Pottery: Transforming Ancient Egypt’s Funerary Practices

Pottery has been an important way of creating materials since for over 16,000 years (Violatti). Many archaeologists find different forms of pottery in their excavations. They use it as a way to date the sites. The reason for many forms of pottery are found in excavations is due to pottery being extremely durable, thus withstanding many environmental changing, in addition to being abundant, allowing many different types of people to acquire the material. The earliest evidence of pottery was found in Japan, dating back to 16,500 – 14,920 years ago (Violatti). In Egypt, pottery has been found to date back to 10,000 years ago. In ancient Egypt, many people used pottery as part of funerary practices, in the form of canopic jars, chamber decorations, and offering trays.

Canopic jars were used by the pharaohs and elite to house the organs of the deceased. The heart is usually put back into the body after being cleaned in order to continue with the soul to the afterlife. The rest of the organs are placed in four different jars, each housing a different organ, with one of the son of Horus being drawn on the front of each jar as a form of protection. Horus was the god of the sky and known as the protector of Egypt by the ancient Egyptians. The organs that were placed in each of the jars included the “lungs, liver, intestines, and stomach that were removed during mummification” (Teeter, 358). These jars accompanied the mummified body in the tomb, which was part of a larger shrine.

Images of canopic jars taken at the Rosicrucian Museum in San Jose, CA 

In addition to canopic jars, tiles made from pottery were used to decorate the walls of the tomb. Large amounts of effort was put into the decorations of the tomb, especially at Deir el Medina, also known as the “Valley of the Kings”, where multiple pharaohs were buried. Many tombs were covered in prayers and spells from the Book of the Dead in order to assist the deceased through the transition of the afterlife. However, others had walls covered in different colored tiles to beautify the tombs. Greens and blues were used to replicate grass and reeds. The tombs were considered the very last resting place for the body of the pharaoh; thus, the tombs were required to be beautiful and have extensive work put into it in order to be an appropriate eternal burial ground for the pharaoh.

Image of ceramic tiles from Tombs of the Pharaoh taken at Rosicrucian Museum in San Jose, CA

Lastly, pottery was used to create offering trays and altars for the gods. In order to assist the pharaoh’s transition into the afterlife offering trays and altars, in addition to spells, were placed in the tombs. Family and those who worked under the pharaoh were able to come and place offering in the tomb in order to please the gods. In the Early Kingdom, the pharaoh was seen as the only link between the people and the gods. In order of the people to please the gods, they had to go through the pharaoh and please him. In order to do this, many placed offerings in the tombs of the pharaoh, including food and various purification liquids.



Images of a offering tray and an altar taken at the Rosicrucian Museum in San Jose, CA

As seen, pottery was an extremely important aspect of the funerary practices of ancient Egypt. In order for many of the practices to have been established, pottery was required. Throughout the time of ancient Egypt, pottery was able to transform. It began with limestone pottery and eventually evolved to ceramic pottery, involving firing the materials at extremely high temperatures in a kiln. The transformation allowed the people to change and add or remove parts of their funerary practices. Through pottery, archeologists today are able to date excavation sites and determine the purpose of various rituals of ancient Egypt.





Can Glorification Lead to Obsession?

According to Merriam Webster, the definition of an obsession is stated to be “a persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling” .(Merriam Webster)  However, I feel as through the term obsession means much more. For me, obsession means a fascination with an idea or object where one’s entire day or life is spent revolving around the idea; where people are willing to do and sacrifice anything for the idea. However, when an “obsession” becomes common in everyday society, it is not termed an “obsession” anymore but instead becomes normalized and regular thought. When the first smartphones and computers came out, those who could afford them were “obsessed” and would never leave them. However, in current day almost everyone has a smartphone and rarely are people willing to go without them for even one hour. Throughout history, the things people were fascinated with changed over time. In the 1800s, people became “obsessed” with finding gold and would travel great distances, sometimes across the entire United States, in attempts to strike rich. But later, when this became normalized thousands of people were seen traveling across the United States in attempts for the same dream. In terms of ancient Egypt, however, the ancient Egyptians thought very highly of the afterlife. They viewed their life in this world as a mere stepping stone to the luxurious and carefree world of the hereafter; one in which they would live amongst the gods through their connection to the king, or Pharaoh. The story of a Dispute Between a Man and His Ba exemplifies this thinking in describing a dialogue between a man and his ba, or soul. In ancient Egypt, the ba is thought to leave the body at death and live in the afterlife. However, in order for a person to enjoy the afterlife, their ba must be with them at the time of death. The story is about a man who wants to accept death immediately, but his ba threatens to desert him if he does. From the story of a Man and His Ba as well as other ancient texts including Coffin Texts and the Harper’s Song, I gained the perspective that the ancient Egyptians glorification of the afterlife developed into an obsession, as seen through the building of great tombs, the feeling of captivity in the current life,  and the idolization of the sun-god Re. An obsession that initially began amongst the elite class of ancient Egypt but eventually spread to the common man.

The Pyramids

When most people think of Egypt, they immediately associate it with pyramid building. Pyramids in ancient Egypt were built as tombs for the Pharaohs, or kings, in ancient Egypt. They were viewed as stairways to heaven to connect to the gods in the afterlife. The greatness of one’s tomb was associated with the type of afterlife they may have. As mentioned in the story of a Dispute Between a Man and His Ba, the man planned to build a “tomb, whose burial a survivor tends” (165), showing the ba that it will be taken care of after death and trying to persuade his ba to allow him to die. After death, people were assigned to tombs to take care of them, including cleaning and removing the sacrifices and offerings others placed. By having someone take care of the tomb, the ba would have an easier transition to the afterlife, by being able to have food through its journey and sacrifices to offer the gods once in the afterlife.

Image of the Great Pyramids, which served as tombs for various Pharaohs of ancient Egypt, such as Khafara and Khufu (Image via LifeScience)

Establishing Their Legacy

In addition, through the building of great tombs, the obsession with the afterlife and establishing one’s own legacy is seen. Pharaohs spend their entire lives planning, directing, and commanding people to build these large monuments. They wanted to ensure that not only the gods but also the regular people saw everything they had accomplished in this life and to ensure they would be remembered after death. By establishing a legacy and being remembered after death, the Pharaohs felt more confident about being amongst the gods in the afterlife, as they did their “duty” in their life on Earth and had proved themselves to the gods. Having the Pharaohs build large tombs is also similar to how people in current day establish large companies in their names and donate large sums of money to companies in order to be remembered as well. Establishing a legacy allows one to ensure that they will never be forgotten and that they will have been able to fully establish their purpose in this life.

Image of the Sphinx, which served to protect Khafara and his pyramid and part of the establishment of his legacy (Image via Guardian’s Sphinx)

Transition from Obsession to Common Thought

Within funerary temples, like the pyramids, people would often write “coffin texts” on the walls. Coffin texts were an adaptation of pyramid texts from the Old Kingdom to the Middle Kingdom. They would be written on or inside the coffin and often include spells that protected the deceased after death and model the life they hoped to live in the hereafter. The text states that those “who knows [the] spell, [they] will be like Re”(133). Re was the sun god in ancient Egypt who was thought to have created everything. The statement emphasizes who it was not just the pharaoh who was able to enjoy a luxurious afterlife, but anyone in the society who believed in this ideology. The coffin text showcase how the initial concept of glorification began with just the pharaohs but eventually spread to the common man. What initially began as an “obsession” amongst the higher elite eventually turned into normal everyday thought. It no longer remained an “obsession” but instead just became a part of common reality.

Image of a coffin text, containing spells to assist and protect the deceased in life after death (Image via The Oriental Institute)

Embracing Death

Unlike current day where people want to ensure they lived their life to the fullest and many fear death, in ancient Egypt people embraced death whenever it came in addition to living their life on Earth to its fullest. The Harper’s Song is a poem where the main concept was death and the narrator tries to reassure the person to whom the tomb belongs to of his goal in the afterlife. The song states that “death is a kindly fate” and that people should “make [a] holiday” after deaths in addition to “[doing] things on earth as [their] hearts command” (197). These statements highlight the view of ancient Egyptians willing to embrace death due to the adoration of the afterlife; as people saw it, what was the point of this life if one will eventually be able to live with the gods and have little to no responsibilities later on? In addition, the ancient Egyptians wanted to be sure that the life they lived on Earth was worth living and that although grief after death does occur, people should not be too taken aback by it; as it will occur and instead be celebrated as the decreased are moving onto a better life.


As seen, the glorification of the afterlife lead the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs being obsessed with the hereafter as seen through the pyramid building and The Dispute between a Man and His Ba. However, once this view became normalized, it no longer remained an obsession due to perforating into common, everyday thought which was seen through the Coffin Texts and the Harper’s Song.  Some ancient Egyptians wanted to spend their entire lives ensuring they would be worthy of living amongst the gods in the afterlife, while others were willing to cut their lives short to attain the riches and luxuries of the afterlife sooner. Although these views may seem odd and obsession-like to people in current day, it was just regular life to the ancient Egyptians. It is similar to how in current day, some people are willing to do anything to get a certain name-brand bag, including stealing. To the ancient Egyptians, this want of name-brands may have also been viewed as an “obsession”. The main difference is views in common society. What may be normalized in our society was not to the ancient Egyptians and it is our responsibility to appreciate the differences in societies and learn how to understand them from the perspective of the ancient Egyptians.