How Coffins Work

Egyptian Sarcophagi: The Ultimate Opulence

The sarcophagi, or literally coffins made of stone, that we've come to know and love through museums and action blockbusters are those of the Egyptian pharaohs.

The most famous of the known Egyptian sarcophagi is that of Tutankhamen, commonly known as King Tut, a young pharaoh who reigned briefly but earned his place in global history through his famous burial suite. When Tut's tomb was discovered in 1922, it was one of the few royal graves that hadn't been almost completely plundered.

Among the various riches explorers found were Tut's three coffins. Surrounding an inner coffin of solid gold were two gold-covered, wood-frame coffins, the outermost designed with the famous portrait of the pharaoh that most of us are familiar with today. The coffin was also decorated with precious stones and pieces of jewelry. (See images of Tut's coffins in our article Was there really a curse on King Tutankhamen's tomb?)

Why such opulence? For the ancient Egyptians, every aspect of a tomb -- especially one belonging to a pharaoh -- was carefully planned and constructed. Tombs were decked out with the deceased's riches and possessions. Pharaohs' tombs, the massive pyramids that still speckle the Egyptian landscape thousands of years later, sometimes even contained servants to provide assistance to the deceased. As you may imagine, these rituals weren't simply taken on a whim; burial proceedings in ancient Egypt were guided largely by the Egyptian Coffin Texts.

The Egyptian Coffin Texts originated primarily in Egypt's Middle Kingdom, the period from 2150 to 1539 BCE. This collection of spells and descriptions of the underworld were designed to see the deceased through the journey into the afterlife. The documents originated from the Pyramid Text, one of the oldest Egyptian religious spells, which was said to guarantee the ascension of royalty to the heavens in the afterlife; it later evolved into the perhaps more well-known Book of the Dead. Where the Pyramid Text was reserved for royalty, however, the Coffin Texts were accessible by all members of society, regardless of class or status [source: Ellison].

Today, these seemingly mysterious traditions often seem like the stuff of fiction.

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