The Significance Behind 6 Ancient Egyptian Tomb Features

What we conventionally call "Ancient Egypt" spans about 3,000 years. Consider that the Great Pyramids (26th century BCE) were further back in time from Cleopatra (1st century BCE) than she is from us. While the customs stayed surprisingly consistent throughout the millennia, evolution was inevitable. We tried to capture the overall meaning and general development of these ritualistic tomb elements, but keep in mind that each kingdom had its own nuanced take.

1. False Door

Composed of stelae (pillars), the false door provided a link between the living and the ka, or soul, of the deceased. Although the "door" was actually an impenetrable slab, it was not simply symbolic. Ancient Egyptians believed that it acted as a literal doorway through which the spirit of the dead would regularly enter the tomb to partake of the food offerings left by surviving family members. The door, which gave the impression of depth through a series of concentric doorjambs, was inscribed with the deceased’s name and title, as well as a litany of offering formulas. The living were supposed to place regular helpings of food on the threshold of the false door, but it's more likely this practice was carried out by mortuary priests. In the event that no living family members were around to tend the tomb, the inscriptions on the false door would continue to address the spirit’s needs.

2. Serdab

Looking into the serdab. Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This small, enclosed chamber built into Old Kingdom (2686–2181 BCE) tombs contained a beautiful statue of the pharaoh with a small hole or two on the northern wall. The statue was not decorative—in fact, the chamber was built with a wall so even the priests and familial visitors to the tomb would never see it once the king was buried. Rather, it acted as a physical vessel for the King's ka to inhabit while witnessing the funerary rituals through the holes in the serdab wall. While priests burned incense and read from spiritual texts, the king's spirit would manifest in the statue.

3. Canopic Jars

This long-standing tradition—stretching from the Old Kingdom through the Ptolemaic Period (332–30 BCE)—was part of the mummification process. Just like the body was preserved for use in the afterlife, so were the essential internal organs. The intestines were placed in a falcon-headed jar to be protected by Qebehsenuef. The stomach was guarded over by Duamutef, represented by a jackal-headed jar. Hapy, with the head of a baboon, looked after the lungs. And the human-headed Imsety guarded the liver. The heart was left inside the body and the brain was discarded. The four jars (not five—sorry, Brendan Fraser) were made of pottery, limestone, or wood and placed in canopic shrines within the tomb.

4. Animal Mummies

A study from earlier this year found that many of the animal mummies from ancient Egypt were actually fakes. But this doesn't mean that ritualized murder and mummification of millions of animals—cats, dogs, birds, bulls, even bugs—wasn't a major part of the funerary traditions. A 2004 study found that the level of care and quality of materials were comparable to those used for humans. But why? The mummified animals fell into two main groups: pets and votive offerings. A high-status individual might have his pets mummified to accompany him to the afterlife. But many of the animals were mummified as offerings on behalf of a living relative.

"Animal mummies were votive gifts. Today you'd have a candle in a cathedral; in Egyptian times you would have an animal mummy,” Dr. Campbell Price, curator of Egypt and Sudan at Manchester Museum, told the BBC about the recent study. The particular animal often corresponded with the god whose favor was being solicited. Cats were seen as the incarnation of Bastet, the Apis bull represented Osiris, hawks were associated with Horus, and ibises symbolized Thoth.

5. Coffin Texts

The Coffin Texts, dating to roughly the 22nd century BCE, represent an adaptation and reinterpretation of the earlier Pyramid Texts, which are believed to have been composed circa 3000 BCE, making it the oldest-known sacred text. Both contain incantations relating to the afterlife, but where the Pyramid Texts were reserved for kings, inscribed on the inner walls of their tombs, the Coffin Texts afforded all Egyptians (who could afford a coffin, that is) a chance at continued existence in the afterlife. The funerary spells were inscribed on the coffin itself, requiring the more dangerous hieroglyphs to be altered so as not to impart their vileness to the physical remains of the deceased. There are descriptions of what the afterlife will look like, protective spells for the deceased's ba and ka (components of the soul), and blessings for the dead.

The Coffin Texts are believed to be the first written example of the idea that each individual will be judged after death by his or her deeds during life before a council of gods, and that entrance to the eternal afterlife is contingent upon this judgment. Many of the Coffin Text spells become the basis for chapters in the Book of the Dead, which codifies all the various funerary texts from ancient Egypt.

6. Shabti Figurines

These male or female figurines, shown mummified, represented anonymous workers who at first were stand-ins for the deceased when Osiris called for laborers—as the pharaoh did annually in the land of the living—and later simply slaves of the tomb owner. Each shabti was shown with specific agricultural tools to till the land and each came inscribed with a formula that would require them to "answer"—which is what shabti means—when the deceased called.

As time went on, the custom was to have more and more shabti, if you could afford it. By the New Kingdom (1550–1069 BCE), anyone of means had not only a shabti for every day of the year, but also an overseer for every 10 shabti—over 400 total figurines.

Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

Big Questions
Why Don't Valentine Hearts Look Like Real Hearts?

Love is in the air this month, and images of two-lobed hearts are all over everything: candy, cards, decorations, you name it. That the heart is symbolic of love and passion isn't surprising—ancient Greek and Roman thinkers, including Aristotle, thought the organ was the center of all emotions. Why the heart symbol you see everywhere in February doesn't look anything like an actual human heart, though, is a little less clear.

The symbol goes at least as far back as the 1400s, when it appeared on European playing cards to mark one of the red suits, though it may even be older than that. The shape is pretty much a mystery, though. There are a few different hypotheses to explain it, but none of them have been confirmed.

One suggested origin for the symbol is that it comes from the ancient African city-state of Cyrene, whose merchants traded in the rare, and now extinct, plant silphium. The plant was used to season food, but doubled as a contraceptive. A silphium seedpod looks like a valentine's heart, so the shape became associated with sex, and then with love.

Another possibility is that the shape is a crude representation of a pubic mound, the vulva, a pair of breasts, buttocks, or a pair of testicles. It may even have come from a poor attempt at drawing an actual heart. A lousy artist, an inaccurate description of the subject, or a malformed model all could have led to that shape.

The Catholic church explains the symbol as coming from a vision that Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque had, where the "Sacred Heart of Jesus"—associated with love and devotion by Catholics—appeared in this shape surrounded by thorns. But Alacoque didn't have this vision until the late 1600s, well after the symbol was already documented. This makes it the unlikeliest of origin stories, but the church's frequent use of the shape was probably a driving factor in popularizing it as a symbol of love.

This story originally appeared in 2012.


More from mental floss studios