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Death in Ancient Egypt

A project and publication of

The Research Archives of the Oriental Institute, Chicago

written and compiled by

Alexandra A. O'Brien© 1996-1999



Tomb Scenes

Supplies for the After-life


The Constituent Parts of Personality

Further Reading


Resources Used and List of Sites

WWW Sources
The ancient Egyptians were fortunate in inhabiting the fertile valley of the Nile. The river's annual flood deposited a fresh layer of silt renewing the fertility of the soil, and ensuring that, for the most part, the country was prosperous and the population sufficiently fed.

For much of the year most people would be involved in agricultural labour of some kind, but during the flood (July-October) the workforce was used by the state for building and other major projects such as "rehabilitation" of the land following the subsidence of the flood. This meant re-establishing the boundaries of property and maintaining the irrigation system (recutting canals and rebuilding dykes).

The funerary customs and beliefs of the ancient Egyptians called for the preservation of the body and ample provisions for the after-life. This was envisaged as a continuation of the existence before death.

An ancient Egyptian would provide for the life in the Next World as best as his economic abilities would allow. For us today, this means that a huge amount of information about daily life in ancient Egypt can be found in the tombs. Detailed and colourful scenes on the walls provide information on a wide range of topics including dress, agriculture, architecture, as well as crafts and food production, and the goods included in the tomb along with the corpse add to this information resource. Examination of mummies provides information on health, diet and life-expectancy.

Tomb Scenes
WWW Sources
The Egyptians painted idealised scenes from daily life on the walls of their tombs: scenes of agricultural work such as harvesting crops, tending cattle and fishing, scenes of artisans at their work, including goldworkers and boat-builders and domestic scenes of banquets with musicians, dancers and guests.

The scenes in the tomb represented the hoped for after-life, in which there were fertile fields and harmony and happiness at home; representing it in the tomb was thought to ensure an ideal existence in the next world.

Supplies for the After-life
WWW Sources
The tomb-owner would continue after death the occupations of this life and so everything required was packed in the tomb along with the body. Writing materials were often supplied along with clothing, wigs, hairdressing supplies and assorted tools, depending on the occupation of the deceased.

Often model tools rather than full size ones would be placed in the tomb; models were cheaper and took up less space and in the after-life would be magically transformed into the real thing.

The images presented here include a headrest, glass vessels which may have contained perfume and a slate palette for grinding make-up.

Food was provided for the deceased and should the expected regular offerings of the descendants cease, food depicted on the walls of the tomb would be magically transformed to supply the needs of the dead.

Images here include a triangular shaped piece of bread (part of the food offerings from a tomb) along with two tomb scenes. The latter contain representations of food items which the tomb owner would have eaten in his lifetime and hoped to eat in the after-life. The two tomb scenes show the tomb owners sitting in front of offering tables piled high with bread. The representations of food, along with the accompanying prayers were thought to supply the tomb owner once the actual food offerings stopped.

WWW Sources
During and after the annual flood of the Nile, the population were subject to compulsory labour on state projects such as building and maintenance of the irrigation system. In life it would be possible to avoid this by providing a substitute; in death, mummiform figurines or "Answerers" could serve the same purpose. The Egyptian words for these statuettes (usually called shabtis in English), are ushabti and shawabti. These words are of uncertain origin but may have been derived from the Egyptian word wSb(1) meaning "answer."

The backs of these figurines were inscribed with Chapter 6 of "The Book of the Dead." This spell ensured that if the owner of the shabti was called upon at any time to do any kind of compulsory labour the shabti would respond and perform the duty instead of its owner. The practice of including these figurines in burials started during the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2040-1640 BC(2)) when only one was usually included in the burial.

The practice continued and by the Third Intermediate Period (ca. 1070-712 BC)there were sometimes so many in a burial that the shabtis were put in a special box: the custom had become to have one shabti for every day of the year with 36 overseer shabtis. The practice of including these figurines in burials died out in the Ptolemaic Period (332 BC- 395 AD).

The Constituent Parts of Personality
WWW Sources

The tomb owner would also need his body to be as well preserved as possible, as it was a constituent part of the deceased's being and the dwelling place of the ba.

According to the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians, an individual's personality was made up of several parts as explained in the table below.
English Egyptian Definition
body XAt The mummy in the tomb, thought to house the ba after death.
ka kA Dynamic and impersonal life force. When depicted in tomb or temple scenes shown as the double of an individual, sometimes in miniature, frequently with the ka sign on the head. Rather than the ka actually having been seen as a separate double of an individual, it's likely that it was so depicted as it was inside a person and therefore looked like that person.
ba bA "Animation" or "manifestation," something akin to the idea of "soul." It was depicted as a human-headed bird.
akh Ax The "Transfigured spirit" into which the dead were transformed after the funerary rituals were completed. The akh could exert influence on the living, and the Egyptians often wrote letters to the akh of a deceased person in the belief that the malevolence of the akh was responsible for misfortune in life
name rn The name was regarded as an essential part of an individual, as necessary for the survival of the deceased in the After-life as the ba, akh, and the preserved corpse. The name of an individual was preserved by its inclusion in funerary texts, either on papyrus or on the tomb walls. Should they wish to do so, later generations could destroy the existence and memory of a deceased individual by removing their name from their tomb.
shadow/shade Swt An integral part of the personality which it was necessary to protect from harm. Usually represented as a black double of an individual.


The Ba was represented as a human-headed bird, as shown here in details from a painted coffin in the collection of the National Museum of Scotland.

Further Reading

Andrews, Carol. Egyptian Mummies. (London/Cambridge MA; British Museum Press/Harvard University Press; 1984 Reprint 1994)

Baines, John and Málek, Jaromír. The Atlas of Ancient Egypt. (New York/Oxford; Facts on File; 1980)

Faulkner, Raymond O. Edited by Carol Andrews. The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. (London/Austin, Texas; British Museum Press/University of Texas Press; 1989 Reprint 1993)

Forman, Werner and Quirke, Stephen. Hieroglyphs and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt.(London; British Museum Press; 1996)

Harris, Geraldine. Gods and Pharaohs from Egyptian Mythology. (New York; Peter Bedrick Books; 1992)

Hart, George. Egyptian Myths. (London/Austin, Texas; British Museum Press/University of Texas Press; 1990 Reprint 1995)

---. Pharaohs and Pyramids. A Guide Through Old Kingdom Egypt. (London; The Herbert Press; 1991)

---. A Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses. (New York; Routledge; 1986)

James, T. G. H. Egyptian Painting. (London/Cambridge, MA; British Museum Press/Harvard University Press; 1985 Reprint 1994)

Morentz, Siegfried. (trans. Ann E. Keep). Egyptian Religion. (Ithaca; Cornell Paperbacks; 1992)

Murnane, William J. The Penguin Guide to Ancient Egypt. (2nd Edition) (Harmondsworth; Penguin Books; 1996)

Quirke, Stephen. Ancient Egyptian Religion. (London/Mineola, NY; British Museum Press/Dover Publications Inc.; 1992)

Quirke, Stephen and Spencer, Jeffrey. The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt. (London/New York; British Museum Press/Thames and Hudson; 1992)

Shaw, Ian and Nicholson, Paul. British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. (London/New York; British Museum Press/Harry N.Abrams; 1995)

Spencer, A. J. Death in Ancient Egypt. (Harmondsworth; Penguin Books; 1988)

WWW Sources
  1. Transcription from Egyptian is rendered using the Manuel de Codage.

  2. The chronology used here is that in: Baines, John and Málek, Jaromír. Atlas of Ancient Egypt. (New York/Oxford; Facts on File; 1980) pp. 36-37.

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©1996-1999 Alexandra A. O'Brien
Revised: August 10th, 1999