What Decorations Were on an Egyptian Sarcophagus?

Updated June 13, 2017

A sarcophagus is a coffin-like burial vessel that the ancient Egyptians placed bodies in after embalming them and before placing them in a tomb. The Egyptians considered the sarcophagus a new body for the spirit of the dead and called it "neb ankh," which translates to "possessor of life." They were often decorated as a way to honour those who were laid inside.

The Early Dynasty

Early sarcophagi were not in the human shape that is familiar to most people in modern times. The earliest Egyptian coffins were plain wooden rectangular boxes. The outside was simply decorated with a false door for the dead to walk through and a pair of eyes for them to see.

The Old and Middle Kingdoms

Beginning around the Third Dynasty, Egyptians began constructing sarcophagi out of stone, usually granite. These were still decorated very simply as they were in the Early Dynasty. However, the sarcophagi of royalty often had vaulted lids and more elaborate crosspieces. During the Middle Kingdom, hieroglyphs were used to inscribe religious text on the outside and sometimes inside of the sarcophagi.

The New Kingdom

The New Kingdom is when sarcophagi began to take on the human shape with which most people are familiar. These were decorated on the lid with a more detailed depiction of the dead. The sides were painted with the figures of gods and goddesses and other religious symbols.

Common Symbols and Gods

Scarabs were commonly painted on sarcophagi as a sign of rebirth. The sky goddess Nut was popular and often is depicted wrapping protective winged arms around the mummy. The four sons of Horus, Isis, and Nephthys were commonly painted as mourners. Apis, the bull, would be shown with the mummy on its back.

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About the Author

Leigh Bennett is a youth services librarian in Southeast Louisiana. In addition to managing the library's young adult and teen book collections, she develops and plans educational and recreational library programming for children, teens and adults. She has been writing for online publications for more than 5 years.