The sarcophagus has become almost synonymous with the ancient artefacts discovered in Egypt. The image of an elaborate and detailed coffin is one of the first things that comes to mind whenever anyone imagines the treasures found in ancient tombs. These vessels of the dead are endlessly fascinating not just for what they are, but also for what they can tell the modern world about ancient Egyptian beliefs.
The word "sarcophagus" comes from the Greek words "sarx," meaning "flesh," and "phagien," meaning "to eat." Therefore, "sarcophagus" can be roughly translated as "flesh-eating." This is not an inappropriate name for an object that is meant to house a dead body. However, the Egyptians interpreted the word as "possessor of life," which refers to their belief that the dead will be reborn in the afterlife.
Sarcophagus was originally applied to limestone coffins, but it eventually came to refer to any stone coffin that was not placed underground. An Egyptian sarcophagus usually referred to only the outer layer of protection that was used to store a royal mummy; several layers of coffin were underneath the outer layer.
Ancient Egyptian sarcophagi were usually decorated internally and externally with many ornate carvings and paintings of hieroglyphs and reliefs. A sarcophagus designed for a pharaoh in the 3rd Dynasty would have been carved to resemble a royal palace, but sarcophagi were designed to resemble rectangular boxes by the 11th Dynasty.
Later, sarcophagi resembled the human form. They could be made from a number of materials but were usually made out of carved stone and metal, with the most elaborate models being composed of solid gold.
While the most famous and elaborate sarcophagi were meant for pharaohs and other nobles, those used for the burial of commoners were considerably plainer. They were more likely to be made of stone and have fewer carvings. This is primarily because most common people were unable to afford the metals that would have been used for a royal sarcophagus.
Funerals were far less elaborate as well, with the essential equipment painted or carved onto the coffin instead of being present in physical form.
Belief in the Afterlife
The ancient Egyptians had a strong belief in the afterlife. They believed that the deceased would be reborn in another life with all of the possessions that were buried with him. This is why most Egyptian tombs had many valuables surrounding the sarcophagus.
The sarcophagus itself was meant to ensure a smooth transition into the afterlife. The body was mummified so it would be preserved, and the many layers of coffins and vaults that were underneath the beautifully designed sarcophagus was meant to protect it.