Every ancient Egyptian aspired to the afterlife and one of the means to attain it was by preparing a proper burial, which only a small elite including the king, members of the royal family, and officials could afford, as commoners were interred in modest pit tombs. A strict hierarchy, with the king's tomb at its apex, determined the type of tombs individuals could build. While royal funerary complexes grew increasingly elaborate, both in plan and in decoration, it is not until the New Kingdom that the actual tombs displayed a full-fledged decorative program.

Pre-New Kingdom Tombs.

The earliest surviving example of painted-tomb decoration comes from a Predynastic tomb at Hierakonpolis, in Upper Egypt, which showed motifs randomly painted on the wall surface. These motifs of boats, animals, and stick figures dancing, fighting, or about to smite enemies were similar to those found on the pottery of the period, but the smiting motif later became a fundamental symbol of kingship.

Following the mastabas (from the Arabic term for “bench”) of the Early Dynastic period, the royal pyramids of the Old Kingdom (the Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, in Lower Egypt), grew distinct from the elite burials, as they affirmed through their architecture and symbolic decoration, the king's unique role in society and his special position in relation to the cosmos. Until Djoser, the decoration inside the royal tombs consisted essentially of geometric patterns (of either multicolored paint or blue tiles) imitating natural materials such as reed mats found in houses. With Djoser, however, the decoration in the pyramid substructure began to expand beyond the blue-colored tiles lining the walls and niches of the passageways to include limestone relief panels that proclaimed the king's power and authority under the divine protection. The panels showed Djoser wearing the insignia of his royal office, symbolically striding over the territory delimited by markers, as he performed the “ritual of kingship.” Above him hovered the Horus falcon or the Nekhbet vulture, holding the hieroglyphic sign for eternity as a symbol of divine protection, while behind him personified hieroglyphs offered him life. Stylistically, the boldly carved outlines, the modeling hinting at the musculature and bone structure underneath the surface, made the royal figure appear forceful (in contrast with the lean figures of the contemporary private individuals).

With the advent of the fourth dynasty, the layout of the royal funerary complexes was radically modified and consisted of the actual tomb, now in the shape of a true pyramid, an upper structure (the mortuary temple) and a lower structure (the valley temple) joined by a causeway, oriented east–west, as opposed to the earlier north–south orientation. Both the new orientation of the complex and the tomb's pyramidal shape related to the sun god Re, whose prominence was increasing. The king was believed to be his earthly manifestation and to join him at death on his perpetual cycle, while he was also an earthly manifestation of the god Horus, the son born to the original king, Osiris, with whom he was identified at death.

The funerary complexes of Sneferu (at Dahshur), of Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure (at Giza) displayed an elaborate decorative program with painted relief scenes focusing on the king's privileged position in the cosmos and relationship with the gods (either under their protection or embraced by them), as well as scenes relating to his mortuary cult (i.e., processions of female personifications of estates bearing offerings), and to the festival of renewal. By contrast, the actual tombs were left undecorated.

In the following fifth and sixth dynasties, royal pyramids continued to be built at Abusir, in the North, according to the basic architectural and artistic models of the previous period, but on a much smaller scale (Pepy II's complex was the last one to be built on a large scale). In the pyramid of Unas, the last king of the fifth dynasty, however, wall decoration in the form of blue hieroglyphic inscriptions carved in vertical columns was introduced inside the burial chamber. The Pyramid Texts, the earliest known mortuary texts, were designed (like the monument in which they were found) for the sole benefit of the deceased king in his passage from this world into the next. The Pyramid Texts were used in the pyramids of the Old and Middle Kingdoms until the New Kingdom, when they were replaced by new funerary books.

The Old Kingdom ended with the collapse of the central government and, after a period of turmoil called the First Intermediate Period, Nebhepetre Montuhotep I reunified the country and began the Middle Kingdom. Montuhotep's funerary complex at Thebes, in Upper Egypt, had a radically new layout of terraced structures and pillared passages, but its decoration showed traditional scenes of royal ideology such as the king defeating the forces of chaos (i.e., enemies in battle, wild beasts in the desert, fishing and fowling in the marshes), ritual processions of boats, and cult scenes. The king was also depicted in his ritual role, offering to the gods or embraced by them. In an effort to stress the return to a strong government, Montuhotep deliberately modeled his monuments after the Memphite artistic tradition of the Old Kingdom. The emulation of earlier models—using artistic forms from the past—which occurred at several other times in Egyptian history, is called “archaism” (see discussion below).

During the twelfth dynasty, Egypt enjoyed a period of strong government and prosperity. The capital was moved again to the North, to a new site called Itjtawy, and the royal cemetery was established at nearby el-Lisht, where the kings returned to the Old Kingdom tradition of pyramid complexes. Due to poorer construction, however, these are badly preserved. The fragmentary decoration of the pyramid complex of Senwosret I depicted the traditional motifs relating to the king's ability to abolish chaos, the provisioning of his cult, as well as new panel representations emblematically proclaiming the king's name and guaranteeing his supply of offerings.

By the thirteenth dynasty, however, the gradual infiltration of immigrants from Syria-Palestine eventually caused the king to move his residence to Thebes, leaving the foreigners, later known as the Hyksos, to take control of the North from their capital in the Nile Delta, Avaris. With the political power and economic resources divided between the North and the South, the country went again through a period of instability called the Second Intermediate Period. Very little survives from this complex and poorly understood period, during which small royal tombs were built.

New Kingdom Tombs.

Following the expulsion of the Hyksos and the reunification of Egypt under Ahmose in the eighteenth dynasty, a new age began, which is called the New Kingdom. After a series of successful military campaigns in the early part of the dynasty, Egypt became an empire and reached an unprecedented level of prosperity, evidenced by the refined artistic production of the period. Although the kings resided mostly in the North, virtually all were buried at Thebes, in the place now called the Valley of the Kings. In contrast to the conspicuous royal burials of the preceding periods, those of the New Kingdom were built with a concern for privacy and security, as they were cut deeply into the Theban mountain, separate from the funerary temples located in the valley, on the edge of cultivation.

Typically, a royal tomb consisted of a series of sloping corridors alternating with stairs, pillared halls, and chambers that became increasingly higher and larger, as each king made his tomb greater than his predecessor by adding to the plan. After Ramesses III, however, this expansion trend was reversed. Just like the architectural plan, the decorative program grew progressively elaborate. As the ideological focus changed, new themes were added to the decorative repertoire, and the thematic distribution throughout the tomb changed as well. Thus, the minimal wall decoration in the form of hieroglyphic inscriptions in the burial chamber of the earlier royal tomb gave way to a flourishing of decoration in the form of texts and images. Unlike the earlier royal Pyramid Texts, the New Kingdom books of the netherworld were increasingly illustrated, as they described the next world in minute detail.

As care was taken in selecting the books according to their location within the tomb, the idea that the royal tomb served as both a gateway between this world and the next and a visual map of the beyond was articulated through spatial, iconographical, and textual symbolism. Thus, in the early eighteenth dynasty, as the beyond was perceived as the underworld, the tomb was built with a sharply bent axis in imitation of the underworld's crooked topography (depicted in the Middle Kingdom Book of Two Ways and the New Kingdom Book of That Which Is In the Underworld [Amduat]), and the decoration representing the sun god's journey beneath the earth was limited to the deepest part and focal point of the tomb, namely, the burial chamber. Given its shape, buff-colored back-ground, stick figures, and cursive hieroglyphs, Re's nightly voyage was recounted as if on a papyrus unrolled on the wall. From Thutmose III on, the decoration began to extend to the walls of specific focal points, namely, the shaft, the antechamber, and the pillars of the burial chamber, and to show images of the king in the company of deities. Generally, when not shown on equal footing with the latter, the king was depicted in the subordinate position, since he was similar to but not equal to them. The corridors were usually left undecorated. The ceilings were painted with either yellow or white stars on a blue or black background representing the night sky.

The tomb of King Akhenaten, who attempted to impose a form of monotheism through an innovative theological reform, at his new capital Akhetaten (modern Tell el-Amarna) in Middle Egypt, represents an exception in the development of royal tomb decoration. Although similar in plan to its Theban precedents, the tomb displayed a radically new decorative program, of which little remains following the destruction perpetrated against the heretic king's monuments in an effort to expunge his memory from the records. Thus, instead of the traditional scenes of the sun's journey through the beyond and of the king in company of the funerary gods, new scenes were introduced, focusing on the public and private life of the royal family, for example, ritually offering to the solar disk, the royal couple at the “window of appearance” rewarding officials, traveling through the city, in mourning, and playing with their daughters.

In the nineteenth dynasty, as the beyond came to be understood as also comprising the heavens and the emphasis lay on the sun's progression from morning to night, or from the tomb entrance (symbolizing the east) to the burial chamber (symbolizing the west), the tomb was built in a nearly straight axis, while the decoration extended to the entire tomb (as first seen in that of Sety I). The decorative motifs followed a clear distribution pattern, with the dividing point being the first pillared hall, where the Osiris shrine was depicted. Hence, the upper half of the tomb, closest to the entrance, was dominated by images of the sun god Re, while the lower half of the tomb was dominated by images of the underworld god Osiris and other earth gods. From Ramesses II, images of the king greeting the falcon-headed sun god, Re-Horakhty, accompanied with texts related to the sun's daily and nightly cycle, such as the Litany of Re, were placed typically near the entrance, while the solar disk containing the nocturnal manifestation of the sun god, as the ramheaded deity, and his morning manifestation, as the scarab beetle, appeared on the façade above the entrance. As a way to evoke the sun's westward progression from morning to night, the solar disk was painted yellow on the exterior to represent the daytime sun and red within the tomb for the nighttime sun. The symbolic orientation was also reinforced by the presence of deities associated with the cardinal points, such as the goddesses Isis (symbolizing the south, on the left) and Nephthys (symbolizing the north, on the right), as well as the goddess Maat shown kneeling on a basket supported by the heraldic plants of Upper and Lower Egypt.

In the twentieth dynasty, this thematic division was abandoned and, as solar and Osirian themes merged, Re's journey through the heavens and the lowest reaches of the earth was combined. The fusion of both phases of the solar cycle was expressed by the straighter axiality of the tomb plan. In the tomb of Ramesses VI, which marked the last step in the development of royal decoration, most known funerary texts were profusely depicted, as was Re's supremacy. The Ramessid ceiling decoration varied according to the space and showed, in addition to stars, such creatures as vultures, winged serpents, scarabs, and falcons, flying into the tomb to protect the dead king from hostile forces; these elements were replaced by astronomical texts and scenes, and in the tomb of Ramesses VI, the sky goddess Nut stretched over the heaven. By the late New Kingdom, the royal tomb thus embodied the complete cosmos, visually, textually, as well as spatially through the symbolic location of its images.

Just as the iconography became increasingly elaborate, so did the style. The decoration was at first drawn in black outlines, except for the painting in color of the back-ground and details such as the red solar disks or the royal insignia. Then with the tomb of Thutmose IV, the divine scenes were painted entirely in color, and from the tomb of Horemheb, the decoration was done in painted reliefs. The use of colors was not only limited (black, white, yellow, red, blue, and green) but also governed by conventions. Typically, the wall background was white, except briefly in the tombs of Horemheb and Ramesses I, where it was blue-gray, and in Sety I's tomb, where yellow was introduced in the burial chamber.

In the main, although artists drew from the same repertories, the decoration of each tomb varied in style, iconography, and quality, reflecting possibly the owner's preferences, the time allowance, and the artists' skills.

Post–New Kingdom Tombs.

Following the New Kingdom, the Third Intermediate Period was another time of instability. To Thebes, the kings of the twenty-first and twenty-second dynasties preferred Tanis, in the eastern Delta, as their new burial grounds. Located in the city, within the precinct of the temple of Amun, the tombs did not survive well. They represented a new type called temenos and consisted of a small underground burial chamber, possibly surmounted by a funerary chapel. Their decoration essentially continued the themes of the New Kingdom royal tombs.

From the Late period onward, Egypt fell periodically under foreign rule. Despite the many changes brought on by foreign occupation, Egypt maintained its indigenous artistic tradition well into Roman times. Yet, either because the rulers were not native to Egypt and, as foreigners, were buried in their homeland, or because the later royal tombs, probably located in the North, within a temple precinct, were destroyed in antiquity, little remains of the tradition of royal funerary painting of this later period.

The Royal Family.

While the royal tomb sought to stress the king's unique role in the cosmos that set him apart from the rest of the population, the members of the royal family built tombs that identified them in relation to the king. In the Old Kingdom the spatial proximity to the royal tomb was ideologically paramount, and members of the royal family and high officials were buried as close as possible to the king's tomb in the hope of partaking in the latter's eternal destiny. The chief queens lay in subsidiary pyramids, next to the royal pyramids, while the rest of the royal entourage was buried in mastabas in the cemeteries surrounding the pyramids. Despite their royal connection, the superstructures or chapels of these tombs were decorated with scenes found in nonroyal tombs, such as the deceased receiving ritual offerings and scenes of so-called everyday life (e.g., the tomb of Khufu's grand-daughter, Queen Meresankh III). In the late Old Kingdom, however, as provincial cemeteries developed and spatial proximity to the king's burial became much less important, the gap between the king and the elite began to lessen.

Although principally reserved as a burial ground for the ruling kings, the Valley of the Kings was occasionally used for members of the royal family and high officials, particularly during the early New Kingdom. Despite the honor that such burials would confer on their owners, certain measures against the full use of royal prerogatives were taken in an effort to maintain the strict social hierarchy characteristic of Egyptian society. In this way, the early New Kingdom tombs were simplified, yet undecorated, versions of the king's tomb.

As time went on, however, the distinction between royal and nonroyal tombs became less apparent as more privileges were appropriated by the elite. In the nineteenth dynasty, the members of the immediate royal family began to be buried systematically in what is now called the Valley of the Queens. While many of these burials were undecorated pit tombs, some displayed their semiroyal nature through decoration. The partial use of royal privileges in these tombs is perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in the recently restored tomb of Ramesses II's queen, Nefertari. Although the tomb maintained smaller proportions than the king's and used the commoners' Book of Going Forth by Day (Book of the Dead) as funerary text, it displayed royal iconography that included images of the queen alone facing the gods.

Unlike the queens, who were conceded the high royal privilege of interacting directly with the gods, the princes were shown in their own tombs accompanied by their royal father, except when represented as adults, such as the son of Ramesses IX, Prince Montuherkhepeshef, who wore the sidelock, characteristic of children, over a wig. The sidelock stressed his filial relationship to the king and the wig his adult status.

Furthermore, in his own tomb, the king did not appear in the company of his earthly family—except at Tell el-Amarna, where Akhenaten's family constituted the main iconographic theme in both the king's tomb and those of his courtiers—or generally in the private tombs, where the deceased's relatives were portrayed. Beginning in the New Kingdom, the elite could also be in the presence of both deities and the king in their tombs.

Royal Portraiture.

The question of portraiture in ancient Egyptian art remains perplexing to the modern Western viewer, for whom physical resemblance to the model defines a portrait. Egyptian art was first and foremost idealizing, with occasional forays in naturalism. Typically, both men and women, royal and nonroyal, were shown as youthful and in accordance with conventions appropriate to their social role. While their communal identity was thus asserted by the degree to which they conformed to set ideological principles, their personal identity was revealed through the inscriptions accompanying the representations.

In his tomb, the king's cosmic role influenced not only the choice of images but also the way in which the ruler was represented. What typically identified the king was not his personal physiognomy (despite the occasional presence of individualizing features, such as the nose of Thutmose III and Sety I) but a number of formal clues that visually signaled his persona. In this way, the king was always shown wearing the insignia of his kingly office, such as the headdress and the scepter, regardless of the particular style or degree of elaboration of the representation. Moreover, unlike the commoners, the king alone appeared, both literally and figuratively, in the company of and on equal footing with the gods—in the same composition, on the same scale, and directly interacting with the divine sphere. Thus, the king's status as mediator between the divine world and the human sphere was conveyed through the composition or context. Yet what identified the king in specific terms were the inscriptions, which were part of the images. Thus, even in his own tomb, namely, the point where he met his eternal destiny, the king's personal physiognomy was subordinated to the funerary ideology. Representations focused exclusively on the king's ritual role, bypassing his earthly ties.

Nevertheless, the kings occasionally exhibited marked physiognomical traits or signature elements, such as the aging, grave, and discontented expressions of Senwosret III and Amenemhet III in the twelfth dynasty, or the body curves of Akhenaten in the eighteenth dynasty, which not only appeared as individualizing, but also identified these kings easily. Yet it has been observed that episodes of naturalism in art tended to coincide with cultural changes and that these images may instead have represented visually coded responses to particular situations. A case in point is that of Akhenaten and his family, whose unorthodox, even androgynous features—large head, long neck, slender torso, high small of the back, belly fold, short lower legs, and large buttocks and thighs—are thought to have been devised to promote the king's religious concepts rather than to render a pathological condition afflicting the monarch, as has been hypothesized by some scholars. Thus, the radically new images functioned as symbols for the new ideas advocated by the king in the same way that traditional royal images were visual formulas of the concept of kingship. Similarly, Queen Hatshepsut, who proclaimed herself king, was shown (although not in her tomb, which was left undecorated) mostly as a male king in traditional male regalia, whereas in the texts, she was identified as a woman.

What mattered, therefore, was not the physical reality, but the visual impact produced by the images designed to convey ideas beyond words. Whether idealizing or naturalizing, royal representations could not be dissociated from their propagandistic, political, and religious functions, as they made visual statements about kingship and the king's position in the cosmos. Even when presenting idiosyncratic physical traits, they were the cumulative expression of conventions that were harnessed in the service of kingship and the king's cosmic role.

Furthermore, the gods and members of the court were often shown resembling the king. The practice of emulating certain features of the king's face or a likeness (however remote) may have been politically motivated, designed to show loyalty toward the ruler and to flatter him. Such practice also weakens the assumption of portraiture, in the Western sense of individual resemblance.

Gender-Based Distinctions.

Traditionally, in royal and private monuments alike, gender was distinguished by the use of such artistic conventions as size, skin color, costume, and hairstyle, as well as by composition. Images of women were generally idealized and their costumes remained more conservative than the men's. In this way, female deities were shown wearing the tight-fitting sheath dresses, an early type of garment throughout pharaonic history, as a sign of conformity to the world order established at creation. In contrast, queens were shown wearing the sheath dresses until the mid-eighteenth dynasty, when they began to be depicted in contemporary fashionable dress. Among the royal women, distinctions were made between queens and princesses. Queens, whose status may have been partially divine, were shown wearing insignia that were either originally divine (vulture head-dress of the goddess Nekhbet) or royal (uraeus); they also held symbols, such as the sign of life, like the king and the gods. Although princesses were potential queens, they were represented as nonroyal women, without divine and royal attributes.

Even in their own tombs, women typically occupied a secondary position in relation to men, and the members of the royal family were identified in relation to the king, just as a nonroyal woman was identified in relation to her spouse or to another male figure. Although the king appeared in his tomb without his earthly consort, interacting solely with the gods, the same was not true of the queen until the New Kingdom, when she was shown alone before the gods. The absence of the king's image in the queens' tombs of the New Kingdom indicated a loosening of the rules of decorum that resulted from the appropriation of certain royal prerogatives.


Over the course of history, kings have used artistic forms from the past for their own monuments. Although copied, the earlier forms were never borrowed wholesale; instead they reinterpreted the past in new versions. That practice is called “archaism,” and the reasons for kings to resort to reusing earlier forms in defining their own art had little to do with antiquarianism or nostalgia. The practice tended to occur in such periods of cultural change following turmoil as the twelfth and eighteenth dynasties. Moreover, the forms used as models typically came from periods of strong government and economic prosperity. By returning to the art connected to past golden eras, the king associated himself with those reigns and thereby sought to legitimize his own. Archaism in art was part of a strategy whereby the ruler presented himself as the heir to a particular reign in order to gain the authority necessary to rule.


As the point of contact where the king would join Re and travel through the cosmos, the royal tomb in the New Kingdom re-created the cosmos through the symbolic use of its architectural layout and wall decoration in order to help the king reach his destiny in eternity. Since it was exclusively funerary, the imagery included scenes of the sun god's perpetual journey, the netherworld, and the king interacting with the gods; it excluded references to either historical events or highlights in the king's personal life, as were found in the officials' tombs. The officials' explicitly commemorative appearance, owing to decorum, however, implicitly helped the individual to reach the afterlife by proclaiming his or her adherence to proper behavior in this world. Thus, unlike the royal tomb of the earliest periods, when the king stood at the center of the universe, relying less explicitly on the divine for his eternal voyage and more explicitly on his monument for power in this world, the New Kingdom royal tomb was a ritualistic vehicle designed to enact the king's union with the divine.


  • Assmann, Jan. “Preservation and Presentation of Self in Ancient Egyptian Portraiture.” In Studies in Honor of William Kelly Simpson, vol. 1. Boston, 1996. Excellent discussion of the two functions of portraiture in society.
  • Baines, John. Fecundity Figures. Egyptian Personification and the Iconology of a Genre. Warminster, 1985. Detailed study of the application of the system of decorum as illustrated by fecundity figures.
  • Baines, John. “Trône et dieu: aspects du symbolisme royal et divin des temps archaiques.” Bulletin de la Société Française d'Égyptologie. 118 (1990), 5–37. Discussion of early royal and divine symbolism.
  • D'Auria, Sue, et al. Mummies and Magic: The Funerary Arts of Ancient Egypt. Boston, 1988. Exhibition catalog for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Chronological survey of the various types of funerary artifacts, with useful introductory essays and an extensive bibliography.
  • Hornung, Erik. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. Translated by J. Baines. Ithaca, N.Y., 1982. Excellent analysis of the ancient conceptions of the divine; translated from the German Der Eine und die Vielen (Darmstadt, 1971).
  • Hornung, Erik. The Valley of the Kings: Horizon of Eternity. Translated by D. Warburton. New York, 1990. Classic survey of the Theban royal necropolis, offers a detailed discussion of the funerary ideology, with ample illustrations.
  • McDonald, John K. House of Eternity: The Tomb of Nefertari. Los Angeles, 1996. Illustrated account of the recent restoration project of the queen's tomb by the Getty Conservation Institute and the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
  • Reeves, Nicholas, and Richard H. Wilkinson. The Complete Valley of the Kings: Tombs and Treasures of Egypt's Greatest Pharaohs. London, 1996. Good introduction to the royal necropolis from the historical and archaeological perspective; includes the history of its discovery, a brief description of each tomb, and many illustrations.
  • Robins, Gay. Women in Ancient Egypt. Cambridge, Mass., 1993. Study of the status and the role of women from various sources, including art.
  • Robins, Gay. The Art of Ancient Egypt. Cambridge, Mass., 1997. Up-to-date illustrated survey, with an extensive bibliography.
  • Romer, John. Valley of the Kings. New York, 1981. Survey of the royal necropolis, with a focus on the history of the tombs and of the travelers and scholars who studied them.
  • Simpson, William Kelly. “Egyptian Sculpture and Two-dimensional Representation as Propaganda.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 68 (1982), 266–71. Summary discussion of the propagandistic elements and their motives in Egyptian art.
  • Spanel, Donald. Through Ancient Eyes: Egyptian Portraiture. Birmingham, 1988. Exhibition catalog prepared for the Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, Alabama, in 1988; useful introductory essay reviews the issues relating to portraiture.
  • Wilkinson, Richard H. “Symbolic Location and Alignment in New Kingdom Royal Tombs and their Decoration.” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 31 (1994), 79–86. Study of the relationship between the symbolic orientation of the royal tombs and their decorative schemes.

Patricia A. Bochi