referred to as canopic jars and normally placed in the grave69David 2008 (Figure 2.3).

Canopic Jars - Mummification - Planet Archaeology
Fig. 2.3: Canopic Jars (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

The four jars contained the liver, lungs, intestines, and stomach70Dodson 2016. The mummification process continued to evolve into the Third Intermediate Period, where the process reached its most perfected state71Taylor 2000.

Depending on the tradition at the time, mummified bodies were either placed in rectangular coffins (Figure 2.4) or, from the New Kingdom, in an anthropomorphic (human shaped) sarcophagus72Conney 2015 (Figure 2.5).

Coffin of Mindjedef -
Fig. 2.4: Old Kingdom Coffin of Mindjedef (CC Metropolitan Museum of Art)

These were often decorated or inscribed on both the interior and the exterior (Figure 2.5).

Coffin of Nesykhonsu - Mummification - Planet Archaeology
Fig. 2.5: Coffin of Nesykhonsu, Third Intermediate Period (CC Cleveland Museum of Art)

Depending on the wealth or importance of an individual, there could be several coffins, and the body may also have a ‘mummy mask’ depicting the deceased73Taylor 2000 (Figure 2.6).

Mummy mask of Khonsu - Mummification - Planet Archaeology
Fig. 2.6: Mummy mask of Khonsu (CC Metropolitan Museum of Art)

In later periods, particularly the Ptolemaic and Roman, mummification was still practiced but the mummy masks evolved into more realistic forms, sometimes made of plaster or replaced by wooden paintings, known as mummy portraits74Gschwantler 2000. This represents a unique mix of Graeco-Roman and Egyptian traditions: a Greek style painting but functioning as the earlier mummy masks did, placed over the head of the body75Gschwantler 2000 (Figure 2.7).

Mummy portrait of a woman - Mummification - Planet Archaeology
Fig. 2.7: Mummy portrait of a woman (CC Getty Museum)

3- Beliefs in the Afterlife

Ancient Egyptian beliefs in the afterlife are a complex subject and again shifted significantly over time.

Beliefs in the Afterlife during the Old Kingdom

Early notions of the afterlife seem to have been reserved primarily for the Pharaoh and it is unclear whether other Egyptians were also included in this version of life after death. Certainly, during the Old Kingdom there is little evidence for religious texts inscribed or included in the burials of Egyptians other than those inscribed on the walls Kings’ tombs76Allen and Der Manuelian 2005, and named ‘Pyramid Texts’ after their location77Hornung 1999.

These contain citations in both the first person, to be spoken by the deceased, and others addressing the deceased which may have been spoken by priests during the burial78Allen and Der Manuelian 2005. The construction of the tombs themselves matches the written texts which reflect the Pharaoh’s journey from the burial chamber, through the ante-chamber to exiting the pyramid79Leprohon 2008.

Beliefs in the Afterlife during the Middle Kingdom

During the Middle Kingdom texts were often inscribed directly onto coffins, whether royal or not. Some were similar to the earlier Pyramid texts, but also included additional spells and warnings for the deceased embarking on their journey80Leprohon 2008 (Figure 3.1).

Coffin text inside the coffin of Khety - Egyptian Beliefs in the Afterlife - Planet Archaeology
Fig. 3.1: Coffin text inside the coffin of Khety (CC Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Unlike the Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts, Coffin Texts are extensively found in non-royal burials and it is unclear if this is linked to a change in beliefs81Hornung 1999, Callender 2000, or simply in practices82Smith 2009. This shift is also seen in the archaeological record, with increased burial goods for non-royals, with the phenomenon sometimes referred to as the ‘democratisation of the afterlife’83Smith 2009.

Some Egyptologists have suggested that this indicates a shift in beliefs, with non-royal Egyptians now able to reach an afterlife previously reserved for the Pharaoh84Allen 2006. However, this idea is based almost entirely on the lack of evidence for Pyramid Texts in non-royal tombs during the Old Kingdom85Hays 2010: an absence of evidence, rather than an evidence of absence.

Equally, more recent evidence suggests that Pyramid Texts were sometimes inscribed on some of the grave goods interred with non-elites, rather than the walls themselves, which may explain their apparent absence in tombs other than those of the Pharaohs86Lecland and Labrousse 2006.

This, combined with the emphasis on royal burials in previous archaeological research, could better explain this absence than necessarily a difference in beliefs for different strata within ancient Egyptian society87Richards 2005, Taylor 2010. It is also possible that cost was an issue, with most Egyptians unable to afford the more monumental tombs and lavish grave goods that elites enjoyed88Baines and Locavora 2002.

Based on some of these texts, Egyptologists have been able to interpret aspects of the ancient Egyptians belief in the afterlife, and how to access it. Crucial to this is the belief in humans being composed of three different elements (Figure 3.2):

  • The ‘ba’ — similar to the notion of the soul, which contains an individual’s personality
  • The ‘ka’ — a person’s life force
  • The living body.
Statue of a Ba, represented as a bird with a human head - Egyptian Beliefs in the Afterlife - Planet Archaeology
Fig. 3.2: Statue of a Ba, represented as a bird with a human head (CC Metropolitan Museum of Art)

At the moment of a person’s death, the ‘ka’ was separated from the body and, in order to access the afterlife, the ‘ba’ had to leave the body and be reunited with the ‘ka89Bard 2008. This would allow the deceased to enter ‘Duat’ the world of the dead. At night the ‘ba’ would return to visit the body in the tomb90Assmann 2005.

Later texts and tomb decorations describe or depict some of the complex challenges of entering the land of the dead.

The living continued to play a crucial role in the survival of the deceased in the afterlife, particularly through bringing them sustenance91Taylor 2010. This is why the tombs and mummification were so important, ensuring continued survival in the afterlife.

There are also examples of letters to the dead, written by relatives asking for various favours92Wente 1990, Donnat 2016, which suggests that it was believed that they could continue to affect events in the world of the living. These ‘Letters to the Dead’ are found on various types of material, from papyrus to stelae and figurines, but most commonly on ceramic vessels93Troche 2018 (Figure 3.3).

vessel inscribed with a letter to the dead - Egyptian Beliefs in the Afterlife - Planet Archaeology
Fig. 3.3: Vessel inscribed with a letter to the dead (UC16244) - Petrie Museum (CC University College London)

Beliefs in the Afterlife during the New Kingdom

From the New Kingdom onwards there is evidence for many of the funerary texts written on papyrus and placed in tombs (Figure 3.4). Although each is unique, and would likely have been commissioned by the deceased, they provide an insight into the ancient Egyptian beliefs of accessing the afterlife.

Papyrus of Ani - Egyptian Book of the Dead - Egyptian Beliefs in the Afterlife - Planet Archaeology
Fig. 3.4: Papyrus of Ani showing the weighing of the heart in the centre and Ammet on the far right (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

Depicted in most Books of the Dead, and sometimes depicted in funerary scenes in the tombs is one of the most important stages of reaching the afterlife. Although there is evidence of some of the practices depicted in earlier Coffin Texts94Stadler 2008. This judgement scene is often referred to as the ‘Weighing of the Heart’ in which the deceased heart is placed on a scale and should not weigh more than a feather of Maat95Taylor 2010 in order to enter ‘Paradise’ or the ‘Field of Reeds’. Maat was the goddess of justice and balance96Wilkinson 2003, and this ceremony was crucial to surviving the afterlife. Failure lead to the devouring of the heart by the deity or demonic creature, Ammet, and destruction of the soul97Wilkinson 2003 (Figure 3.5).

Ammet on the Papyrus of Ani - Egyptian Book of the Dead - Beliefs in the Afterlife - Planet Archaeology
Fig. 3.5: Ammet on the Papyrus of Ani right (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

Ancient Egyptian beliefs in death and the afterlife changed over time and this is visible in both written and archaeological records. Despite this evidence, many questions remain over some of these beliefs and their related evidence in the archaeological record. Nevertheless, the material remains reflect much more complex practices and influences than simply a desire to be remembered for all eternity.

References

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Allen, James P. and Der Manuelian, Peter. (2005). The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature.

Allen, James P. (2006). The Egyptian Coffin Texts, Volume 8: Middle Kingdom Copies of Pyramid Texts. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Assmann, Jan. (2005). Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. (translation David Lorton).

Aufderheide, Arthur C. (2003). The Scientific Study of Mummies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Bestock, Laurel. (2009). The Development of Royal Funerary Cult at Abydos: Two Funerary Enclosures from the Reign of Aha. Wiesbaden: Harrasowitz Verlag.

Bierbrier, Morris. (2003). The Tomb-Builders of the Pharaohs. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.

Callender, Gae. (2000). The Middle Kingdom Renaissance (c.2055–1650BC). In: Shaw I. (ed.), The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, pp. 137–171. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Challis, Debbie. (2013). The Archaeology of Race: The Eugenic Ideas of Francis Galton and Flinders Petrie. London: Bloomsbury.

Conney, Kathlyn. (2015). Coffins, Sarcophagi, and Cartonnage. In: Hartwig M. (ed.), A Companion to Egyptian Art, pp. 269–291. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

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Credits

Author: Dr Chloë Ward

Illustrations (unless otherwise stated): Chloë Ward

INTRODUCTION

Photo: Painted mummy bandages. Photograph (CC) User:Marco Almbauer / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain.

SECTION 1: Burial Practices in Ancient Egypt: an Overview

Photo: Relief from the Chapel of the Overseer of the Troops Sehetepibre.
Period: Middle Kingdom | Dynasty: Dynasty 13 | Date: ca. 1802–1640 B.C. | Geography: From Egypt | Medium: Limestone, paint | Dimensions: H. 30.5 cm (12 in.); W. 42.5 cm (16 3/4 in.); Th. 10.6 cm (4 3/16 in.) | Credit Line: Rogers Fund, 1965 | Accession Number: 65.120.1 | Metropolitan Museum. Creative Commons (CC0 1.0)

Fig 1.2: Petrie’s ‘Commonest Types of Prehistoric Pottery’ published in 1901 (Petrie 1901).

Fig 1.3: Location of Abydos – Map of Ancient Egypt – Oriental Institute, University of Chicago.

Fig 1.4: Plan of Abydos showing the location of the Umm-el-Qa’ab (adapted from O’Connor 2009).

Fig 1.5: Reconstructed Early Dynastic Tomb at the Umm-el-Qa’ab. Photo: Chloë Ward.

Fig 1.6: Mudbrick Enclosure at Abydos – North Cemetery. Photo: Chloë Ward.

Fig 1.7: Plan of the enclosures in the North Cemetery and the subsidiary burial around the enclosure of Djet (adapted from O’Connor 2009 and Petrie 1925)

Fig 1.8: Display of Shabtis at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College London. Photo: Chloë Ward.

Fig 1.9: Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir-el-Bahari. Photo: Chloë Ward.

Fig 1.10: Processional route at Abydos, a natural wadi (dried riverbed). Photo: Chloë Ward.

Fig 1.11: Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara. Photo: Chloë Ward.

Fig 1.12: Giza Pyramids. Photo: Chloë Ward.

Fig 1.13: The Valley of the Kings – West of the Nile, near modern day Luxor – Map of Ancient Egypt. Oriental Institute, University of Chicago.

Fig 1.14: Sketch plan of the tomb of Seti I in the Valley of the Kings (based on Bard 2008 and Reeves and Wilkinson 1996).

Fig 1.15: Decorated wall fragment from the tomb of Nabamun (Thebes).
Period: New Kingdom | Dynasty: Dynasty 18 | Date: ca. 1350 B.C. | Geography: From Egypt | Medium: Plaster, paint | Dimensions: H. 98 cm; W. 115 cm; Th. 22 cm | Accession Number: EA37977 | British Museum. The Trustees of the British Museum. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Fig 1.16: Views of the ‘Workmen’s Village’ at Deir-el-Medina. Photo: Chloë Ward.

Fig 1.17: Reconstructed tombs at Deir-el-Medina. Photo: Chloë Ward.

SECTION 2: Mummification

Photo: Mummy of Ukhhotep, son of Hedjpu.
Period: Middle Kingdom | Dynasty: Dynasty 12 | Date: ca. 1981–1802 B.C. | Geography: From Egypt, Middle Egypt, Khashaba excavations, 1910-11; Probably from Meir, Tomb of Ukhhotep | Medium: Human remains, linen, mummification material, painted and gilded cartonnage, obsidian, travertine (Egyptian alabaster) | Dimensions: l. 196.2 x w. 50.8 x d. 33 cm (depth measured at nose of mask) | Credit Line: Rogers Fund, 1912 | Accession Number: 12.182.132c | Metropolitan Museum. Creative Commons (CC0 1.0).

Fig. 2.1: Naturally mummified mummy
Period: Late Predynastic – Naqada II | Date: ca. 3400 B.C. | Geography: Africa: Egypt: Upper Egypt: Gebelein | Medium: human tissue | Museum Number: EA32751 | The British Museum. The Trustees of the British Museum. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Fig. 2.2: Examples of Amulets
Wedjat Eye Amulet | Period: New Kingdom | Dynasty: Dynasty 18 | Reign: reign of Amenhotep III | Date: ca. 1390–1353 B.C. | Geography: From Egypt, Upper Egypt, Thebes, Malqata, Palace of Amenhotep III, MMA excavations, 1911–12 | Medium: Faience | Dimensions: L. 1.3 cm (1/2 in) | Credit Line: Rogers Fund, 1911 | Accession Number: 11.215.139 | Museum excavations, 1911–12. Acquired by the Museum in the Division of Finds. | Metropolitan Museum of Art. Creative Commons (CC0 1.0)

Amulet of a Ram-Headed Deity | Period: Third Intermediate Period | Dynasty: Dynasty 22 or later. | Date: c. 945-715 BC. | Medium: Gold | Dimension: overall: 2.5 x 0.6 x 1.2 cm. | Credit line: Gift of Mr. and Mrs. J. H. Wade | Accession number: 1916.664 | The Cleveland Museum of Art. Creative Commons (CC0 1.0)

Fig 2.3: canopic jar
Period: 25th Dynasty | Date: ca. 744–656 B.C. | Geography: Africa: Egypt | Medium: sycomore fig wood | Height: 31.10 centimetres | Museum Number: EA9562 | The British Museum. The Trustees of the British Museum. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Fig 2.4: Sarcophagus of Mindjedef
Period: Old Kingdom | Dynasty: Dynasty 4 | Reign: reign of Khafre or Menkaure | Date: ca. 2520–2472 B.C. | Geography: From Egypt, Memphite Region, Giza, Eastern Cemetery, Mastaba G7760; Pit B (burial chamber), Harvard-Boston MFA excavations, 1929 | Medium: Granite | Dimensions: L. 236.9 × W. 96.5 × H. 104.1 cm. | Credit Line: Rogers Fund, by exchange, 1954 | Accession Number: 54.80a, b | Translation: Offering which the king gives (and) Anubis (presiding) over the divine booth, (and) burial in the western desert as a possessor of reverence before the great god, (to) the sealer of the King of Lower Egypt, the guardian of Nekhen (Hierakonpolis), the king’s son, Mendjedef | Metropolitan Museum of Art. Creative Commons (CC0 1.0).

Fig 2.5: Coffin of Nesykhonsu.
Period: Third Intermediate Period | Dynasty: late Dynasty 21 (1069-945 BC) to early Dynasty 22 (945-715 BC) | Date: ca 1069 BC – 715 BC | Geography: Egypt, Thebes | Medium: Gessoed and painted sycamore fig | Dimension: 70 cm | Gift of the John Huntington Art and Polytechnic Trust | Accession number: 1914.714 | Cleveland Museum of Art. Creative Commons (CC0 1.0).

Fig 2.6: Mummy Mask of Khonsu
Period: New Kingdom, Ramesside | Dynasty: Dynasty 19 | Reign: reign of Ramesses II | Date: ca. 1279–1213 B.C. | Geography: From Egypt, Upper Egypt, Thebes, Deir el-Medina, Tomb of Sennedjem (TT 1), Egyptian Antiquities Service/Maspero excavations, 1885–86 | Medium: Painted wood and cartonnage | Dimensions: h. 48 cm (18.7/8 in) | Credit Line: Funds from various donors, 1886 | Accession Number: 86.1.4 | Excavated by Gaston Maspero for the Egyptian Antiquities Service, 1885-1886. Sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by the Egyptian government, 1886. | Metropolitan Museum of Art. Creative Commons (CC0 1.0).

Fig 2.7: Mummy Portrait of a Woman
Attributed to the Isidora Master (Romano-Egyptian, active 100 – 125) | Period: Romano-Egyptian | Date: A.D. 100 | Geography: Egypt (Place Created) | Medium: Encaustic on linden wood; gilt; linen | Dimensions: 48 × 36 × 12.8 cm (18 7/8 × 14 3/16 × 5 1/16 in.) | Object Number: 81.AP.42 | Inscription(s): ICIΔOPA (“Isidora”) | Getty Museum. Creative Commons (CC0 1.0).

SECTION 3: Beliefs in the Afterlife

Photo: Model Sailing Boat Transporting a Mummy
Period: Middle Kingdom | Dynasty: Dynasty 12 | Reign: Amenemhat II, late | Date: ca. 1900–1885 B.C. | Geography: From Egypt, Memphite Region, Lisht South, tomb B (Djehuty), South Area, between tomb and south enclosure wall, MMA excavations, 1930–31 | Medium: Wood, paint | Dimensions: L. 80.6 cm (31 3/4 in.); W. 21.2 cm (8 3/8 in.); H. to top of mast 54 cm (21 1/4 in.) | Credit Line: Rogers Fund, 1932 | Accession Number: 32.1.124a | Metropolitan Museum of Art. Creative Commons (CC0 1.0).

Fig. 3.1: Dismantled Coffin of Khety
The lid, made of two planks pegged to battens, is inscribed (like the lower part of all four sides) with religious spells known as Coffin Texts in a cursive script. | Period: Middle Kingdom | Dynasty: mid to late Dynasty 12 | Reign: Amenemhat II and later | Date: ca. 1919–1800 B.C. | Geography: From Egypt, Memphite region, Lisht South, South Khor,Tomb A, Shaft 5301 (burial of Khety), MMA excavations, 1931–32 | Medium: Coniferous wood, paint | Dimensions: Overall: 222 × 58 × 58 cm (87 3/8 × 22 13/16 × 22 13/16 in.): a: 222 × 58.4 cm (87 3/8 × 23 in.); b: 222 × 58.4 cm (87 3/8 × 23 in.); c: 222 × 59.7 cm (87 3/8 × 23 1/2 in.); d+e: 222 × 51 cm (87 3/8 × 20 1/16 in.); f: 43.2 cm (17 in.); g: 15.9 cm (6 1/4 in.); h: 57.5 × 40.5 cm (22 5/8 × 15 15/16 in.); i: 56 × 18 cm (22 1/16 × 7 1/16 in.) | Credit Line: Rogers Fund, 1932 | Accession Number: 32.1.133a–k | Metropolitan Museum of Art. Creative Commons (CC0 1.0).

Fig. 3.2: Statue of a Ba, represented as a bird with a human head
The ba is an aspect of a person’s non-physical being. After death, the ba was able to travel out from the tomb, but it had to periodically return to the tomb and be reunited with the mummy. The ba was usually represented as a bird with a human head, and sometimes with human arms. | Period: Ptolemaic Period | Date: 332–30 BC or later | Geography: From Egypt | Medium: Wood, paint, gold leaf | Dimensions: H. 15.5 cm (6 1/8 in.); W. 5.1 cm (2 in.); L. 9.3 cm (3 11/16 in.) | Credit Line: Rogers Fund, 1944 | Accession Number: 44.4.83 | Metropolitan Museum of Art. Creative Commons (CC0 1.0).

Fig. 3.3: Vessel inscribed with a letter to the dead (UC16244) – Petrie Museum (CC University College London).

Fig. 3.4: Papyrus of Ani showing the weighing of the heart in the centre and Ammet on the far right
‘Book of the Dead’, Papyrus of Ani (frame 3): Ani’s Judgment: the scene is the Hall of Judgment. | Dynasty: 19th Dynasty | Date: 1250BC (circa) | Geography: Egypt: Upper Egypt: Tomb of Ani (Thebes) | Medium: painted papyrus | Dimensions: Length 67 centimetres (frame), Width 42 centimetres (frame) | Museum number: EA10470,3 | The British Museum. The Trustees of the British Museum. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Fig. 3.5: Ammet on the Papyrus of Ani right
‘Book of the Dead’, Papyrus of Ani (frame 3): Ani’s Judgment: the scene is the Hall of Judgment. | Dynasty: 19th Dynasty | Date: 1250BC (circa) | Geography: Egypt: Upper Egypt: Tomb of Ani (Thebes) | Medium: painted papyrus | Museum number: EA10470,3 | The British Museum. The Trustees of the British Museum. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

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