Think of an Egyptian mummy: what comes to mind? Layers of linen wrapping, a gilded sarcophagus? Now think again: who would be inside that ‘mummy’? 

You probably envisioned something along the lines of Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus (c.1323 BCE, Egyptian New Kingdom), replete with a gilded death mask and elaborate detailing. Likewise, you probably imagine the mummy as the province of the pharaoh – an exclusive practice, afforded only to royalty.

In reality, dying in Ancient Egypt was a whole lot more complicated. Mummification was undoubtedly an expensive and time intensive process, taking around 70 days to dry out a body and complete the rituals that accompanied the practice of wrapping the body. However, this did not make it the exclusive right of royalty – indeed, evidence from as early as the predynastic period shows that commoners of means were also afforded this privilege. 

Integral to this ritual process was belief that it would prepare the body of the dead for the afterlife. In many aspects, the Ancient Egyptian conception of the afterlife was rather different to our modern understanding, but also eerily similar: after death, one would undergo judgement by the God Osiris. As such, Osiris was a common choice for depiction in ushabti – small figures that were wrapped in the bandages of a mummified person. 

After death, the earthly body became merely a ‘representation’ of the deceased. The body was still incredibly important to this process of judgement though: at the door to the tomb, one last ritual was performed, known as the opening of the mouth. This ritual would allow the deceased to ‘speak’, and defend themselves in their adjudication. 

This posthumous ‘animation’ also informed the dressings given to the dead, and is the explanation behind what is perhaps the most iconic aspect of Egyptian funerary attire: the death mask. Death masks themselves were far more common than one might imagine – as a practice, the crafting of death masks extended into the Graeco Roman period, and were important for all Egyptian burials. The funerary mask served an incredibly important purpose, as it allowed the deceased access to their senses in the afterlife. 

These were not always the gilded sort made famous by the pharaohs. In earlier periods, they were most commonly made of wood and painted with a representation of a face. As shown in our collection, these masks could also be made of beads. The green ‘skin’ of the mask harkened to Osiris once again, with the hope that the deceased would merge with him and gain the perfect afterlife.   

As such, Egyptian burial customs were not quite what we might imagine them to be today – check out our wider Egyptian collection here.

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