Life in Ancient Egypt

Funerary Customs: Tombs

TombIn the Predynastic Period (ca. 4500-3100 B.C.), bodies were buried in the fetal position in shallow, rectangular or oval graves dug directly in the sand away from any arable land. With the founding of the Egyptian state at the beginning of Dynasty I (ca. 3100 B.C.), burial practices changed and tombs began to appear. During the Dynastic Period three basic types of tombs evolved: mastabas, rock-cut tombs, and, for many kings up to the time of the New Kingdom, pyramids. During the first dynasties the Egyptians began to build mastabas of mud brick. These early mastabas consisted of a rectangular-shaped chapel above ground with a burial chamber below ground. Mastaba tombs enjoyed great popularity in the Old and Middle Kingdoms. The later mastabas were often built of stone, with larger chapels and a series of chambers above ground.

The first known pyramid was the Step Pyramid of King Djoser at Saqqara (Dynasty III, ca. 2700 B.C.). Its superstructure was a configuration of six squared-off mastabas of diminishing size set on top of one another, with the burial chamber below ground.

True pyramids had smooth sides. The Dynasty IV pyramids, including Pharaoh Khufu's Great Pyramid at Giza, were probably the largest ever built and consisted of large stone blocks faced with limestone. Later pyramids were smaller and usually had a rubble-filled core. Pyramids did not stand alone but were part of a complex of buildings that included various temples.

In areas with steep cliffs, the Egyptians tended to cut tombs deep into the rock. These rock-cut tombs first appeared in the Old Kingdom, and by the New Kingdom royal rock-cut tombs were widespread. These royal tombs were in a remote valley that we call the Valley of the Kings and consisted of a series of rooms cut into the sides of steep cliffs. Nonroyal people also used rock-cut tombs that were often topped with small brick pyramids.

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