[This entry surveys the major types of ancient Egyptian tombs, with reference to their chronological development, architectural features, and their theological significance. It comprises three articles:

For related discussions, see NECROPOLIS and PYRAMID.]

An Overview

Few ancient cultures have had their mortuary customs as intensively studied as ancient Egypt, but even today the origins of its remarkable dynastic burial practices are poorly understood. The earliest known burials come from the Nubian desert and date to about 12,000 to 14,000 years ago. They are simple pit graves, oval in plan, about 100 centimeters long and 50 centimeters wide, consisting of shallow depressions that were covered with large pieces of sandstone. The bodies—there could be several in a single grave—were tightly contracted and lay on the left side, head positioned to the east. There were no grave goods buried with them.

Except for these early finds, the archaeological record is virtually silent for the next seven or eight millenia, until the Neolithic period. In part, this is due to the fact that, with only localized exceptions (notably the work of Werner Kaiser in Upper Egypt and of Fred Wendorf in Nubia), no thorough or systematic archaeological surveys of Paleolithic and Epi-Paleolithic sites have yet been undertaken along the edges of the Nile Valley. Numerous Neolithic sites, however—particularly in Upper Egypt—have revealed scores of cemeteries, some of them large and used over long periods of time. They include such principal sites as Naqada, Abydos, Hierakonpolis, el-Ahaiwa, Nag el-Deir, el-Gerza, el-Amra, Mahasna, Mesaed, and many others. (I omit from lists of Neolithic cemeteries the burials at Merimda in Lower Egypt; the evidence from there of intra-village burials is now considered dubious.)

During the first millennium of the Upper Egyptian Neolithic, from roughly 5000 to 4000 BCE, graves of the Badarian culture continue to be small (c. 100–150 centimeters/3.2–4.8 feet in diameter), round or oval, shallow pits with single bodies lying in a contracted position, head to the south, face to the west. Yet there are now funerary goods in these graves—the earliest known in Egypt—and they attest to an already well-developed belief in the afterlife. Pottery is especially common, but we also find jewelry, flint tools, small slate cosmetic palettes, and ivory and bone figurines of women and animals. Bodies may be dressed in linen kilts or robes, wrapped in skins, or placed in basketry containers. In a few cases, graves are lined with reed matting, but as yet there is no solid evidence of superstructures over the pit.

A similar pattern of burial continues into the Naqada culture, but with some elaboration. For example, tombs are now often covered with branches or reed mats over which a small mound of gravel is placed. Grave goods are more numerous and varied and include black-topped redware pottery, stone vessels, slate palettes, bone and ivory figurines, combs, and small “tags” topped with carvings of human or animal heads.

During the next stage, burial patterns show an increasing degree of sophistication and complexity. In later phases of the Naqada culture, settlement sites in both the north and the south were becoming more urbanized, and the adjacent cemeteries exhibit increasing evidence of social differentiation. Graves are larger and often have a rectangular plan instead of an oval one. The substructure of the tomb is now constructed using a series of narrow walls to divide what formerly was a single pit into a series of rectangular cells, the centermost of which serves as a burial chamber. This relatively large cell is surrounded by a number of smaller ones in which increasingly large quantities of grave goods are placed. To the extent that the number and size of cells indicate quantities of funerary equipment, it is revealing that the tomb of Khasekhemwy has a burial chamber of less than 18 square meters (193 square feet), but surrounding cells cover more than 1,000 square meters (10,720 square feet). Some cells are lined with woven reed mats or wooden planks; a few have painted walls. At the site of Hierakonpolis, the famous Painted Tomb 100 has plaster walls decorated with scenes that have been interpreted as showing hunting, boating, fighting, and perhaps ritual dancing. Such a tomb is thought to have been intended for an individual of particularly high social rank. Grave goods in Naqada II become more elaborate and numerous, and include finely painted pottery, palettes and mace heads, stone vessels, jewelry (some of the pieces in gold and silver), and elegantly worked flint tools.

In very late Neolithic and Early Dynastic times, a series of dramatic changes in mortuary architecture undoubtedly reflect significant changes in funerary customs and religious beliefs. Some may have been influenced by western Asian (Near Eastern) cultures, but it is certainly appropriate to emphasize the indigenous character of Egyptian funerary customs and their architectural manifestations. Some were perhaps tied to regional Egyptian environmental and cultural differences; others were the outgrowth of dynastic Egypt's increasingly complex culture and stratified society.

In discussing changes in the mortuary architecture, it is convenient to deal separately with the superstructure and the substructure of the Egyptian tomb, because these followed relatively independent lines of development. The first typology of tomb architecture was developed in an elaborate 1936 study by George Andrew Reisner. Only recently, thanks in part to the important excavations at Abydos, have the general patterns layed out by Reisner been significantly expanded on.

At Abydos, from a period Egyptologists now call dynasty zero, elaborate burial complexes have been found lying in the western desert. In each complex, a large, multichambered substructure, apparently based on domestic architectural plans and filled with hundreds of local and imported pottery vessels, served as the tomb of an official of high social standing, probably a king. Above this large, central tomb lay a mound of sand, surrounded by small retaining walls. The top of the mound did not extend above the surrounding desert surface and was apparently covered by thin roof. The excavator, Gunther Dreyer, believes that this mound was of magical significance and that there was a second mound built above it, with a pair of stelae standing before it that gave the name of the deceased and served as a tomb marker. Near the superstructure lay hundreds of subsidiary graves, apparently of wives, family members, and servants. Some distance away, at the edge of cultivation, a large and apparently empty mud-brick rectangle (covering as much as 5,000 square meters/53,600 square feet) was constructed, perhaps to serve as an early form of the later valley temple that formed a part of the royal funerary complex.

In the first and second dynasties, the oval gravel or sand mounds that covered the tombs were made even larger and their plan became more nearly rectangular. Such mounds are known from Abydos and Hierakonpolis, but some believe that they might originally have been associated with the so-called Sand Mound of Heliopolis, a symbol of the island in the great primeval sea on which the first creation was said to have occurred. The mound was now built of mud brick, and some superstructures, particularly at Saqqara, measured up to 25 × 60 meters (80 × 192 feet) and stood 3 to 4 meters (10 to 13 feet) high. These flat-topped structures had outer walls constructed with an elaborate pattern of niching, a device sometimes referred to as a “palace façade.” Early examples of this façade are complex examples of brickwork; later examples tend to be simpler; all seem intended to imitate the wooden paneling or woven reed matting associated with shrines representing Upper and Lower Egypt. Some early niched façades, such as that of Saqqara mastaba 3503, had hundreds of clay ox heads with real horns placed on a narrow, low platform within and in front of the niches.

By the end of the Early Dynastic period, the niched façade had been reduced to two simple niches, one at each end of the superstructure's eastern wall; the remainder of the exterior had smooth, sloping-sided faces, giving the structure the appearance of an inverted bread pan, or a bench of the type that sits outside many modern Egyptian village houses. Such benches are called mastabas in Arabic, and that word is used to describe this type of tomb superstructure. Mastaba tombs of substantial size and complexity are to be found at Saqqara, but they may never have been used for burials: many Egyptologists believe that the Saqqara structures were cenotaphs (dummy tombs), and that the actual burial place of Egypt's early royal families was Abydos.

The substructures of these tombs were also growing larger, and the number of cells a tomb might contain, their size, and their depth below ground also were increasing as offerings of food and drink, clothing, jewelry, games, and the like became more numerous. These cells were roofed with wooden boards and beams. Access to them initially was only through the top, prior to construction of the superstructure, until, in the mid-first dynasty, a staircase was added leading to the burial chamber. These tombs were surrounded by an enclosure wall and, beyond it, a series of subsidiary burials, a pit in which a model boat was placed and, in some instances, dummy buildings (“fictive architecture,” it has been called) whose purpose can in most cases only be guessed.

During the Old Kingdom, mastaba tombs were built in great number for officials of the royal court and others of Egypt's upper class. At Giza, these mastabas are laid out in large, well-ordered cemeteries that followed a carefully designed grid system. The substructures of these tombs are small because actual funerary offerings were now being replaced by representations on chapel walls. Often the substructure consists of little more than a vertical shaft leading to a single, undecorated burial chamber dug perhaps ten meters underground. The superstructure of these mastabas, on the other hand, grew considerably, and often covers several hundred square meters. Instead of being solid stone structures, they now have within them numerous chambers, usually rectangular rooms laid out in a simple but seemingly meandering plan.

The southern of the two niches on the eastern wall of Early Dynastic mastabas had evolved into a doorway by the late third dynasty, and it led into a chamber in which were placed decorated panels or stelae giving names and titles of the tomb owner. An early example is the tomb of Hesy-Re, in which elegantly carved wooden panels show the tomb owner and give his name and titles. During the fourth dynasty, the size and number of such chambers grew as their walls were decorated with increasingly large and elaborate scenes of offerings and rituals and long lists of names and titles. Such texts and scenes replaced actual offerings of food and drink that had formerly been placed in the substructure and the small, inscribed stelae set in niches. The types of scenes shown and their distribution apparently were subject to a number of rules that changed gradually during the Old Kingdom. Most frequently, the scenes depict activities involving the preparation of food—planting, harvesting, herding, slaughtering, cooking, storing, banqueting—and, a bit later, scenes of assorted craftsmen at work: carpenters, potters, leatherworkers, jewelers, and the like. Texts, originally little more than a name and a few titles, gradually grew to include elaborate offering lists, prayers, and autobiographies.

Two additional features also appeared within the superstructure: a serdab (cellar), a room in which, behind a slit window, was placed a statue of the deceased; and a “false door,” through which the soul of the deceased could move between the burial chamber and the offering chapels. The earliest example of a serdab may be seen in the first dynasty tomb of Den at Abydos; an especially well-known example is that in Djoser's Step Pyramid complex.

The growing elaboration of both super- and substructures in Early Dynastic mastaba tombs laid the foundation for one of the most dramatic and sudden changes to be see in mortuary architecture: the appearance of the pyramid as the royal burial place, the earliest known example of which is the third dynasty Step Pyramid complex of Djoser (Netjerykhet) at Saqqara. Fortunately for Egyptology, for more than seventy years, since 1926, this remarkable monument has been carefully excavated and studied by an equally remarkable scholar, Jean-Philippe Lauer. It is to his work that we owe our picture of the Step Pyramid complex and the origin of Egyptian pyramids generally.

A pyramid, the elaborate complex of buildings that surrounded it, and the huge bureaucracy needed to maintain it and perform the functions it was intended to serve were of profound importance. A pyramid was intended as the burial place of the pharaoh, but the complex also served as a temple to the god Horus, with whom the pharaoh was identified in this life, and to Osiris, with whom he would be identified in the next. Thus, the pyramid was not merely a tomb; it was a physical and symbolic expression of the relationship Egyptians believed existed among ordinary humans, the pharaoh, and the gods. Its design and content were of such importance we must assume that its every aspect was the result of careful and regular deliberations about sacred beliefs and practices. Changes made in mortuary architecture or funerary cults were the result of rethinking the man-god relationship and speculating about the nature of the afterlife. Such changes would not have been made frivolously; they reflected the Egyptians constantly evolving ideas about life and death. To understand Egyptian mortuary architecture, we must therefore know as much as possible about Egyptian religious beliefs, kingship, folk traditions, and such secular matters as economics and politics. Unfortunately, we shall almost certainly never have enough data to be able to think like an ancient Egyptian or to explain fully the meaning of these monuments and their component parts. But we should remember that, for the Egyptians, there were compelling reasons for building mortuary monuments as they did. Tombs neither grew randomly nor changed form or content without reason.

The Step Pyramid changed dramatically throughout Djoser's reign. Later tradition says that it was the work of a great architect and wise man, Imhotep. If he actually existed, he is the first architect in history to whom we can give a name. In a series of six building phases, Imhotep took what had begun as a relatively small mastaba super-structure and changed it into a step pyramid that rose in six stages to a final height of more than 60 meters (192 feet). Its base covered over 12,000 square meters (128,640 square feet), and it contained over 330,000 cubic meters (10.6 million cubic feet) of limestone blocks. Beneath the pyramid, more than 30 meters (100 feet) below ground, workmen cut a labyrinthine series of corridors nearly 6 kilometers (4 miles) long, then filled them with more than forty thousand stone vessels and countless other funerary offerings, including objects of earlier kings, perhaps family heirlooms or historical reminders of Djoser's antecedents. A huge central shaft, measuring 7 × 7 × 28 meters (22 × 22 × 90 feet), led from the surface down to a granite burial chamber at the center of the subterranean complex. Above ground, surrounding the pyramid, a 10-meter-high (32-foot-high) stone enclosure wall with a simple niched facade extended 1,600 meters (5,120 feet) north to south and 300 meters (960 feet) east to west. Within it lay open courtyards, dummy buildings, courts for religious festivals, and mortuary temples—structures thought necessary not only for the requisite funeral ceremonies but also for the pharaoh's activities in the afterlife.

At the southern end of the Step Pyramid enclosure, a staircase descended more than 28 meters (90 feet) below the enclosure wall into a much smaller but no less complex series of corridors and chambers. Here, too, another huge shaft led to a granite chamber. This was Djoser's so-called Southern Tomb. It has been called the cenotaph of Djoser (especially by those who argue that the Early Dynastic tombs at Abydos were cenotaphs, while those at Saqqara were true royal burials, not the other way round). Others contend that it was the burial place of Djoser's ka.

Only two other certain stepped pyramid complexes were built after Djoser's: one by his successor, Horus Sekhemkhet, also at Saqqara; and another by the next king, Khaba, at Zawiyet el-Aryan, halfway between Saqqara and Giza. That of Sekhemkhet was intended to be larger than Djoser's, but it was never finished and, apparently, never used. The so-called Layer Pyramid of Khaba is smaller than Djoser's, and it too was unoccupied. Both of these step pyramids show subterranean chamber plans similar to each other but significantly different from that of the Djoser complex. (Seven other stepped pyramids, none more than about 15 meters [48 feet] high, were constructed late in the third dynasty at sites as far south as Elephantine; they seem to have been purely symbolic structures, erected near sites of religious or royal significance.)

Sneferu, first king of the fourth dynasty, may be credited as Egypt's greatest builder of pyramids and as builder both of the last step pyramid and the first “true” pyramid. His pyramid at Meidum was begun as a step pyramid of seven stages, then eight, then finally changed to a true pyramid with sides that sloped upward at an angle of 51° 50′. A 58-meter-long (185-foot-long) passage descends through the pyramid's north face to a horizontal, subterranean corridor, then extends vertically to a small, corbelled burial chamber, the floor of which lies at ground level. This basic plan, seen here for the first time, was to be followed by most later pyramid builders. So was Sneferu's addition of a small “satellite pyramid” adjacent to the main one, and his construction of a causeway reaching from the Nile Valley westward to the enclosure wall of the pyramid complex.

For reasons that are unclear, Sneferu also built two other pyramids, each substantially larger than that at Meidum, 25 kilometers (15.6 miles) to the north at the site of Dahshur. One is called the North (or Red) Pyramid, and the other is the Bent Pyramid; each has from two to three times the volume of the pyramid at Meidum. The variations in design of Sneferu's three pyramids suggest that his reign was a period of experimentation with pyramid design, and the variations were almost certainly due as much to theological considerations as to problems of engineering and stability.

The best-known pyramids, of course, are the three built in the fourth dynasty on the Giza Plateau: the Great Pyramid of Khufu, the Pyramid and Sphinx of Khafre, and the Pyramid of Menkaure. Between construction of the first and second of these, there also was a pyramid constructed by Djedefre, son of Khufu and his successor as pharaoh, at Abu Roash, about 10 kilometers (6.25 miles) north of Giza. The pyramids of Khufu and Khafre are the largest ever built: each contains more than 2 million cubic meters (64 million cubic feet) of stone. That of Menkaure has only a tenth as much; that of Djedefre only a twentieth.

By any standard, the Giza Pyramids are impressive, but each was just a part of what by the fourth dynasty had come to be a fairly standard complex that included the pyramid, a mortuary temple (although there is some question as to whether it was ever used as such), an enclosure wall and causeway, pits for sacred barks, a valley temple, smaller pyramids for principal wives, cemeteries for officials and noblemen, and extensive domestic buildings that housed the large number of priests, servants, craftsmen, and others needed to ensure the proper functioning of the royal funerary cult.

During the fifth and sixth dynasties, another dozen pyramids were constructed, but on a much smaller scale than those at Giza, and with rubble fill replacing the large cut limestone blocks used in earlier construction. The pyramid itself is of reduced size in these complexes, but there is greater emphasis on such other features as the mortuary temple. Most of these pyramids were built either at Abusir, a site just north of Saqqara, or at Saqqara itself. Thanks to the discovery of several very fragmentary papyri at Abusir, we know something about the economy and administration of such temple complexes. Pyramid


Tombs: An Overview. The restored columned portico of the family tomb of Seshemnefer at Giza. late fifth or early sixth dynasty. (Courtesy Dieter Arnold)

complexes and their mortuary cults were enormous, expensive institutions and clearly formed very significant components of the Egyptian economy and bureaucracy. Indeed, some Egyptologists have attributed the economic and political decline of Old Kingdom Egypt in part to the expense of maintaining these funerary endowments.

With the reign of Unas at the end of the fifth dynasty, royal pyramids came to include hieroglyphic religious texts, called Pyramid Texts, on the walls of the burial chamber and its antechamber. These texts provide us with important clues to the funerary, offering, and magical rituals associated with the burial of a pharaoh and his anticipated role in the afterlife. Pyramid Texts grew increasingly elaborate during the sixth dynasty; by the First Intermediate Period, they also came to be inscribed in nonroyal tombs. They were replaced in the Middle Kingdom by Coffin Texts, and in the New Kingdom by the Book of Going Forth by Day (Book of the Dead).

During the First Intermediate Period, a few small pyramids were constructed—two at Saqqara and one in Middle Egypt; several so-called saff tombs at Ta'arif on the western bank of the Nile at Thebes apparently had small pyramids in their entrance courtyards. But except for these few examples, most tombs during this time were small rock-cut tombs laid out in varying provincial styles. These tombs, dependent on locally available materials and labor, varied greatly in size and quality, although their basic plan was the same as rock-cut tombs of the Old Kingdom, such as those at Giza or Aswan. Among the principal sites of First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom rock-cut tombs, one also should note Beni Hasan, Deshasheh, Sheikh Said, Meir, Bersheh, and Qaw.

The tradition of constructing large royal pyramids was revived during the Middle Kingdom. At el-Lisht, Amenemhet I and Senwosret I each built pyramids of, respectively, 55 and 61 meters (176 and 195 feet) in height; at Dahshur, their several successors built pyramids about 75 meters (240 feet) high. Surrounding Amenemhet I's pyramid was a series of twenty-two pit burials for royal women, and there were also small mastabas within the enclosure. The pyramid of Senwosret, little more than a hill of rubble today, was a large structure surrounded by nine subsidiary pyramids, apparently for wives of the pharaoh. The Dahshur pyramid of Senwosret III also had six queens' pyramids within its enclosure. But in the pyramid complex of Amenemhet III, also at Dahshur, queens' pyramids were abandoned, and two suites of rooms within the king's pyramids were set aside for his principal wives. Several Middle Kingdom pyramids (that of Amenemhet III at Haware, for example) show experimentation with ways to thwart tomb robbers by installing sliding blocks, dummy chambers, blind alleys, and other techniques, but they were not successful.

Only a few pyramids or mastabas were constructed after the Middle Kingdom. Mastabas are found at level sites where cliffs are unavailable for rock-cut tombs and/or in districts where deliberately archaizing funerary customs were in favor. There are small pyramids associated with workmen's tombs in the New Kingdom Theban village of Deir el-Medina, and rather more impressive pyramid fields at such Nubian sites as el-Kurru, Nurri, and Meroë (which date to date to late dynastic times and continue into the fourth century CE). But for the most part, after the Middle Kingdom, both kings and noblemen were interred in rock-cut tombs.

Rock-cut tombs, sepulchers cut horizontally into a cliff face or hillside, appeared in Egypt in the third to fourth dynasties, perhaps first in quarries on the Giza Plateau, and slightly later at sites in Upper Egypt, where they became extremely common. At first, these rock-cut tombs were similar to small mastabas in their interior plan, but the serdab was replaced by deeply cut relief figures of the deceased and his family carved in the tomb's rear wall. The burial chamber lay below, accessible down a vertical shaft. Later, the burial chamber might be found beneath the forecourt or even some distance from the tomb-chapel itself. By the fifth to sixth dynasties, the plans of rock-cut tombs were following their own line of development, a line that quickly led to more and larger chambers, a columned portico, and interior pillared halls.

By the Middle Kingdom rock-cut tombs had become common, and at several large necropolises—Beni Hasan, Nag el-Deir, Gebelein, and Asyut, for example—many superbly carved and decorated examples may be found. The tombs at these sites vary in size, chamber proportions, and plan, suggesting that different areas of Upper Egypt followed different mortuary traditions. Examples of such differences may be seen by comparing tombs at Deir Rifa, Nag el-Mashaykh, Abydos, Esna, Elkab, and Hierakon-polis.

One of the most important sites of rock-cut tombs is the Theban necropolis. Tombs may be found here from the later Old Kingdom onward, initially small and relatively isolated. Under the eleventh dynasty Inyotefs, the tombs were cut in clusters in the faces of large sunken courtyards—and hence are called “saff” or “row” tombs—and consisted of one to four small chambers in one or two of which pillars (one or two of them) were carved. By the New Kingdom, hundreds of rock-cut tombs were carved at Thebes, occupying virtually all of the hillsides (but few of the sheer cliffs) in the Theban necropolis.

Private rock-cut Theban tombs are of three general types: those with a rectangular façade and a central entrance; those with a pyramid in a courtyard at the front of the tomb; and those with columned or pillared porticos at their entrance. Generally, beyond the courtyard and doorway, there is a long, narrow chamber at right angles to the entry axis, called the wsḫt (broad hall); beyond that lies a long hallway, its axis at right angles to that of the wsḫt; at the end of the hallway is a small shrine or naos. It is a simple cruciform plan. Some tombs have an additional square chamber between the wsḫt and the long hallway, and sometimes that chamber contains a varying number of pillars.

The best-known rock-cut tombs are those of the New Kingdom pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings at Thebes. Their plans are more elaborate than private tombs, and they are substantially larger. Their chambers can occupy hundreds of cubic meters, and it is clear that they were not simply repositories for foodstuffs and funerary equipment but played a significant role in the processes intended to ensure the continued functioning of kingship and the balance of maat after the death of a pharaoh. Such important objectives demanded that the decoration of royal tombs be more formal and more focused on religious themes than that of private tombs. Especially good examples of the various plans and decorative programs of royal tombs may be seen in the tombs of Thutmose III and IV, Horemheb, Sety I, and Ramesses III. Tomb five in the Valley of the Kings, the burial place of several sons of Ramesses II, is the largest and most unusual tomb ever found in Egypt, boasting well over a hundred chambers and corridors.

Following the New Kingdom, royal tombs were built in the Nile Delta, where environmental conditions precluded the use of features common to tombs in Upper Egypt. It was not unusual for tombs to be built in courtyards cut beneath temple compounds. At Thebes, private tombs continued to be dug, some of them among the largest complexes of chambers and corridors to be found in Egypt (e.g., tomb 33, Pedamonopet; tomb 34, Montuemhet; tomb 37, Harwa). Many contain details taken from the architecture of earlier times (e.g., the use of the niched façade).

There are numerous other necropolises in Egypt from the Late period and from Greek and Roman times, including Coptos, Beni Hasan, el-Hiba, Giza, el-Fostat, and Al-exandria. At Saqqara, the Serapeum, the burial place of sacred Apis bulls from the New Kingdom onward, must certainly rank as one of the most impressive examples of Egyptian rock-cut tombs.



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Kent R. Weeks

Royal Tombs

The Egyptian idea of kingship attributed divine spiritual qualities to the king, in addition to his mortal nature, but this divine aspect did not keep a pharaoh's human body from dying. In order to resolve this conflict between reality and theology, an enormous mechanism was created to explain and correct this calamity. Essentially, the king's body had to be properly buried like those of everyone else, but the body was understood not to be dead, and the burial place was not a tomb in the modern sense but rather a station for transitional or spiritual events. With the help of funerary rituals, rich grave goods, the magic of spells and pictures on the tomb walls, and a powerful symbolic architectural framework, the “dead” king was revived and his eternal life and rulership established. The ideas and methods changed over the course of the millenia, and the degree of material investment in this mechanism varied from kings of inferior status to rulers of high prestige and godlike qualities. Thus, the diminishing divine power of the king after the end of the New Kingdom is reflected in the royal tombs of the twenty-first and twenty-second dynasties at Tanis.


Several royal burials have been found intact, albeit of ephemeral kings: Tutankhamun, Amenemope, Psusennes, Sheshonq II, and Osorkon II. In several other royal tombs robbers overlooked or left parts of the burial and the grave goods. These objects, together with parallels from private tombs and representations in tomb paintings, help us to reconstruct the ideal contents of a royal funerary assemblage. The basic burial of a royal body was not much different from that of a wealthy private person, but ideally, it had to outshine private funerary equipment in both quantity and quality. The grave goods consisted of personal belongings—objects of daily use, weapons, and tools—and of the official regalia (crowns, scepters, jewelry, etc.). However, the divine aspect of the pharaoh also required magic objects that made his resurrection possible and protected him in the next life: for example, multitudes of shrines with images of deities, and huge ceremonial resurrection beds with the heads of Hathor, cheetah, and hippotamus. Vessels with food provisions, oils, and ointments, which predominated in the grave goods in early times, were gradually reduced in consequence of the development of daily offering ceremonies. The complete grave goods of one of the great kings must have been overwhelming.

During the first three dynasties, the royal body probably rested in a wooden coffin, of which no traces have survived. From Khufu on, the body was placed in a stone sarcophagus. During the Old Kingdom the royal sarcophagus is plain and box-shaped; it may have housed one or several inner wooden coffins. In the the Middle Kingdom the royal granite sarcophagus has the symbolic shape of a Lower Egyptian reed shrine standing inside a paneled enclosure with gates. Some early New Kingdom sarcophagi are of red quartzite and are made in the shape of a royal cartouche. The corners of those of the later eighteenth dynasty are sculpted with figures of the protective goddesses Isis, Nephthys, Neith, and Selket. On the lid of the sarcophagi of Merenptah and Tawosret, the figure of the deceased is shown in the round. From the twelfth dynasty on, the royal body was enclosed in an anthropoid coffin of gilded wood. Like the bark of the gods, the sarcophagus is sheltered by a huge gilded wooden shrine. Similarly the canopic chest receives, from the twelfth dynasty, a burial of its own in a separate chamber; accordingly the shape and size of the canopic box represent a smaller version of the sarcophagus.


The royal tombs of the Early Dynastic period are clustered around the Umm el-Qaʿab at Abydos. They apparently reflected the dwelling aspect of the eternal existence in the afterworld. A huge, cabin-like wooden chamber is sunk under the desert surface and protected by a brick retaining wall with small, niche-like side chambers. Some walls seem to have been sheathed with green faience tiles depicting an otherworldly palace. Above ground, stelae with the royal name marked a flat, mastaba-like platform. The main tomb is surrounded by a considerable number of smaller tombs of servants, who may have been sacrificed at the king's death. In the second dynasty, more side chambers were added for the storage of the enormous quantities of grave goods, and access to


Tombs: Royal Tombs The fourth dynasty mastaba of Shepseskaf at Saqqara. (Courtesy Dieter Arnold)

the tombs was provided by straight staircases. Also at Abydos, but at a distance from the actual burial tombs, monumental brick enclosures (known as “forts”) supply the second important aspect of the royal afterlife. Completely above ground and without underground chambers, they seem to be models of palace-fortresses or arenas for the display of royal ceremonies in the afterlife. Table 1 lists the identified royal tombs of the Early Dynastic period.

Monumental, elaborate mastabas of the first dynasty at Saqqara North, excavated by Walter B. Emery beginning in 1936, are no longer believed to be the tombs of kings. At least the kings Hotepsekhemwy, Ranebi, Ninuter (and perhaps Khasekhemwy) of the second dynasty built huge underground gallery tombs at Saqqara, and in the Western Desert vast stone enclosures seem to represent the associated “forts” or “palaces.” The underground apartments still represent the tomb type of a residential palace surrounded by enormous galleries filled with supplies. The aboveground structures are lost.

A new type of otherworldly residence was designed for King Djoser at Saqqara. For the first time, a huge, multi-layered superstructure was built in stone, representing a full-scale palace city. The complex contains two similar underground tombs under stone mastabas, the northern one probably the tomb for the royal body. Later the northern mastaba was transformed into a 60-meter-high (192-foot-high) step mastaba. The chambers are huge granite boxes surrounded by a system of corridors ornamented with a façade of reed palaces cased with green faience tiles. Enormous underground galleries were filled with pottery and stone vessels containing food.

Table 1. Royal Tombs of the Early Dynastic Period.

Dynasty “0”
 Ka Abydos B 7–9, 1–2
First dynasty
 Narmer Abydos B 17–18
 Aha Abydos B 10–15–19
 Djer Abydos O (326); fort A (269)
 Djet Abydos Z (174); fort B (154)
 Merneith Abydos Y (41); fort C (?)
 Den Abydos T (121); fort C (?) (80)
 Enedjib Abydos X (63); fort D (?)
 Semsem Abydos U (69); fort D (?)
 Ka'a Abydos Q (26); fort at Deir Sitt Damiana
Second dynasty
 Hotepsekhemwy Saqqara, near Unas
 Ranebi Saqqara?
 Ninuter Saqqara
 Peribsen Abydos P; “Middle Fort”
 Khasekemwy Abydos V; fort at Shunet el-Zebib

Some ephemeral successors of Djoser began building similar complexes that were all to be provided with a step mastaba. They remained unfinished and display the gradual abandonment of the idea of a huge otherworldly residence.

A new building type, probably expressing a more heavenly aspect, appeared under Sneferu, culminating in the first true monumental pyramids. The burial apartments are partially elevated into the pyramid core, and the burial chambers, with the help of corbeled roof construction, achieve the enormous interior height of 15 meters (48 feet). The galleries for the grave goods have disappeared. These architectural features and the simultaneous appearance of a superstructure in pyramid shape suggest a reorientation of ideas about the royal afterlife under Sneferu, probably in consequence of the growing importance of the solar religion. The royal tombs of Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure follow this tendency and are marked by the enormous size of their pyramids. The funerary apartments still show experimental changes and are marked by efforts to protect the roofs of the entrance passage and the crypt against structural damage. So-called air shafts in the pyramids of Khufu and Khafre were probably meant to permit communication between the royal chamber and heaven.

The long experimental period ended with Menkaure, and under Shepseskaf (in the Mastabat Fara'un), a scheme for the underground chambers emerges that would predominate in royal tombs of the Old and Middle Kingdoms. The burial crypts from Khufu on are dominated by the royal stone sarcophagus. The rectangular crypt is oriented east-west so that the sarcophagus can occupy the short western side, with its head to the north. The entrance opens opposite it from an antechamber to the east. From Khafre on, the ceiling of the chamber is usually saddle-shaped because of the efficiency of this building form in supporting the heavy pressure of the pyramid core, and also because of the symbolic, heavenlike tent shape of the ceiling. Additional granite beams or several layers of sloping limestone beams protect the interior ceiling slabs. A narrow, shallow, sloping passage enters the antechamber from the north. After the funeral, this passage was blocked with several huge portcullises. One or three chambers—probably wrongly termed serdab—branch off to the east of the antechamber; these may have contained grave goods. This type of underground apartment is closely connected with the aboveground form of the pyramid. Both architectural units seem to aim at the transformation of the king, apparently through permitting his participation in the daily voyage of the sun. He would leave his tomb through the top of the pyramid in the morning in order to join Re-Horakhty in his bark and return into the tomb at sunset. Table 2 lists known royal pyramids of the Old Kingdom.

Table 2. Royal Pyramids of the Old Kingdom. The dimensional measurements are given first in cubits (then in meters).

Pyramid Angle Base Height
Meidum M3 51°51′ 275 (144.32) 175 (92)
Bent Pyramid (Sneferu) 54°31′ (upper, 44°30′) 360 (189) 200 (105)
Dahshur North (Sneferu) 45° 420 (220) 200 (105)
Khufu 51°50′40″ 440 (230.36) 280 (146.5)
Djedefre 60° 200 (105) 175 (92)
Zawiet el-Arjan 210 (110)
Khafre 53°10′ 410 (215.29) 275 (143.87)
Menkaure 51° 200 (105.5) 125 (65.55)
Userkaf 53° 140 (73.3) 94 (49)
Sahure 50°45′ 150 (78.75) −(50)
Neferefre 125 (65)
Djedkare 52° 150 (78.75)
Unas 56° 110 (57.70) −(43)
Teti 150 (78.75) 100 (52.5)
Pepy I 150 (78.75) 100 (52.5)
Merenre 175 (90–95)
Pepy II 53°13′ 150 (78.75) 100 (52.5)

The crypts of the pyramids of the twelfth dynasty only partially follow the Old Kingdom pattern; one difference is the existence of a separate side chamber for the canopic burial. The crypt of Senwosret I, which is lost in the ground water, may have copied the Old Kingdom ground plan, as does the granite crypt of Senwosret III. However, the relatively modest tomb of Amenemhet I does not differ from contemporary private tombs. The crypts and passages in the tombs of Amenemhet II and Senwosret II develop unique plans of their own, without exact prototypes. The tomb of Amenemhet III at Dahshur has an enormous system of chambers and passages that may have housed grave goods or represented mythical localities. After structural damage, the pyramid was abandoned, and the underground apartment of Amenemhet III's second pyramid at Hawara reflects an overriding concern for basic safety principles: a monolithic crypt, and massive protective roof construction to resist pressure from above. Table 3 lists the known royal pyramids of the twelfth dynasty.

The tombs of the kings of the thirteenth dynasty also concentrate on the protection of the royal sarcophagus (which becomes one with the chamber) and on mechanisms for blocking the passages. The tombs of the seventeenth dynasty kings at Dra Abul Naga (Western Thebes) are relatively simple rock-cut tombs beneath a brick pyramid with a cult chapel. Their architectural remains were lost again after their discovery and robbing in 1827.

A new type of royal tomb appears only with the New Kingdom, influenced by local conditions in the Valley of the Kings at Thebes. Beneath the vertical limestone cliffs, sloping passages and staircases lead into deeply hidden crypts. These rock-cut tombs have no superstructure, but their entrance sections seem to have been partially accessible for ceremonial purposes. The sloping access corridors and staircases of the tombs down to Amenhotpe III show a 90° bend or curve (in the case of Hatshepsut) that is considered to be characteristic of the tomb of Osiris at Abydos. Each corridor branch ends in a chamber; the upper one probably marks a ceremonial tomb, and the lower one is the burial crypt with the sarcophagus. Crypts from Thutmose I to Thutmose III have rounded corners; apparently their oval shape may represent a royal cartouche, or the twelfth nocturnal hour of the Book of That Which Is in the Underworld (Amduat). From Amenhotpe II on, the sarcophagus stands in the rear part of a huge pillared burial hall, and from Thutmose IV on, in a deeply recessed basin. A deep shaft, considered to be dedicated to Sokar, separates the sloping entrance passage from the interior of the tomb.

Table 3. Royal Pyramids of the Twelfth Dynasty. The dimensional measurements are given first in cubits (then in meters).

Pyramid Angle Base Height
Amenemhet I 54° 160 (84) 112 (59)
Senwosret I 49°24′ 200 (105.23) 116 (61.25)
Amenemhet II? 160 (84)
Senwosret II 42°35′ 200 (105.88) −(48.65)
Senwosret III 50° 200 (105) −(61.25)
Amenemhet III (Dahshur) 54–56° 200 (105) 143? (75?)
Amenemhet III (Hawara) 48–52° 200 (102) 110? (58?)

From Horemheb on, the axis of the tomb (except in the tomb of Ramesses II) is straight but splits into a second parallel section which leads to the actual lower crypt. The upper section is considered to be a secondary, symbolic tomb for the king as a personification of Osiris. The lower burial hall develops into an impressive architectural space. The roof of the crypt is slightly vaulted and supported by two rows of four pillars. The area between the pillars is lowered and contains the prominent sarcophagus. Here the Osiris king was thought to unite with the sun god. The crypt is surrounded by a number of side chapels, some for storage and some dedicated to deities of the underworld. During the Ramessid period, the entrance shaft and the steep staircases disappear and the originally considerable slope of the passages is flattened out, assimilating the tomb to the form of a rock-cut temple. An unusual feature is the very slight increase in the dimensions of the doors, passages, number of pillars, and size of the sarcophagus. The royal tombs in the main valley are as follows:

Thutmose I and Hatshepsut KV 20 (KV = Valley of the Kings)
Thutmose II KV 42
Thutmose III KV 34
Amenhotpe II KV 35
Thutmose IV KV 43
Tutankhamun KV 62
Ramesses I KV 16
Sety I KV 17
Ramesses II KV 7
Sons of Ramesses II KV 5
Merenptah KV 8
Sety II KV 15
Amenmesse KV 10
Siptah KV 47
Horemheb KV 57
Twosret and Sethnakhte KV 14
Ramesses III KV 11
Ramesses IV KV 2
Ramesses V and VI KV 9
Ramesses VII KV 1
Ramesses IX KV 6
Ramesses XI KV 4
Amenhotpe III WV 22 (WV = Western Valley)
Ay WV 23

The tombs of the kings of later periods were built as temple tombs in the residence cities of the Delta. Some of the royal tombs of the twenty-first and twenty-second dynasties were found by Pierre Montet in 1939 at Tanis. The 50 × 60-meter complex contains the tombs of Psusennes I, Amenemope, Osorkon II, Sheshonq III, and some other high-ranking persons. They stand in the forecourt of the temple of Amun. Because of the level of ground water, the chambers are situated close beneath the surface. They are massive stone constructions with a small antechamber and a niche for the sarcophagus. As an exception, the kings of the Kushite twenty-fifth dynasty were again buried in plain rock-cut chamber tombs beneath small, steep pyramids in the cemeteries of el-Kurru and Nuri at Napata. The tombs of the twenty-sixth dynasty (Apries, Amasis) in the temple of Neith at Sais are lost, but from descriptions by Herodotus (II.169), it is known that the sarcophagus stood in an aboveground shrine surrounded by palm columns. Some tombs of the twenty-ninth and thirtieth dynasties were situated in Mendes; they were destroyed by the Persians in 343 BCE. Remains of the tomb of Nepherites are preserved. The sarcophagus of Nektanebo II was found dislocated in Alexandria (Brit. Mus. EA 10).

The tombs of Alexander the Great and the Ptolemies were separate mausoleum buildings, probably in a mixed classical and pharaonic style, some topped with pyramids. They stood in the Sêma (Sôma) of the royal palace at Alexandria. Ptolemy VI built a common mausoleum for Alexander and the early Ptolemies; the precise location of the cemetery is unknown but is supposed to be in the quarter of the Nabi Danial mosque.


The oldest example of decoration in a royal tomb is the depiction of the starry sky on the ceiling of Djoser's burial chamber. Tomb walls were inscribed from the time of King Unas on with the Pyramid Texts, covering the walls of the entrance passage, antechamber, and burial chamber (tombs of Unas, Tety, Pepy I, Merenre, Pepy II, and Ibi). The royal tombs of the Middle Kingdom all seem to be uninscribed; the texts may have been transferred onto the wooden coffins.

When decoration reappears in the eighteenth dynasty, the program has changed. All tombs from Thutmose I to Ramesses XI are decorated with religious texts and scenes, at first only painted, but from Horemheb on in relief. The decoration and text mainly address the extension of the king's life and rule in the netherworld. From relatively simple inscriptions in tombs from Thutmose I to III, which are restricted to the Book of That Which Is in The Underworld, more complicated textual programs develop, including the Book of Gates and Book of Caverns. The old motive of ensuring the king's participation in the daily journey of the sun is further developed, culminating in the hope that the king might not only travel through the realm of the underworld but also rise with the sun (the Solar Litany near the tomb entrance). Impressive are the huge astronomical representations in the vaults of Ramessid sarcophagus halls. The increasing decorative program of the New Kingdom seems to be one reason for the extension of the tomb chambers and walls.

Spiritual Tombs or Cenotaphs

The more spiritual, otherworldly aspects of the king also needed an architectural stage, and this was provided in the form of an empty tomb, or cenotaph. Such secondary royal tombs are known from all periods, but we do not understand with which property of the king they were associated, mainly because they are not inscribed or decorated. The difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that some kings have not just one but several cenotaphs. Were they meant for the ka, or for the official aspect of kingship, or were they intended as a god's tomb—perhaps Osiris or Sokar? Some are probably canopic burials; others may simply be abandoned tomb projects. Because the cenotaph is associated with the divine aspects of the king, it has almost no parallel in private tomb architecture. Following is a list of known cenotaphs of the Old Kingdom:

Djoser 1. Stepped Mastaba at Saqqara
2. South tomb at Saqqara
Sneferu 1. Pyramid of Meidum
2. Secondary Pyramid of Meidum
3. Bent Pyramid of Dahshur north tomb
4. Bent Pyramid at Dahshur western tomb
5. Secondary pyramid at Bent Pyramid
6. Pyramid of Seila
Khufu 1. Lower chamber of Giza Pyramid (?)
2. Middle chamber of Giza Pyramid (?)
3. Secondary pyramid at Giza
Khafre 1. Lower chamber of Giza Pyramid (?)
2. Secondary pyramid south of Giza Pyramid
Menkaure 1. Upper chamber of Giza Pyramid (?)
2. Secondary pyramid south of Giza Pyramid

All succeeding kings of the Old Kingdom have only one burial crypt and a smaller, secondary pyramid at the southeastern corner of the main pyramid, which certainly are symbolic tombs, because their chambers are too small for a regular coffin or burial. The last secondary pyramid is that of Senwosret I at el-Lisht.

Some royal tombs of the Middle Kingdom also show other installations for symbolic burials of unknown purpose. In the chamber of the Bab el-Hosan of Nebhepetre Mentuhotep at Deir el-Bahri, an empty coffin and a seated statue of the king colored black (as Osiris?) and wearing sed-festival dress were found (Egyptian Museum, Cairo, JE 36195). Senwosret III built a subsidiary tomb in the northeast of his pyramid at Dahshur. His main achievement was, however, his cenotaph at Abydos, comprising four different tomb sections. Finally, Amenemhet III apparently had a “south tomb” inside his Dahshur pyramid, in addition to numerous other chambers of unknown purpose.

Cenotaphs were not necessarily empty. They might incorporate a sarcophagus, as well as grave goods or a statue of the king (e.g., Mentuhotep), or perhaps a royal ka-statue (as for King Hor at Dahshur; Egyptian Museum, Cairo, JE 30948).

The royal tombs of the New Kingdom seem to have contained installations for a subsidiary burial. From Thutmose III on, an upper antechamber of the burial crypt develops into a separate tomb. During the nineteenth dynasty, royal tombs clearly show an independent upper tomb with a pillared chamber that did not, however, have a sarcophagus of its own. A staircase at its side leads into the real crypt at a lower level. Kings Ahmose and Sety I, following the prototype of Senwosret III, built enormous cenotaphs—or rather, Osiris tombs—at Abydos. The royal tombs of later periods no longer contain cenotaph-like features.

Cult Installations at Royal Tombs

The double nature of the king is also reflected in the two different types of post-mortem ceremonies carried out at the royal tombs relating to pyramid temples. From Sneferu on, buildings for these cults were erected in the pyramid enclosure, starting with modest stone buildings set against the east side of the pyramid (Meidum, Dahshur) and later developing into huge temples (Giza, Abusir, Saqqara). The divine aspect of the king is treated in the same way as that of the “real” gods. The king receives a statue cult similar to that of the gods; the earliest identifiable is located in the so-called valley temple of the Bent Pyramid. A much larger valley and pyramid temple was built for Khafre, dominated by huge installations for a royal statue cult. Simpler versions of this statue temple developed into the front part of the standard pyramid temples of the later Old Kingdom.

The second, inner part of the pyramid temple derives from a different source. With the gradual diminishing of divine powers and qualities at the end of the fourth dynasty, the dead king became a more human entity in need of the assistance of his surviving subjects. This resulted in a royal mortuary cult with features similar to those of private practice. From the time of Shepseskaf and Userkaf, offering halls for this mortuary cult were included in the pyramid temples of the fifth and sixth dynasties, and later in those of the twelfth. The last examples of this type of pyramid temple were built for Senwosret I at el-Lisht and Amenemhet II at Dahshur. A smaller secondary offering chapel was built in the center of the north side of the pyramids, covering the pyramid entrance. It might have originated in the secondary false door niche at the northern end of private mastabas of the fourth dynasty.

During the Middle Kingdom the old forms were soon emptied of their original significance and the new situation met by the creation of a new type of royal cult temple that was separate from the pyramid and its cult. In these sanctuaries, cults of gods probably played a more significant role and served as a kind of support system for the cult of the king. The prototypes of this new cult form are the huge temple south of the pyramid of Senwosret III, and the so-called Labyrinth at the pyramid of Amenemhet III at Hawara.

These royal cult temples of the late twelfth dynasty seem to have developed into the so-called mortuary temples for the kings of the New Kingdom, most of which are situated on the western bank of the Nile at Thebes and are designated “mansions of millions of years.” The main cultic feature seems to have been the linking of the cult of Amun-Re with that of the dead king. The temples are marked by a specific architectural program.

The royal tombs of the New Kingdom seem to have been accessible for some cultic activities even after the funeral but do not display specific installations for that purpose. The cult chapels of the kings of the Late period have disappeared but certainly included provisions for a funerary cult.



General Works

  • Arnold, Dieter and Erik Hornung. “Königsgrab.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 3: 496–514. Wiesbaden, 1980.
  • Hornung, Erik. The Valley of the Kings. Translated from the German by David Warburton. New York, 1981.
  • Reeves, Nicholas. The Complete Valley of the Kings. New York, 1996.
  • Romer, John. Valley of the Kings. New York, 1981.

Early Period

  • Amélineau, Émile. Les nouvelles fouilles d'Abydos. 3 vols. Paris, 1899–1905.
  • Dreyer, Günter. “Umm el-Qaab. Nachuntersuchungen im frühzeitlichen Königsfriedhof.” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo 46 (1990), 53–90; 49 (1993), 23–62.
  • Dreyer, Günter. “Zur Rekonstruktion der Oberbauten der Königsgräber der 1. Dynastie in Abydos.” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo 47 (1991), 93–104.
  • Dreyer, Günter. “Recent Discoveries at Abydos Cemetery U.” In The Nile Delta in Transition: 4th.–3rd. Millennium B. C., edited by Edwin C. M. van den Brink, pp. 293–299. Tel Aviv, 1992.
  • Kaiser, Werner. “Zu den königlichen Talbezirken der 1. und 2. Dynastie in Abydos und zur Baugeschichte des Djoser-Grabmals.” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo 25 (1969), 1–21.
  • Kaiser, Werner, and Peter Grossmann. “Umm el-Qaab. Nachuntersuchungen im frühzeitlichen Königsfriedhof (1. Vorbericht).” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo 35 (1979), 155–163.
  • Kaiser, Werner, and Günter Dreyer. “Umm el-Qaab. Nachuntersuchungen im frühzeitlichen Königsfriedhof (2. Vorbericht).” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo 38 (1982), 211–269.
  • Kemp, Barry J. “Abydos and the Royal Tombs of the First Dynasty.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 52 (1966), 13–22.
  • Kemp, Barry J. “The Egyptian 1st Dynasty Royal Cemetery.” Antiquity 41 (1967), 22–32.
  • Lauer, Jean-Philippe. “Evolution de la tombe royale égyptienne jusque'à la pyramide à degrés.” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo 15 (1957), 148–165.
  • Lauer, Jean-Philippe. “Le développement des complexes funéraires royaux en Égypte.” Bulletin de l'Institut français d'archéologie Orientale 79 (1979), 355–394.
  • Mainz, R. “Sandtumulus oder Ziegelplatte?” Discussions in Egyptology 26 (1993), 25–46.
  • O'Connor, David. “New Funerary Enclosures (Talbezirke) of the Early Dynastic Period at Abydos.” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 26 (1989), 51–86.
  • Petrie, William M. Flinders. The Royal Tombs of the First Dynasty. 2 vols. London, 1900–1901.

Old Kingdom

  • Brinks, Jürgen. Die Entwicklung der Königlichen Grabanlagen des Alten Reiches: Eine strukturelle und historische Analyse altägyptischer Architektur. Hildesheimer Ägyptologische Beiträge, 10. Hildesheim, 1979.
  • Dreyer, Günter, and W. Kaiser. “Zu den kleinen Stufenpyramiden Ober- und Mittelägyptens.” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo 36 (1980), 43–59.
  • Dunham, Dows. The Royal Cemeteries of Kush. 5 vols. Cambridge, Mass., 1950–1963.
  • Dziobek, Eberhard. “Eine Grabpyramide des frühen NR in Theben.” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo 45 (1989), 109–132.
  • Edwards, I.E.S. The Pyramids of Egypt. Rev. ed. Harmondsworth, 1985.
  • Fakhry, Ahmed. The Pyramids. Chicago, 1961.
  • Grinsell, Leslie. Egyptian Pyramids. Gloucester, 1947.
  • Helck, Wolfgang. “Pyramiden.” In Paulys Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, edited by G. Wissowa, vol. 23, pp. 2167–2282. Stuttgart, 1959.
  • Hinkel, F. W. “Pyramiden im Sudan: Der Könligliche Nordfriedhof von Meroe.” Das Altertum 26 (1980), 77–88.
  • Hinkel, F. W. “Pyramiden oder Pyramidenstumpf?” Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache und Alterumskunde 108 (1981), 105–124.
  • Lauer, Jean-Philippe. Histoire monumentale des pyramides d'Égypte. Bibliothèque d'Étude, 39. Cairo, 1962.
  • Lauer, Jean-Philippe. Le mystère des pyramides. Paris, 1974.
  • Moret, A. “L'Influence du décor solaire sur la pyramide.” In Mélanges Maspero, pp. 623–636. Mémoires publiés par les membres de l'Institut Français d'archéologie orientale du Caire, 66–68. Cairo, 1935–1938.
  • O'Connor, David. “Boat Graves and Pyramid Origins.” Expedition: The Bulletin of the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania 33 (1991), 5–17.
  • Speleers, L. “La signification des Pyramides.” In Mélanges Maspero, pp. 603–621. Mémoires publiés par les membres de l'Institut Français d'archéologie orientale du Caire, 66–68. (Cairo, 1935–1938).
  • Stadelmann, Rainer. Die grossen Pyramiden von Giza. Graz, 1990.
  • Stadelmann, Rainer. Die ägyptischen Pyramiden. 2d ed., rev. & enl. Darmstadt, 1991.

Middle Kingdom

  • Arnold, Dieter. Der Tempel des Königs Mentuhotep von Deir el-Bahari. 3 vols. Archäologische Veröffentlichungen, Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Abteilung Kairo, 8. Mainz, 1974–1981.
  • Arnold, Dieter. The Temple of Mentuhotep at Deir el-Bahari. Publications of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Egyptian Expedition, 21. New York, 1979.
  • Arnold, Dieter. Der Pyramidenbezirk des Königs Amenemhet III. in Dahschur. Archäologische Veröffentlichungen, Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Abteilung Kairo, 53. Mainz, 1987.
  • Arnold, Dieter. The South Cemeteries of Lisht, vol. 1, The Pyramid of Senwosret I. Publications of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Egyptian Expedition, 22. New York, 1988.
  • Arnold, Dieter. The South Cemeteries of Lisht, vol. 3, The Pyramid Complex of Senwosret I. Publications of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Egyptian Expedition, 25. New York, 1992.
  • Gautier, J.-E., and G. Jéquier. Fouilles de Licht. Cairo, 1902. Herodotus, Book II, 148–149. Translated by A. D. Godley. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass., 1926.
  • Lythgoe, A. M. “The Egyptian Expedition.” Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art 2 (April, 1907), 61–63; 2 (July, 1907), 113–117; 3 (May, 1908), 83–84.
  • Mace, C. “The Egyptian Expedition.” Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art 3 (October, 1908), 184–188; (October, 1914), 207–222; 16 (November, 1921), 5–19; 17 (December, 1922), 4–18.
  • Morgan, Jacques D. Fouilles à Dahchour en 1894–1895. Vienna, 1903.
  • Morgan, Jacques D. Fouilles à Dahchour Mars-Juin 1894. Vienna, 1895.
  • Naville, Edouard. The XIth Dynasty Temple at Deir el-Bahari. 3 vols. London, 1907–1913.
  • Petrie, William M. Flinders. Hawara, Biahmu and Arsinoe. London, 1889.
  • Petrie, William M. Flinders. Kahun, Gurob and Hawara. London, 1890.
  • Petrie, William M. Flinders. The Labyrinth, Gerzeh and Mazghuneh. London, 1912.

New Kingdom

  • Abitz, Friedrich. Die religiöse Bedeutung der sogenannten Grabräuberschächte in den ägyptischen Königsgräbern der 18. bis 20. Dynastie. Ägyptologische Abhandlungen, 26. Wiesbaden, 1974.
  • Abitz, Friedrich. “The ‘Well’ in the King's Tombs of Bibân el-Moluk.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 64 (1978), 80–83.
  • Abitz, Friedrich. König und Gott. Ägyptologische Abhandlungen, 40. Wiesbaden, 1984.
  • Abitz, Friedrich. Baugeschichte und Dekoration des Grabes Ramses' VI. Orbis biblicus et orientalis, 89. Freiburg, 1989.
  • Abitz, Friedrich. “Die Entwicklung der Grabachsen in den Königsgräbern im Tal der Könige.” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo 45 (1989), 1–25.
  • Altenmüller, Hartwig. “Bemerkungen zu den Königsgräbern des Neuen Reiches.” Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur 10 (1983), 25–61.
  • Dodson, Aidan. “The Tombs of the Kings of the Early Eighteenth Dynasty at Thebes.” Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache und Alterumskunde 115 (1988), 110–123.
  • Helck, Wolfgang. “Königsgräbertal.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 3: 514–526. Wiesbaden, 1980.
  • Hornung, Erik. “Struktur und Entwicklung der Gräber im Tal der Könige.” Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache und Alterumskunde 105 (1978), 59–66.
  • Hornung, Erik. The Tomb of Pharaoh Seti I. Das Grab Sethos I. Zurich and Munich, 1991.
  • Hornung, Erik. Sethos, ein Pharaonengrab, pp. 32–43. Basel, 1991.
  • Reeves, Nicholas. Valley of the Kings: The Decline of a Royal Necropolis. London and New York, 1991.
  • Romer, John. Valley of the Kings. New York, 1981.
  • Thomas, Elizabeth. The Royal Necropoleis of Thebes. Princeton, 1966.
  • Winlock, H. E. “The Tombs of the Kings of the Seventeenth Dynasty at Thebes.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 10 (1924), 217–277.
  • Petrie, William M. Flinders, G. Brunton and M. A. Murray. Lahun, vol. 2. London, 1923.


  • Ayrton, Edward R., et al. Abydos pt. 3, 1904. London, 1904.
  • O'Connor, David. “The ‘Cenotaphs’ of the Middle Kingdom at Abydos.” Mélanges Gamal Eddin Mokhtar, edited by Paule Posener-Kriéger, pp. 161–177. Cairo, 1985.
  • Simpson, William Kelly. The Terrace of the Great God at Abydos: The Offering Chapels of Dynasties 12 and 13. New Haven, 1974.
  • Wegner, J. “South Abydos: Burial Place of the Third Senwosret?” KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt 6 (1995), 59–71.

Late Period

  • Badawy, A. Das Grab des Kronprinzen Scheschonk. Sohnes Osorkon's II. und Hohenpriesters von Memphis.” Annales du service des antiquités de l'Égypte 54 (1956), 153–177.
  • Edinburgh City Art Centre. Gold of the Pharaohs: Catalogue of the Exhibition of Treasures from Tanis. Edinburgh, 1988.
  • Fraser, P. M. Ptolemaic Alexandria, vol. 1, pp. 15ff. Oxford, 1972.
  • Goyon, Georges. La découverte des trésors de Tanis. Persea, France, 1987.
  • Herodotus, Book 2, 169–175. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass., 1946.
  • Jenni, Hanna. Das Dekorationsprogramm des Sarkophages Nektanebos II. Aegyptiaca Helvetica, 12. Geneva, 1986.
  • Montet, Pierre. La nécropole royale de Tanis. 3 vols. Paris, 1947–1960.
  • Stadelmann, Rainer. “Das Grab im Tempelhof: der Typus des Königsgrabes in der Spätzeit.” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo 27 (1971), 111–123.
  • Stadelmann, Rainer. “Tempelbestattung.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 6: 376–377. Wiesbaden, 1986.
  • Strabo, Book 17, 794, 802. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass., 1949.
  • Thiersch, H. “Die alexandrinische Königsnekropole.” Jahrbuch des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts 25 (1910), 55–97.

Dieter Arnold

Private Tombs

Both royal and private tombs in ancient Egypt shared the ideal prototype of a sepulchre with two distinct elements, the below-ground closed burial chamber (the substructure) and the above-ground offering place (the superstructure). Yet only private individuals of the very highest status could afford fully fledged examples of both. For most of Egyptian history, the execution of both elements differed between those provided for kings and those for others. Behind that division was the divine status of the king, one who was regarded as taking his place alongside his fellow deities in death, in contrast to the private person, who would in some form continue to enjoy in the afterlife his or her mode of life on earth.

Thus, while the offering places (mortuary temples) of the pharaohs closely followed in decoration and function the cult-places of the gods, those attached to private tombs were usually adorned with scenes of life on earth, with a view to magically re-creating the terrestrial environment in the hereafter. Some scholars argue that many such vignettes actually hold some ritual significance, particularly those with a view to the rebirth of the dead in the next world though an erotic subtext. Although such implications are quite possible, one should probably see them as secondary developments, during the New Kingdom, overlain on the basic re-creation of the earthly environment and its food-production potentialities. That would also seem to lie behind the models of daily life scenes that are found within the burial chambers of First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom tombs. [See MODELS.]

Apart from the agricultural food-production category of depictions (together with the production of clothing and other items of personal adornment), a number of others were found fairly consistently through time, although there were changes in emphasis during the different historical periods. First, there was the motif of the tomb owner and his family, in particular his wife, who usually shared her spouse's tomb. Sepulchres belonging to nonroyal women were probably those of the unmarried or divorced.

In addition to simple scenes of the owner and family as recipients of offerings, there were sometimes scenes relating to the owner's role in relation to the king, the fundamental relationship in determining a person's status in ancient Egypt. For that reason, in a number of eighteenth dynasty chapels, relevant office-bearers preserved copies of the statement of “Duties of the Vizier.” Officials who had served as tutors of royal children are shown with their charges upon their laps; when viewing such scenes it is important to realize that they may relate to periods of service that were far in their past at the time when the tomb was being decorated: an infant prince, in some cases, was actually the reigning sovereign by the time his image was inscribed upon a wall.

Hunting depictions are frequent from the Old through New Kingdoms, and they fall into four basic types. Three feature the tomb owner: fowling in the marshes on a light papyrus boat; hunting hippopotami in a similar manner; and hunting desert animals. The fourth comprises fishing or fowling by professionals, perhaps under the watchful gaze of the tomb owner. Sports and recreation were also shown; singing and dancing, perhaps in the context of a banquet, were most common, but there are Middle Kingdom examples of wrestling scenes, and others of board gaming, although the popular senet (snt) certainly had a significance in the struggle to pass to the afterlife.

The appearance of funerary rites in a tomb chapel is not surprising, although in general these avoid the mythological elements, the main motif being the procession of the body and its funerary equipment to the tomb, accompanied by wailing mourners; to this, the ceremony of Opening the Mouth was added in New Kingdom times.


A number of different forms were used in private tombs to incorporate the tomb chapel. All share the feature of an offering place, centered on a stela, that often took the form of a false door, which acted as the interface between this world and the next. The simplest examples have no more than this, but the most elaborate have whole series of vestibules, corridors, and chambers, often extensively decorated in relief and/or paint with the kinds of vignettes described above.

The offering place and any associated rooms could generally be housed according to one of three basic modes. The first mode is against, or within, a low, rectangular structure of brick or stone, known as a mastaba; while regarded as most characteristic of the Archaic Period and Old Kingdom, mastabas are found throughout Egyptian history. The second mode is for rooms to be carved out of the rock, without any appreciable built element (known as a rock-cut tomb); such tombs began in the Old Kingdom, and they are then ubiquitous. The third mode is for the structure to be entirely free-standing, with particularly elaborate examples known as temple-tombs; this approach seems to begin in the Middle Kingdom and became much more frequent in the New Kingdom and later, when it was more widely used in locations that would have previously used the mastaba (i.e., in flat areas of desert without significant rock escarpments).

There are, of course, anomalous examples that combined features of more than one of those basic types, while each may be further subdivided into subcategories, which will be described below, where appropriate. The choice of chapel type seems usually to have been determined by the topography or geology of the chosen site.

Tomb Chambers

The actual burial place, or substructure, is always distinct from the chapel, although frequently closely associated with it. Many lower status burials are without any kind of offering place, or they may have a stela built into the entrance to the substructure.

In private tombs, the burial chamber itself is very seldom decorated and, with a handful of exceptions, any adornment is usually restricted to offering lists and/or to extracts from the various funerary books—the collections called the Pyramid Texts, Coffin Texts, Book of Going Forth by Day (Book of the Dead), Book of That Which Is in the Underworld (Amduat), and others. (Among the most elaborately decorated of all private burial chambers are those of the nineteenth dynasty necropolis workmen at Deir el-Medina. Tellingly, those were the very men who spent their time preparing the intricately decorated royal burial places in the Valley of the Kings.) The burial chamber's architecture was generally simple, as was that of any antechambers, although some very elaborate examples are known, particularly in the New Kingdom and Saite period, when a series of galleries and pillared halls could be used.

In parts of Lower Egypt, especially in the Nile Delta, owing to the proximity of ground water, or in locations elsewhere where the cutting of deep shafts was otherwise impracticable, substructures were constructed of stone or brick in large but shallow cuttings in the ground surface. Within such, one or more rooms could be constructed of stone or brick, and then covered over with soil. In the former case, flat stone roofs could be employed, but in most brick structures a vaulted roof was frequently used (known as a vaulted tomb).


Tombs: Private Tombs. Diagram of a typical second dynasty mastaba. The superstructure is solid, and the burial apartments are deeply cut into the rock. They are approached by a stairway from the roof of the mastaba and blocked by a portcullis, sliding down a narrow shaft. (Courtesy Aidan Dodson)

The ideal form of substructure, however, was cut into the rock (rock-cut), approached by either a vertical shaft (a pit-tomb) or a sloping gallery (a corridor-tomb). In most private tombs, the substructure lay below, or in close association with, the chapel. In certain cases, however, it could be separated from it by some very considerable distance, good examples existing in the New Kingdom, when a very favored individual could be granted burial near the king's tomb, in the Valley of the Kings. In such an event, the chapel continued to be located on the other side of the Theban cliffs, alongside those of the owner's peers.

Early Dynastic Period

The first tombs differed little from those of late Predynastic times, being brick-lined cuttings in the desert gravel, roofed in wood and topped by little more than a sandy mound. During the first dynasty, however, substructures become more elaborate, more deeply cut, with greater subdivision and the addition of an access stairway. Mastaba superstructures, initially containing store-chambers, and with elaborately paneled outer surfaces, are found from the very beginning of the dynasty. Very large examples, excavated between 1935 and 1956 by W. B. Emery, are known at Saqqara and were formerly regarded as belonging to kings; however, their private nature was clearly demonstrated by Barry Kemp in the mid-1960s (“The First Dynasty Royal Cemetery” Antiquity 41 [1967], 22–32), although the debate continues in some circles.

During the second dynasty, mastabas became solid, sometimes losing their paneling decoration to more closely resemble the plain brick benches that gave such tombs that Arabic appellation. Below ground, tomb-chambers are frequently to be found tunnelled deeply into the bedrock, approached by stairways, rather than being built in open cuttings. Such substructures are sometimes quite elaborate. Chapels, where identifiable, seem restricted to stelae inserted in the back of a niche at the southern end of the eastern wall of the mastaba, opposite the break in any enclosure wall.

Old Kingdom

Third dynasty tombs represented a further development of the immediately preceding types. Most notable was the expansion of the chapel, which was cut into the core of the mastaba and was frequently in cruciform shape. It may also be more intimately connected with the adjacent enclosure wall, producing a corridor parallel to the face of the mastaba. In the tomb of Hesyre at Saqqara, the chapel was decorated both in paint and by the insertion of relief-carved wooden panels.

During the fourth dynasty, the first stone-built mastabas appeared. Paneling was by then restricted to the chapel areas. The principal offering place continued to be at the southern end of the eastern wall, but a second one, generally belonging to the wife, was sometimes made at the northern end. As time went by, the size and decoration of the offering place increased in size, penetrating deeper into the core of the mastaba, in some cases incorporating an open courtyard. The most elaborate of all mastaba chapels is that of Mereruka (c.2360 BCE) at Saqqara, which has nearly thirty rooms that occupy most of the mastaba's ground area.


Tombs: Private Tombs. Diagram of the interior of a mastaba from the fifth dynasty. A colonnaded court is incorporated into the plan. The exterior plan of a mastaba might be modified to accommodate local features, such as earlier funerary monuments. (Courtesy Aidan Dodson)

An important element of most chapels was the serdab, a term derived from the Arabic word for “cellar.” This was a room, usually near the stela, in which lay one or more statues of the deceased and his family—in some cases running into the tens. The only communication between the serdab and the outside world was one or two small apertures, through which the statues could “see” out or be reached by incense burned outside in the chapel.

From the fourth dynasty onward, most substructures were approached by vertical shafts beginning on the roof of the mastaba and penetrating deep into the bedrock, although in some (e.g., the tombs of Tiye at Saqqara and Ptahshepses at Abusir) the burial chamber was directly below the chapel floor, with access via a shallow sloping ramp. A number of tombs of the sixth dynasty had their burial chambers decorated with offering lists, arranged in the same way that such catalogs were placed on the interior of contemporary coffins and sarcophagi. A number of similarly decorated chambers have been found at Delta sites, for example at Tell Basta, where they were constructed in pits excavated only a little way below the surface. Stone sarcophagi are found in very many of the private tombs of the Old Kingdom, and in the succeeding Middle Kingdom, but the use of stone for the outer mortuary container was less frequent in other periods. The entrance to fourth dynasty burial chambers sometimes accommodated a so-called reserve head, a stone portrait of the deceased that seems to have been intended to replace the real head if it was damaged or destroyed.

While the mastaba remained the standard for cemeteries lying on the desert plain, such as Giza and Saqqara, rock-cut chapels were employed on the edge of escarpments at both sites, their form and decoration similar to what may be seen within contemporary mastabas. Father south, in the Nile Valley, the number of major private tombs increased as the period continued and were often built at sites unsuitable for mastabas. The rock-cut chapels in those areas tended to use plans symmetrical about their main axis and, as such, provide prototypes for examples in later periods.

First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom

Around the royal cemeteries of Lower Egypt, principally at el-Lisht and Dahshur, most private tombs took the form of mastabas. Others were built at Abydos and at other Middle Egyptian sites. As is the case with most Middle Kingdom sepulchres, their substructure designs varied considerably, with both shaft and corridor entries. Certain tombs incorporated features aimed at improving the security of the substructure, including large sliding portcullis-blocks and shafts arranged above corridors to shower a plunderer with large volumes of sand. The mastaba of Senwosret-ankh at el-Lisht had its substructure decorated with extracts from Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts.

At Western Thebes, beginning with the eleventh dynasty, the saff-type of rock-cut chapel is first found, with a very wide portico supported by rock-cut pillars, behind which a passage leads toward the offering place. Early examples open off the sunken courtyards of the tombs of kings Antef I, II, and III at el-Tarif; the later ones occupy high locations on the Sheikh Abd el-Qurna hill.

In the late First Intermediate Period/early Middle Kingdom a considerable devolution of power occurred for the provinces; hence there were built a number of very rich necropolises. The rock-cut tomb chapels had fairly standardized plans, although some had added structures on their exteriors (for example, at Qau el-Kebir, where some of the largest of all were created). Those high-status sepulchres were accompanied by large fields of middle-status burials, usually comprising simple shaft tombs without superstructures. The best recorded such site is Beni Hasan, where more than four hundred shafts, containing some one thousand burials, were opened by John Garstang from 1902 to 1904.

A series of governmental reforms carried out by Senwosret III, which concentrated far more power—and hence high-status individuals—at the national capital, resulted in a major reduction in the number of large private tombs built away from the royal necropolis after his reign. Aside from those directly adjacent to the royal pyramids, few significant private tombs of the late twelfth and thirteenth dynasties have been recorded.

Second Intermediate Period

Very few tombs of the end of the thirteenth and the seventeenth dynasties have been properly excavated, but those known at Thebes seem to have comprised little more than a small cavity in the rock, into which the coffin and a small quantity of funerary equipment were inserted. More substantial tombs may begin again in the late seventeenth dynasty, but are difficult to distinguish from those of the early eighteenth.

New Kingdom

Until the middle of the eighteenth dynasty, almost all known high-status tombs were rock-cut chapels at Western Thebes, with the exception of a few at Elkab and certain other southern locations. Earlier Theban chapels may have been reused Middle Kingdom structures; most follow the same T-shaped pattern, with a wide, but shallow, forehall or portico, and a passage leading back to the offering place. Most early tombs were placed high up on the cliffs of the Sheikh Abd el-Qurna hill, to provide an imposing site. Since the rock at that elevation is fairly poor in quality, nearly all such chapels were decorated in paint only.

Access to the substructure was usually by means of a vertical shaft within the chapel or just outside, although some of the larger tombs had a ramp approach. Certain Sheikh Abd el-Qurna chapel owners, however, had their burial chambers some distance away. For example, Senenmut (c.1482 BCE) had his at Deir el-Bahri, and the vizier Amenemopet (c.1430 BCE) was interred over a kilometer (almost a mile) away in the Valley of the Kings. Some other nobles with Valley of the Kings burial chambers have not yet had their chapels identified (e.g., Yuya and Tjuiu, parents-in-law of Amenhotpe III).

Elaborations of the basic chapel and substructure plans are frequent in the later eighteenth dynasty, principally through the addition of one or more pillared halls. This is particularly the case during the reign of Amenhotpe III, the chapel of Amenemhat-Surero having no fewer than seventy columns supporting its roof. Some of the later tombs were constructed at a very low level on the Theban hillside, to allow access to rock suitable for relief decoration. Only a few burial chambers were decorated, usually with cursive renderings of the Book of That Which Is in the Underworld (Amduat), but that of the mayor Sennefer was given anomalous scenes and a roof painted with grapevines. Very few private tombs of the New Kingdom were equipped with stone sarcophagi, wooden examples being standard. Only under Amenhotpe III was stone once more used with any frequency for private mortuary containers, but then only for anthropoid (human-shaped) coffins, not normally rectangular sarcophagi. The stone anthropoid coffins are particularly characteristic of the first half of the Ramessid period.

During the Amarna period there was a major upheaval in tomb decoration. The private tombs at Amarna itself, together with a handful at Thebes, abandoned the scenes of daily life that were used in private tombs since Old Kingdom times. They were replaced with a decoration centered on the doings of the royal family, who became regarded as the sole interface between this world and that of the divine. In these chapels, the tomb owner was relegated to a subsidiary role; his main substantive depiction was on the jambs of the outermost doorway. Otherwise, he might be included as a minor figure in some scene or he might be receiving a reward from his monarch. Yet the plans of the tombs remained very similar to earlier tombs.

In the period immediately preceding the accession of Amenhotpe IV, major tombs can once more be easily identified away from Thebes, particularly at Saqqara, where was buried the vizier Aperel. His tomb was built on the escarpment at the edge of the plateau and is a conventional rock-cut chapel, with a fairly elaborate substructure reached via shafts. As of 1999, much of the escarpment was still covered by debris to the depth of tens of meters, and a very extensive necropolis may lie farther down, probably including earlier tombs; excavations there are under the direction of Alain Zivie and may yet reveal a hillside of tomb-chapels akin to those seen at Thebes.


Tombs: Private Tombs. Diagram of a monumental tomb of the twenty-fifth to twenty-sixth dynasty, typified by a series on the Asasif at Western Thebes. A brick enclosure, fronted by a pylon, surrounds a rock-hewn open courtyard and inner chapel rooms, from which leads the superstructure. (Courtesy Aidan Dodson)

Following the return to orthodoxy, there was a major use of another area of Saqqara for private tombs, in that case an area of flat desert south of the causeway of Unas, unsuitable for rock-cut chapels. Instead, temple-tombs were constructed, the larger examples fronted by pylons and closely resembling the sanctuaries of gods. Complex substructures were approached by shafts, one example, belonging to the treasurer Maya (c.1340 BCE), being decorated with painted relief. The superstructures were elaborately decorated with scenes that were geared rather more toward ritual and the career of the deceased than in earlier private tombs. The finest example of all is the tomb of General Horemheb, who later became king. Much smaller freestanding chapels were also built in the area, sometimes comprising but one room. Similar structures were also built at Saqqara near the pyramid of Teti.

A similar shift in decorative themes in the post-Amarna era was noted in the rock-cut tombs at Thebes, and the chapels of the Ramessid period are distinctly different from those of the earlier eighteenth dynasty, with an almost total loss of daily-life depictions. Instead, the deceased were shown adoring deities, while elements of funerary books creep up from the burial chamber to take their place upon the chapel wall. Ground plans, however, continued to follow earlier norms in most cases.

An interesting group of tombs were those built for and by the Royal Necropolis workmen at Deir el-Medina, which have small decorated rock-cut chapels and substructures. They were adorned with small pyramids, which are also a feature of many Ramessid private tombs, in particular those on the Dra Abul Naga hill at Thebes. Pyramids had ceased to be used by kings at the end of the Second Intermediate Period, but were adopted by private individuals during the eighteenth dynasty.

In addition to the cemeteries at Thebes and Saqqara, high-status tombs were found at a variety of sites throughout Egypt, and even in Nubia, between the Amarna period and the end of the New Kingdom. Most are conventional rock-cut tomb-chapels, or freestanding chapels, but in the Delta they are brick-vaulted built structures that were erected in cuttings within or near temple precincts; the superstructures are almost universally lost, but they may have been small brick chapels directly above the burial chambers. Good examples are known at Tell Basta, including the tombs of the viceroys of Kush, Hori II and III (c.1200 and c.1160 BCE). Examples of such vaulted tombs are well known at Abydos, where the earliest specimens were dated to the first part of the eighteenth dynasty; they can be seen to have been surmounted by mastabas.

Third Intermediate Period

Following the end of the New Kingdom, there were radical changes in private burial practice. Almost all recorded private burials of the period seem to come from Thebes, and tomb-chapels of any sort seem to have disappeared altogether, with the exception of one or two usurpations of earlier monuments. Instead, single or multiple burials were placed in superstructureless subterranean chambers, often appropriated from earlier owners in the area of the Asasif. In these, coffins were set without sarcophagi and with the most abbreviated of funerary equipment—occasionally a box of shawabtis and, even less regularly, a set of (empty) canopic jars.

The first part of the twenty-second dynasty continued late twenty-first dynasty norms. Under Osorkon I, however, there were changes in the forms of coffins and mummy adornment that seem to be coeval (at Thebes) with the center of burial being moved down to the locale of the Ramesseum. Small brick chapels, sometimes lined with sandstone reliefs, were built to surmount tombs in shallow shafts, giving access to chambers little larger than the contained coffin(s). Such coffins were accompanied by limited quantities of funerary equipment, principally dummy canopics and wooden funerary figures. Other twenty-second/third dynasty burials, under the eighteenth dynasty temple at Deir el-Bahri, featured the reintroduction of wooden sarcophagi into the private funerary record. Monumental private tombs were reintroduced at Thebes during the twenty-fifth dynasty, but their substantive development occurred in the first part of the next (Saite) dynasty.

In the north of Egypt, the built tomb that was sunk in the ground adjoining a major sanctuary continued in use, although only a few nonroyal Third Intermediate Period examples are known. In particular, a series belonging to high priests of Ptah under Osorkon II and Sheshonq III were found at Memphis by Ahmad Badawi in 1942, stone built and enclosing in one case a silver coffin.

Something akin to the New Kingdom temple-tombs were built during the Third Intermediate Period at Abydos, although these examples show a blurring between this type and the ancient mastaba. High status examples are that of Pasebakhanut, son of the twenty-first dynasty high priest of Amun, Menkheperre, and a whole series of those of female members of the twenty-fifth dynasty royal family. Substructures were often vaulted, directly supporting the superstructure, and were completely integrated with it during the twenty-fifth dynasty, when such tombs were often given multiple chambers and a superstructure with a circular, corbelled chamber, although the exact form of the exterior remains a matter for debate.

Saite Period

While the small-scale burials used at Thebes since the early years of the Third Intermediate Period persisted during the new period, huge rock-cut tombs and tomb-chapels were constructed once again both there and in northern cemeteries. The monumental Theban tombs were all set in the area of the Asasif; above ground, they comprise mud-brick enclosures, fronted by large pylons of the same material. They were centered on a large courtyard, sunk into bedrock, and approached by a sloping passage and vestibule. Chambers and chapels opened from the courtyard, while inner parts of the main chapel were cut in the rock behind it. The concealed substructure led on, deep into the rock, and in some cases continued for hundreds of feet before reaching the burial chamber, perhaps ultimately approached by shafts. In the largest of all, that of the lector-priest Petamenophis, the burial chamber was the twenty-second chamber or gallery beyond the courtyard, every room being decorated with funerary texts. [See PETAMENOPHIS.]

A very similar sepulchre was built at Saqqara for the vizier Bakenrenef, but most of the remainder of the Saite tombs at the site (and also at Abusir) apparently lacked superstructures other than walls; they also incorporated stelae, surrounding an extremely wide, deep, open shaft in the bedrock. The kernel of the tomb was a stone or brick-built burial chamber, in the form of a contemporary wooden sarcophagus, constructed at the bottom of the shaft. Such tombs were designed to be entirely filled with sand after the burial; temporarily closed holes in the chamber roof were opened after the funeral to allow sand


Tombs: Private Tombs. A Ptolemaic “temple-tomb” at Tuna el-Gebel. (Courtesy Aidan Dodson)

in from the main shaft, to engulf the sarcophagus and also to fill a parallel access shaft and connecting vestibules. Access to the burial was thereby impossible, unless almost every grain of sand had been removed from the tomb first (thousands of cubic meters). Certain tombs added to the effect by arranging a series of concentric sand-filled shafts around the perimeter of the tomb. The success of the design has been shown by the number that survived intact; another example, datable to the early twenty-seventh dynasty, was found by Ladislaw Beres at Abusir in 1995 and proved to contain the undisturbed burial of the priest Iufaa.

Other tombs of the period adopted the mastaba form. An example would be that of Tjery at Giza, where a symmetrical arrangement of rooms was enclosed.

Late Period

Very little is known of burials of the Persian twenty-seventh dynasty. Some of the shaft tombs at Saqqara and Abusir overlap the dynasty, but otherwise almost nothing can be attributed to the time. A funerary stela of an Egyptian-Persian was found at Saqqara in 1994 but in a reused context that tells little about its place of origin.

To the Egyptian twenty-eighth to thirtieth dynasties may be attributed a quantity of stone and wood coffins and sarcophagi, but only a handful of the tombs from which they come have been studied or published. They include free-standing chapels and mastabas at Abydos, as well as various types of communal burial.

Ptolemaic Period

In early Ptolemaic times, in certain areas, the New Kingdom tradition of having the superstructure in the external form of a miniature contemporary temple was reintroduced; for example, the tomb of Petosiris at Tuna el-Gebel (c.300 BCE). Its inner room was decorated after the manner of a Ramessid royal tomb; burial chambers led off a shaft in the center of the chamber. The outer part was adorned with daily-life scenes, in an unusual composite Egyptian/Greek style. Other tombs at the same site are more akin to houses, with doors, windows, and drainspouts carved onto the exterior. Yet the majority of burials seem to have been in communal tombs, as seems to have been the case for most interments of the Third Intermediate Period.

Besides these Egyptian-derived tombs, purely classical sepulchres were constructed in some areas, in particular at Alexandria and in other then-newly founded cities. A good range of specimens have been excavated since 1987 at Marina el-Alamein, including column tombs of a type well known from Asia Minor, and elaborate hypogea, incorporating a banqueting hall, and burials within loculi and/or communal side chambers. While architectural detail was usually classical, quasi-Hellenized representations of Egyptian deities were sometimes used.

Roman Period

Hellenistic-style tombs were continued after the Roman occupation of the country, as well as more traditional types, with body treatments ranging from purely Egyptian to those with heavy Hellenistic influence. The major innovation of Roman times was the introduction of painted portraits into the mummy wrappings, particularly in the Faiyum region, while three-dimensional heads and hands became far less traditionally Egyptian in appearance.

In some regions, rather than being immediately buried, mummies apparently remained for considerable periods among the living, at home and/or in a public repository, in which homage could be offered to them, perhaps housed in some kind of wooden shrine. Many very finely adorned mummies, with painted portraits or gilded stucco masks, show signs of rough handling over a considerable period of time, and it has been noted that the foot and shin portions of some of them had scribbles and knocks that might be acquired by being left in an accessible place. Many also show weakness in the bandaging around the ankles that could have been caused by years of being propped upright. Groups of bodies would periodically be removed from homes or repositories to the cemetery, where they would be placed in mass burial pits, piled one atop another, presumably reflecting the need to make way for more recent dead among the living.

See also SAQQARA.


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  • Harpur, Yvonne. Decoration of Private Tombs in the Old Kingdom. London, 1987.
  • Hayes, William C. “The Tomb of Nefer-khewet and his Family.” Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art 30, II (1935), 17–36. The preliminary report on the excavation of a typical middle-class tomb of the mid-eighteenth dynasty.
  • Ikram, Salima, and Aidan Dodson. The Mummy in Ancient Egypt. London, 1998. Contains a comprehensive description of the development of the Egyptian tomb and its contents.
  • Kampp, Friederike. Die Thebanische Nekropole. 2 vols. Mainz, 1996. An exhaustive and fundamental work on the architecture of the New Kingdom tombs at Thebes, listing every single known example, numbered or not.
  • Kanawati, Naguib. The Tomb and Its Significance in Ancient Egypt. Cairo, 1987.
  • Lauer, Jean-Phillippe. Saqqara, Royal Necropolis of Memphis. London, 1976. An account of the excavations at the site, including extensive descriptions of a number of private tombs, ranging from the first to twenty-sixth dynasties.
  • Manniche, Lise. City of the Dead. London, 1988. Also published as The Tombs of the Nobles at Luxor. Cairo, 1987.
  • Manniche, Lise. Lost Tombs: A Study of Certain Eighteenth Dynasty Monuments in the Theban Necropolis. London, 1988. An investigation into the original location of many decorative fragments now in various collections; it also provides important insights into the layout of typical tombs of the early New Kingdom.
  • Martin, Geoffrey T. The Hidden Tombs of Memphis. London, 1991. The New Kingdom private necropolis at Saqqara.
  • Muhammed, M. Abdul-Qader. The Development of the Funerary Beliefs and Practices Displayed in the Private Tombs of the New Kingdom at Thebes. Cairo, 1966. An exhaustive, well-illustrated, discussion of the decoration of many of the Theban private tombs.
  • Niwinski, Andrej. 21st Dynasty Coffins from Thebes: Chronological and Typological Studies. Mainz, 1988. The definitive work on burials of the period.
  • Peet, T. Eric. “The Vaulted Tombs of Brick.” The Cemeteries of Abydos, vol. 2, pp. 84–91. London, 1914.
  • Reisner, George A. The Development of the Egyptian Tomb Down to the Accession of Cheops. Oxford and Cambridge, Mass., 1936. Reprinted at Storrs-Mansfield/Brockton in 1996.
  • Reisner, George A. A History of the Giza Necropolis, I. Cambridge, Mass., 1942. Reprinted at Storrs-Mansfield/Brockton in 1997. Together, Reisner's two volumes trace the basic evolution of Egyptian private tombs to the end of the fourth dynasty.
  • Sadeek, W. el-. Twenty-sixth Dynasty Necropolis at Giza. Vienna, 1984. Concentrates on the mastaba of Tjery.
  • Smith, Stewart Tyson. “Intact Tombs of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Dynasties from Thebes and the New Kingdom Burial System.” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Kairo 48 (1992), 193–231. An important compendium of the available material for the study of private burials of the New Kingdom.
  • Spencer, A. Jeffrey. Brick Architecture in Ancient Egypt. Warminster, 1979.
  • Walker, Susan, and Morris L. Bierbrier. Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt. London, 1997.
  • Winlock, Herbert E. Excavations at Deir el Bahri 1911–1931. New York, 1942. Includes accounts of burials from various periods found at the site.
  • Zivie, Alain-Pierre. Decouverte à Saqqarah. Le vizir oublié. Paris, 1990. Account of the discovery and contents of the tomb of Aperel at Saqqara.

Aidan Dodson