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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.

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Darren Puttock, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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7 Entertaining Examples of Ancient Graffiti
Graffiti of gladiators from Pompeii at the Naples National Archaeological Museum
Graffiti of gladiators from Pompeii at the Naples National Archaeological Museum
Darren Puttock, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Graffiti from centuries and even millennia ago can reveal the grievances, passions, games, and ordinary business dealings of regular people from the long-lost past. Pompeii might be the most famous spot to find such scrawls, but it’s not the only place where bygone messages have been found. Here are seven examples of graffiti from the ancient world.

1. “I VISITED AND I DID NOT LIKE ANYTHING EXCEPT THE SARCOPHAGUS!”

A Chinese teen visiting Egypt prompted outrage when he wrote his name on the wall of the 3500-year-old Luxor Temple in 2013. But he was hardly the first traveler to commit such an offense—there’s a long tradition of leaving “I was here” graffiti while visiting Egyptian ruins. One team of researchers recently counted over 1000 inscriptions inside the tomb of pharaoh Ramesses VI in the Valley of the Kings—many of which were from Romans who visited the site 2000 years ago. Their ancient declarations include familiar complaints of disappointed tourists: “I visited and I did not like anything except the sarcophagus!” and "I cannot read the hieroglyphs!"

2.“YOU LOVE IRIS, BUT SHE DOES NOT LOVE YOU.”

Graffiti in a Pompeii pub
Graffiti in a Pompeii pub
Plaàtarte, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

Pompeii has dominated the study of ancient graffiti, and for good reason. There are many inscriptions and painted messages that survive on the walls of this Roman city in southern Italy, which was famously buried in volcanic ash in 79 CE. And these examples often offer rich insight into the lives of the city’s residents. Behold the drama of a love triangle, apparently played out on the wall of a bar (not the one above) in taunting messages between two men named Severus and Successus:

“Successus, a weaver, loves the innkeeper’s slave girl named Iris. She, however, does not love him. Still, he begs her to have pity on him. His rival wrote this. Goodbye.”

(Reply by Successus) “Envious one, why do you get in the way. Submit to a handsomer man and one who is being treated very wrongly and good looking.”

(Reply by Severus) “I have spoken. I have written all there is to say. You love Iris, but she does not love you.”

3. “NIKASITIMOS WAS HERE MOUNTING TIMIONA."

Declarations of love and boasts of sexual conquest are not just the domain of modern bathroom-wall graffiti. Plenty of examples of such messages can be found in the ancient world. Erotic graffiti recently identified at the Greek island of Astypalaia documents a 2500-year-old tryst between two men: “Nikasitimos was here mounting Timiona." The general secretary at the Greek Epigraphic Society, Angelos Matthaiou, told The Guardian: "Whoever wrote the erotic inscription referring to Timiona was very well trained in writing. The letters have been very skillfully inscribed on the face of the rock, evidence that it was not just philosophers, scholars and historians who were trained in the art of writing but ordinary people living on islands too."

4. A MENAGERIE OF WILD ANIMALS

A winged lion at the Great Enclosure of Musawwarat es-Sufra
A winged lion graffito at the Great Enclosure of Musawwarat es-Sufra

Crocodiles, elephants, rhinoceroses, baboons, and dogs are among the wild animals inscribed on the blocks of a labyrinth-like complex known as the Great Enclosure of Musawwarat es-Sufra. This monument, in modern-day Sudan, was part of the Kingdom of Kush when the drawings were made more than 2000 years ago. Some of the animals also include religious iconography, such as a lion with wings and crown said to represent the deity Apedemak. Archaeologists don't know the function of many of the rooms in the complex, but some have used the graffiti to support their theories about the purposes of different sections. They've proposed interpretations ranging from animal trading stations and elephant training grounds to a holding pen for prey that could be “hunted” by royals who needed to prove their abilities.

5. THE “DRUNKS OF MENKAURE” VS. THE “FRIENDS OF KHUFU GANG.”

The tens of thousands of laborers who built the pyramids in Egypt were divided into gangs of workers—and they took credit for their efforts. Archaeologists who study the pyramids have found inscriptions such as “Drunks of Menkaure” and “Friends of Khufu Gang” (Menkaure and Khufu being pyramid-building Egyptian kings) on bricks at the monuments of Giza. On some monuments, there's graffiti from one gang on one side of the monument, and graffiti from what archeologists think is a competing gang on the other.

6. A WORD SQUARE

A Sator word square in France
A Sator Square in France

In 2003, archaeologists discovered a new cache of graffiti written on the plaster walls of the basement of the Roman basilica at Smyrna, an ancient Greek city in modern-day Turkey. Scribbled sometime after an earthquake in 177 CE, the inscriptions include the earliest known example of a word square in Greek, made up of five, five-letter words that can be read the same way either horizontally and vertically, like a 2D palindrome. (The meanings of the words aren't quite clear.) A better-known Latin version of this puzzle is called a Sator Square, as pictured above:

SATOR
AREPO
TENET
OPERA
ROTAS

The five words can be read from the right, left, top, and bottom. While their meaning has been debated, they may relate to a farmer named Arepo who is using wheels (rotas).

7. “MY HAND WILL WEAR OUT BUT THE INSCRIPTION WILL REMAIN.”

Though the vast majority of graffiti has surely disappeared over time, some graffiti-writers hoped their markings might outlast them. Take, for example, this Ancient North Arabian piece of graffiti at Palmyra in modern-day Syria, which was written well over a thousand years ago: “This is an inscription that I wrote with my own hand. My hand will wear out but the inscription will remain.”

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Images: iStock. Collage: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss.
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15 Jokes From the World's Oldest Jokebook
Images: iStock. Collage: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss.
Images: iStock. Collage: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss.

The oldest recorded joke—a lowbrow Sumerian quip stating "Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband's lap"—dates back to 1900 BCE, eking out a pharaoh wisecrack from Ancient Egypt by a solid three centuries.

But to pilfer one of the oldest jokes in the book means dusting off the Philogelos (meaning "Laughter Lover"), a Greek anthology of more than 200 jokes from the fourth or fifth century. From gags about dunces to jests at the expense of great thinkers, here are 15 jokes from the oldest existing collection of jokes, as translated by now-retired classical languages professor William Berg.

1. A STUDENT DUNCE GOES SWIMMING

comedians
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A student dunce went swimming and almost drowned. So now he swears he'll never get into water until he's really learned to swim."

2. AN INTELLECTUAL VISITS A FRIEND

ancient dancers
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"An intellectual came to check in on a friend who was seriously ill. When the man's wife said that he had 'departed,' the intellectual replied: 'When he arrives back, will you tell him that I stopped by?'"

3. THE MISER'S WILL

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A miser writes his will and names himself as the heir."

4. THE SHARP-WITTED SPECTATOR

ancient theater
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A sharp wit observes a slow runner: 'I know just what that gentleman needs.' 'What's that?' demands the sponsor of the race. 'He needs a horse, otherwise, he can't outrun the competition!'"

5. THE HOT-HEADED DOCTOR

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"Consulting a hotheaded doctor, a fellow says, 'Professor, I'm unable to lie down or stand up; I can't even sit down.' The doctor responds: 'I guess the only thing left is to hang yourself.'"

6. THE COWARDLY SAILOR

treater rehearsal
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A coward is asked which are safer, warships or merchant-ships. 'Dry-docked ships,' he answers."

7. THE JEALOUS LANDLORD

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"An envious landlord sees how happy his tenants are. So he evicts them all."

8. THE DRUNK BARKEEPER

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A drunk opens a bar, and stations a chained bear outside."

9. THE GUY WITH BAD BREATH

ancient comedian
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A guy with bad breath decides to take his own life. So he wraps his head and asphyxiates himself."

10. THE WIFE-HATER

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A wife-hater is attending the burial of his wife, who has just died. When someone asks, 'Who is it who rests in peace here?', he answers, 'Me, now that I'm rid of her!'"

11. THE LUCKLESS EUNUCH

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A luckless eunuch got himself a hernia."

12. THE HUSBAND WITH HALITOSIS

Roman woman holding a mask
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A husband with bad breath asks his wife, 'My dear, why do you hate me?' She give him an answer: 'Because you kiss me.'"

13. THE GLUTTONOUS GIFTER

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A glutton is marrying his daughter off to another glutton. Asked what he's giving her as a dowry, he responds, 'She's getting a house with windows that look out onto the bakery.'"

14. TOO TIRED TO CARE

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"Two lazy-bones are fast asleep. A thief comes in, pulls the blanket from the bed, and makes off with it. One of them is aware of what happened and says to the other, 'Get up! Go after the guy who stole our blanket!' The other responds, 'Forget it. When he comes back to take the mattress, let's grab him then.'"

15. THE FORGETFUL TEACHER

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"An incompetent teacher is asked the name of Priam's mother. At a loss, he says, 'Well, we call her Ma'am out of politeness.'"

A version of this story ran in 2014.

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