illustrated landscape including a building, sphinx, and pyramids

The Predynastic Period (4650–3050 BCE)

pyramid pictograph

There is evidence that the Egyptians began believing in a life after death early in their prehistory. A family member was buried with everyday objects such as pots, palettes for grinding cosmetics, beads, amulets, and combs for use in the afterlife. The person was placed in their grave in a crouched or fetal position, with the head normally pointed south and the face turned west to see the setting sun.

The Egyptians of the early Predynastic period did not use artificial means to preserve the body for the afterlife, but it was preserved just the same. The deceased, wrapped only in a goat hide, was buried in a shallow oval pit dug out of the desert sand. Over time, the heat of the surrounding sand dried out the body. If a body is dried thoroughly, bacteria and fungi cannot eat at the tissues after death, and the body does not decay. Thus, the earliest mummified Egyptian people were created by natural heat.

Two things helped the Egyptians to notice that this natural process was occurring. First, the shifting sands of the desert made the marking of graves very difficult, so old graves would be accidentally disturbed when new graves were dug. Second, grave robbing became a profitable profession soon after the Egyptians began filling graves with valuable objects, and exposing the graves made clear the effect the sand was having on the bodies.

Developments in later tombs of this period, though, kept the sand from touching the body. Sometimes the deceased was placed on a mat made of twigs and covered by a twig box. When the Egyptians began specializing in woodworking, wooden coffins also were used. The large tombs of the wealthy were kept as open chambers, often lined with sun-dried mud brick and covered with a plank roof. By now, the Egyptians considered the tomb to be the eternal dwelling place of the dead, a construction designed to provide extra comfort and protection for the deceased. Ironically, by changing the tomb design to accommodate this belief, the Egyptians had created conditions that led to the total decay of the body.

"Thus says Thoth, judge of the truth, to the Great Ennead which is in the presence of Osiris: Hear this word of very truth. I have judged the heart of the deceased, and his soul stands as a witness for him. His deeds are righteous in the great balance, and no sin has been found in him. He did not diminish the offerings in the temples, he did not destroy what had been made, he did not go about with deceitful speech while he was on earth." Spell 306 - The Book of the Dead