Tombs in ancient Egypt

In ancient Egypt a tomb, if built and designed properly, had the power to restore life and give immortality to the dead owner. Tomb architecture was complex and its art in the form of painting, sculpture and script gives a glimpse into the beliefs and daily life of the ancient Egyptians.

Ancient Egyptian funerary cone

 © Australian Museum

Tombs: houses of eternity

Many years could be spent on building and preparing tombs, which were known to the ancient Egyptians as ‘houses of eternity’. Master builders and supervisors were instructed to perform rituals during construction and guidelines were provided on where to build, how to design, and also what materials to use.

Tomb architecture

All tombs had two essential architectural components that reflected their religious function – a burial chamber and a nearby mortuary chapel. The burial chamber was below ground and housed and protected the body and spirit. The mortuary chapel was above ground and was accessible to visitors who would perform rites and make offerings of food and drink for the dead person. False doors were also placed in these chapels to establish a connection between the worlds of the living and the dead. The design on the door allowed the spirit of the person to move freely between the chapel and the tomb to receive offerings.

Differences can be seen in the size, design and complexity of tombs – which included pyramids, mastabas and rock-cut chambers. However, these were mainly due to the wealth and status of the owner, evolving religious beliefs or political circumstances.

Funerary cones

Terracotta funerary cones were inscribed with the owner’s name and placed above the entrance to the tomb. The pointed end allowed them to be pressed into the plaster above the doorway. Funerary cones were used from the Middle Kingdom onwards but mainly during the New Kingdom, and appeared most often in private tombs around Thebes.

Tomb art: the secret galleries

Egyptian burial chambers were like secret galleries that were never meant to be viewed. They were packed with an astounding array of artwork which spoke only to an elite group of visitors – the gods. As the point of contact between the mortal and the immortal, art had the power to transport a person, to free them from the silent immobility of death.

Tomb art was sacred and magical. It was a way of controlling the chaotic, evil forces in the universe that sought to undermine universal order. Whether mass produced or commissioned, art in the form of painting, sculpture, carving and script had the power to maintain universal order by appealing to the gods to act on behalf of the dead tomb owner and ensure his safe arrival and eternal nourishment in the afterlife.


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