Teacher's Guide

Teacher's Guide to The Walton Hall of Ancient Egypt

Cultural Change and Cultural Continuity are the contrasting concepts that structure the Walton Hall of Ancient Egypt.

All cultures undergo change, and we have long recognized that change in one part of a cultural system results in changes in other parts of that system. We also recognize that societies often appear to be in equilibrium for long periods unmarked by great change. The longevity of many of the world's prehistoric and historic cultures reflects a continuity in their economic, sociopolitical, and religious systems. Cultural change and cultural continuity are two concepts through which we can examine the 3,000 years of Egyptian culture.

Ancient Egyptian history is rich in examples of cultural continuity and cultural change. The 3,000 years of history argues for stability of basic economic, religious, social, and political systems. Yet in order for a culture to continue in the face of expansion, trade, invasion, and technological innovation, changes must occur.

The ancient Egyptians saw no positive value in cultural change, except at the technological level, and they went to great lengths to prevent disruption in their society. Many of the rituals they performed encouraged continuity with earlier periods of their history that they visualized as ideal. As you explore the different themes presented in Life in Ancient Egypt look for examples of change and continuity, tradition and innovation.

The Natural World

Egypt is located in northeastern Africa. Today it is bounded on the north by the Mediterranean Sea, on the south by the Sudan, on the west by Libya, and on the east by the Red Sea, Jordan, and Israel. In ancient times, the boundaries of Egypt were the Mediterranean Sea to the north and Elephantine (modern Aswan) to the south. Its eastern and western boundaries were in the high desert on either side of the narrow strip of Nile valley and low desert. The Nile River runs the length of the country flowing south to north.


There is sunshine in Egypt throughout the year, but there are noticeable temperature differences between seasons and between various parts of the country. The climate is characterized by a two season year: a relatively cool winter from November to April and a dry, hot summer from May to October. In the Delta in the north, the highest average temperature in the middle of winter is 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit and in the hottest season 90 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. It is about 10 degrees hotter in southern Egypt. Rainfall in the Nile Valley is negligible, no more than 100 to 200 millimeters (4 to 8 inches) per year in the Delta.

Lower Egypt

Ancient Egypt was divided into two regions: Upper and Lower Egypt. Lower (northern) Egypt consisted of the Nile River's delta made by the river as it empties into the Mediterranean. Today the Delta is fifteen thousand square miles of alluvium (silt), which has been deposited over the centuries by the annual inundation of the Nile. Prior to the New Kingdom (before about 1539 B.C.), this area was only thinly settled, although it was used as a grazing area for cattle. Its high water table in modern times has made archaeological excavation for evidence of settlements difficult.

Upper Egypt

Upper Egypt was the long, narrow strip of ancient Egypt located south of the Delta. This area is composed of four topographic zones: the Nile River, the floodplain, the low desert, and the high desert. Each zone was exploited differently by the ancient Egyptians.

The Nile

The most important geographic feature is the Nile River itself. It was the lifeblood of ancient Egypt, and still makes life possible in the otherwise barren desert of Egypt. The longest river in the world (over 4,000 miles), the Nile is formed by the union in Khartoum, Sudan, of the White Nile from Lake Victoria in Uganda and the Blue Nile from the mountains of Ethiopia. The only other tributary is the Atbara, which flows into the Nile in eastern Sudan. Between Khartoum and Aswan, the Nile has six cataracts that interrupt its course, making navigation difficult.

Between Aswan (ancient Elephantine) and the Mediterranean, the Nile is clear of cataracts and was the principal means of travel for the people of ancient Egypt. Various types of boats, including cargo, passenger, funerary, and naval vessels, journeyed on the river. Because the Nile flows from south to north, contrary to most rivers, a boat traveling north used oars aided by the current. The hieroglyph for "to go north" was a boat without a sail. The prevailing winds of Egypt blow from the north, so a boat traveling south could use sails. The hieroglyph for "to go south" was a boat with a sail.

The Nile also served as a source of food for the people of ancient Egypt. The river teemed with different types of fish, for example, catfish, mullet, bolti, and perch. Although certain species of fish were prohibited from consumption in areas of Egypt because of local superstitions, fishing was practiced as both an industry and a sport. A wide variety of wild birds, including fourteen species of wild ducks and geese as well as herons, pelicans, and cranes, were hunted in the marshes along the Nile. Organized hunting expeditions used cats to flush the birds from the marshes and then lassos, weighted ropes, bows and arrows, and throwsticks to bring them down. There were also crocodiles and hippopotamuses in the Nile, but the Egyptians hunted them only for sport.

The Nile served other purposes as well. It was the major source of water for bathing and drinking. Water was taken directly from the Nile or from one of the canals the Egyptians built to connect with it, although some wells did exist in towns not located directly on the river. Mud deposited by the Nile was used to make bricks for constructing houses, granaries, and enclosure walls around buildings.

The Nile was also crucial for farming because it left a layer of nutrient-bearing silt when the waters of the annual inundation receded, and it also provided water for irrigation. Those gardens located around villages and country houses of the wealthy had to be watered regularly because of their location above the reach of the Nile's floodwaters and because of the types of crops grown there (including lettuce, onions, figs, peas, vetch, beans, and grapes). After the New Kingdom, the Egyptians used shadufs to raise water from the canals to the gardens. Because the shaduf had to be worked by hand, this method of irrigation was very labor intensive.

Without the Nile, agriculture and, therefore, life in ancient Egypt would have been impossible. The river was a regular and predictable source of water. Because the flood was an event that annually revitalized the floodplain with water and new soil, it symbolized rebirth for the ancient Egyptians.

The flood created a need for resurveying property lines and for dredging the canals. Because working in the fields was not possible during the months of the inundation, many farmers helped to construct temples, royal tombs, and palaces during those times. For their services, they were paid in food and other material goods.

The Floodplain

The second geographic feature of Egypt was the floodplain. This was the low strip of fertile land located on either side of the Nile River that flooded during the annual inundation. Most ancient settlements were located on the highest ground of this zone. In addition, most of the farming occurred here. The agricultural year began in September or October, when the inundation subsided leaving the earth soaked and overlaid with a fresh layer of black silt. The principal crops of ancient Egypt were emmer (a type of wheat), barley, and flax. Cattle and poultry were bred, not only for food but also for religious rituals.

The Low Desert

The third geographic feature was a strip of higher land, located on either side of the floodplain, that was not watered by the Nile. This was the low desert, a zone of little vegetation. It was a place where men hunted animals such as antelope, hares, and lions. Because the low desert was dry and could not be farmed, the Egyptians located their cemeteries there. During the Predynastic Period (ca. 4500-3100 B.C.), they buried the deceased directly in the sands, which preserved their bodies naturally. Beginning with the Early Dynastic Period (ca. 3100-2750 B.C.), however, the Egyptians began to enclose the deceased in tombs, losing the preservative advantages of the desert sand. Because they believed the body had to be preserved to assure an afterlife, they were forced to develop an artificial technique of preserving the body, a process we call mummification.

The High Desert

The fourth geographic feature was the high desert, a barren area that was crossed only by trade caravans or organized groups searching for stone and mineral resources, such as calcite, gold, copper, amethyst, carnelian, and diorite. Several oases located in the high desert were cultivated to grow valuable crops like grapes and dates. These areas were important links in trade with more remote areas and were also used as places to house exiled prisoners.


The needs of ancient civilized societies like Egypt were not fully satisfied by their own resources, so trade routes were developed to reach distant countries. The ancient Egyptians most often visited the countries along the Mediterranean Sea and the Upper Nile River to the south because they were immediately adjacent to Egypt and contained materials that the Egyptians desired. At various times in their history, the ancient Egyptians set up trade routes to Cyprus, Crete, Greece, Syro-Palestine, Punt, and Nubia. Egyptian records as early as the Predynastic Period list some items that were brought into Egypt, including leopard skins, giraffe tails, monkeys, cattle, ivory, ostrich feathers and eggs, and gold. Punt (whose location is uncertain) was a major source for incense, while Syro-Palestine provided cedar, oils and unguents, and horses.

Land travel was time-consuming and dangerous because of possible attack by nomadic peoples. Donkeys were the only transport and pack animals used by the Egyptians until horses were brought to Egypt in Dynasty XVIII (ca. 1539-1295 B.C.). Horses were valuable and used only for riding or for pulling chariots. The domesticated camel was not introduced in Egypt until after 500 B.C.


Baines, John, and Jaromir Malek. Atlas of Ancient Egypt. New York: Facts on File, 1987. (Adult)

James, T.G.H.An Introduction to Ancient Egypt. NewYork: Harper & Row, 1979. (Grade 7-adult)

Kristensen, Preben, and Fiona Cameron. We Live in Egypt. New York: Bookwright Press, 1987. (Grades 3-6)

Percefull, Aaron W. The Nile. New York: Franklin Watts, 1984. (Grade 6-adult)

Classroom Activities

1. Have students use a map of the Mediterranean area to draw lines to countries that conducted trade with ancient Egypt. Attach symbols and a key to indicate what products were produced in each country.

2. Investigate mechanisms that various cultures have used for irrigation, such as the shaduf, waterwheel, and Archimedes' screw. Build models of these.

3. Compare the role of the Nile River in Egypt with the role of Pittsburgh's three rivers. Discuss how the Nile was essential to life in ancient Egypt and list the various ways the Egyptian people used the river. Then research the importance of Pittsburgh's three rivers from the city's beginnings in the eighteenth century to the present day. For more information on Pittsburgh's rivers, write for free information to Public Affairs Officer, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Pittsburgh District, 1000 Liberty Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA, 15222.

The Hall

Several areas in The Walton Hall of Ancient Egypt relate to geography. The case entitled "Geography" includes a map of ancient Egypt and another one showing the countries that had contact with Egypt; it also contains some imported jars and a bowl. The Carnegie boat exhibit is a good place to discuss the importance of the Nile River to the ancient Egyptians. This exhibit can be supplemented with the panel on travel to the left of the boat. The case entitled "Military" discusses some of the Egyptians' foreign contacts. Other cases throughout the hall display some artifacts made from Egypt's mineral resources and from materials obtained from trade.

Daily Life

Because the history of ancient Egypt spanned a period of more than three thousand years, customs and traditions varied in different periods. This guide focuses on the material culture of a nonroyal Egyptian family at the time of the New Kingdom (ca. 1539-1070 B.C.)

To understand the everyday life of ancient Egyptians, archaeologists draw on many sources. The most valuable sources include tomb paintings and reliefs. Also included in tombs, as part of the funerary equipment, were objects and models of objects that the Egyptians used in their daily life. Artifacts from the few towns that have been excavated and hundreds of documents written by the ancient Egyptians shed additional light on their life. Much of the day-to-day running of their households, however, remains obscure.

The Family

The nuclear family was the fundamental social unit of ancient Egypt. The father was responsible for the economic well-being of the family. Upper-class men often became scribes or priests, while lower-class men often were farmers, hunters, potters, or other craftsmen. The mother supervised the household, including servants, and cared for the upbringing of the children. Upper-class women could become priestesses, and all women could become musicians or professional mourners.

Children stayed at home until they reached marriageable age (about twenty for males, younger for females). Although Egyptian children had toys and are occasionally depicted at play, much of their time was spent preparing for adulthood. For example, peasant children accompanied their parents into the fields; the male offspring of craftsmen often served as apprentices to their fathers. Many privileged children received formal education to become a scribe. Some promising youngsters were taught by priests in temples, and children of the nobility sometimes received private instruction from tutors or learned to be an officer in the army.


The dress of the ancient Egyptians consisted not only of the clothes they wore but also of the elaborate costume jewelry that served to embellish the usually plain garments. White linen was most commonly used for clothing though wool was used quite frequently. Garments were draped around the body rather than tailored, and sewing was kept to a minimum. Colored or patterned cloth was rarely used. Prior to the New Kingdom the basic dress for men was a kilt, which fell just above the knee. It was made from a rectangular piece of linen wrapped around the body and tied at the waist with a knot or fastened with a buckle. In the New Kingdom men usually wore a short underkilt over which hung a long, heavily pleated skirt that was knotted at the hips with a fringed sash. Also worn was a short, wide cape covering the upper part of the body and hanging from the shoulders.

Prior to the New Kingdom, women wore simple sheath dresses falling from the breast to just above the ankle, but in the New Kingdom dresses became much more elegant. The sheath dress was worn, but only as an undergarment. A heavily pleated fringed robe was worn on top.

Children and those participating in rigorous exercise frequently wore no clothes at all. Both boys' and girls' heads were usually shaved except for a long, braided sidelock.

Although the Egyptians spent much of their time barefoot, both men and women sometimes wore sandals made from papyrus, palm leaves, or leather fastened by leather thongs. The standard sandal had a thong that passed between the first and second toes and attached to a bar that went across the instep. Sandals were always removed in the presence of a superior.

An integral part of the Egyptian costume was a wig or a hairpiece attached to the natural hair. Because of the intense heat, many Egyptians shaved their heads or cut their hair very short, although some kept their hair very long and elaborately coiffed.

Both men and women wore jewelry such as earrings, bracelets, anklets, rings, and beaded necklaces. They incorporated into their jewelry many minerals including amethyst, garnet, jasper, onyx, turquoise, and lapis lazuli, as well as copper, gold, and shells. Because the Egyptians were very superstitious, frequently their jewelry contained amulets.

Cosmetics were not only an important part of Egyptian dress but also a matter of personal hygiene and health. Many items related to cosmetics have been found in tombs and are illustrated in tomb paintings. Oils and creams were of vital importance against the hot Egyptian sun and dry winds. Eye paint, both green and black, is probably the most characteristic of the Egyptian cosmetics. The green pigment was malachite, an oxide of copper. The black paint, called kohl, was a sulfate of lead and, in the late Middle and New Kingdoms, was soot. Kohl was usually kept in a small pot that had a flat bottom, wide rim, tiny mouth, and a flat, disk-shaped lid. Many kohl pots have been found in Egyptian tombs. To color their cheeks, the Egyptians used red ocher mixed with a base of fat or gum resin; ocher may have also been used as lipstick. Henna, a reddish-brown dye, was certainly used to color hair and perhaps also the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, and nails.

The Home

As in our society, the size and appearance of an Egyptian house depended on the family's wealth and the location of the building. A typical nonprofessional's house in a city would have a small court facing a narrow street with a few rooms at the back It had windows placed high in the walls and covered with latticework to keep out heat and the sun's glare. Steps at the rear of the house led up to a flat roof, where the family frequently slept to enjoy the breezes blowing off the desert. Houses were constructed of sun-dried mud bricks. Although these bricks were inexpensive and enabled fast construction, they were not durable over a long period of time.

Egyptian homes had kitchens, and most kitchens were equipped with a cylindrical, baked clay stove for cooking. The basic cooking equipment was a two-handled pottery saucepan.

The few furnishings in the ancient Egyptian home were simple in design, although the craftsmanship varied. The most common piece of furniture was a low stool, used by all Egyptians including the pharaoh. These were made from wood, had leather or woven rush seats, and had three or four legs. Usually the three-legged stool was used for work because floors were uneven. They used tables, which were often low, for eating and working.

The Egyptian bed had a wooden frame with legs often shaped like the legs of animals; a woven rush mat served as "springs." At one end of the bed was a footboard; at the other end, a wooden or stone headrest, which was equivalent to our pillow.

Lamps were used to light the house after dark. They were, for the most part, simple pottery or stone bowls containing oil and a wick. The ancient Egyptians did not have cupboards as we have in modern houses. They used wooden boxes or baskets to store their household goods. Their food was stored in wheel-made pottery.


The Egyptians' staple food was bread. It was made from barley and emmer wheat, their most common crops. Bread was usually baked in a conical mold that was placed over an open fire. There were also dome-shaped ovens where net loaves of bread were baked by placing them against either the hot interior or exterior of the dome. The main beverage of ancient Egypt was beer, but the frequent depictions of grape arbors on tomb walls and the numerous wine vessels found throughout Egypt indicate that wine was also popular. However, only the nobility could afford to drink wine on a regular basis.

Numerous varieties of fruits and vegetables were grown in irrigated gardens. Fruits included figs, grapes, plums, dates, and watermelon. Vegetables included beets, sweet onions, radishes, turnips, garlic, lettuce, chick peas, beans, and lentils.

The Egyptians ate a variety of meat, fish, and fowl. Beef, mutton, pork, and wild game such as hyenas were part of their diet. Fowl included domestic geese and pigeons and a wide variety of wild birds--herons, pelicans, cranes, wild ducks, and wild geese. The Nile supplied many kinds of fish, including catfish, mullet, bolti, and perch.

Leisure Activities

The ancient Egyptians filled their leisure time with many pleasant activities. They enjoyed good food, drink, music, singing, and dancing. The upper class watched professional dancers at formal banquets. A number of musical instruments accompanied the dancers. The flute, oboe, trumpet, and an instrument resembling a clarinet were the most common wind instruments; stringed instruments included various types of harps, lutes, and lyres; and tambourines and drums were the normal percussion instruments. In rituals, sistra and clappers were used.

Other leisure activities included hunting, fowling, and fishing for sport. Hunters used a bow and arrow for most game--ibex, gazelle, wild cattle, ostriches, and hares. Fowling and fishing took place in marshes. For fowling, Egyptians used a throwstick that acted like a boomerang, stunning the bird and knocking it out of the sky. For fishing a long, double-barbed spear was used.

The Egyptians enjoyed pets. The dog was the most common. Cats also became popular. The wealthy sometimes had monkeys.

Members of literate households (5 percent at most) enjoyed reading. In the quiet of their homes, the ancient Egyptians played a number of board games, the most, popular being senet. Ancient Egyptian children had games and amusements similar to those of Egyptian children today. A number of simple toys like balls and dolls have been found in tombs.

Many details of the Egyptians' daily lives still remain hidden. As archaeologists discover more tomb paintings and uncover additional artifacts from cemeteries and towns, our knowledge of their fascinating culture increases.


Baines, John, and Jaromir Malek. Atlas of Ancient Egypt. New York: Facts on File, 1987. (Adult)

James, T.G.H. An Introduction to Ancient Egypt. NewYork: Harper & Row, 1979. (Grade 7-adult)

Leacroft, Helen. The Buildings of Ancient Egypt. New York: Scott, 1963. (Grade 4-adult)

Mellersh, H.E. Finding Out About Ancient Egypt. New York: Lothrop, 1962. (Grades 4-7)

Robinson, Charles Alexander, Jr. The First Book of Ancient Egypt. New York: Franklin Watts, Inc., 1961. (Grades 4-6)

Romano, James F. Daily Life of the Ancient Egyptians. Pittsburgh: Carnegie Museum of Natural History, 1990. (Grade 7-adult)

Stead, Miriam. Egyptian Life. London: British Museum Publications, 1986. (Grade 7-adult)

Teachers' Project Books

Farnay, Josie, and Claude Soleillant. Egypt: Activities and Projects in Color. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 1978.

Purdy, Susan, and Cass R Sundak. Ancient Egypt. New York: Franklin Watts, 1982.

Classroom Activities

1. Investigate ancient Egyptian objects used for grooming such as tweezers, combs, mirrors, and cosmetics. Compare and contrast them with modern grooming techniques.

2. Research and then write and produce a play about an Egyptian family attending a banquet. What would they wear? Create costumes from inexpensive white muslin. What would they eat? Buy some modern-day counterparts of Egyptian food. What would the entertainment be? Construct some musical instruments; learn some Egyptian games.

3. Have children construct a model of a typical Egyptian home and a model of a wealthy Egyptian villa. Compare and contrast the differences. What materials were used in construction? What furnishings were in both kinds of homes? Where were the homes located?

Museum Visit

In the museum's Walton Hall of Ancient Egypt, you will find many articles related to daily life in ancient Egypt. In the Daily Life case you will find a wooden headrest, a mirror handle, clappers, kohl, and a game piece. In the Crafts cases are examples of jewelry, kohl pots, lamps, wigs, vases, and tweezers.

Gods and Religion

A general understanding of the world view of the ancient Egyptians is the best preparation for this brief examination of their confusing array of deities. The term "world view" denotes the set of widely held beliefs that people of a specific culture hold to explain what they observe in their world. The ancient Egyptians interpreted every occurrence in terms of the relationship between natural and supernatural forces. Those phenomena that figured prominently in their lives included the annual cycle of the Nile River's flood (or inundation), the enormous size and unchanging harshness of the surrounding desert, and the daily cycle of the sun's appearance in the east, gradual movement across the sky, and eventual disappearance in the west. The ancient Egyptians developed a world view in which these and other events and conditions were attributed to the actions of multiple, related gods and goddesses.

Creation Beliefs

Ancient Egyptian ideas about the creation of the world offer particularly valuable insights into the way these orderly, agricultural people viewed themselves and their land. Several versions of the creation myth exist, and each evokes images of the Nile River's inundation cycle and the growth of bountiful crops on the silt left behind by receding floodwaters.

According to one widely accepted creation myth, eight deities dwelled among the darkness and disorder of a great watery void before the world existed. The water was personified by the god Nun, and the creation of the world began when an earthen mound arose from him. Atum or in one version Re, the sun god, rose from this mound. In another version of creation, a lotus arose from the waters of Nun, and Atum appeared from within the lotus. Atum, from within himself, brought forth the deities who represented air (Shu) and moisture (Tefnet); then Tefnet gave birth to the sky (Nut) and the earth (Geb). Humans were often believed to be the products of Atum's or Re's tears.

View of the World

The ancient Egyptians imagined the world to be a far different place from what we now know it to be. They believed the earth was a flat platter of clay afloat on a vast sea of water from which the Nile River sprung. In this fundamental description of the world, the forces of nature were identified as divine descendants of the creator god. The Nile River, for example, was represented by the god Hapy.

The Nile Valley's stable and predictable natural cycles aided in the development of the Egyptian civilization. The river's annual inundation of its floodplain brought fertility to the land through water and silt; the region's perpetual sun promoted bountiful harvests; and the dryness of the climate provided ideal conditions for the safe storage of surplus crops. Because the very structure of the ancient Egyptians' civilization depended upon the continued predictability of their environment, they looked to their gods to perpetuate the status quo.

Of all the deities, the goddess Maat was the most important in perpetuating the status quo. The Egyptians believed that when the gods formed the land of Egypt out of chaos, Maat was created to embody truth, justice, and the basic orderly arrangement of the world. Maat personified the perfect state of the god-created world, and all that people had to do in order to live and prosper in the world was to honor and preserve Maat. On a national level, it was the king's responsibility to preserve Maat through daily offerings given at the temples. On an individual level, the goal of every Egyptian was to lead a honorable life that would allow entrance into the afterlife after death.

Gods and Goddesses

When we try to make some sense out of the many Egyptian gods and goddesses, we must keep two important facts in mind. First, early in Egyptian history Lower (north) and Upper (south) Egypt were unified under one ruler. This union resulted in the merging of several cultural traditions. Second, because ancient Egyptian civilization existed for more than three thousand years, the deities and myths gradually changed over time as a result of new ideas, contact with other peoples, and changing cultural values.

One of the best-known legends in Egyptian mythology, that of the god Osiris, revolves around a deity who at one time may have been a local ruler in the Nile River's delta. Originally he was a god associated with the city of Busiris in the Delta and is an example of a regional god who gained countrywide acceptance.

According to the myth, Osiris was the king of Egypt who was killed by his jealous brother Seth. This evil brother then cut up Osiris' body and scattered the parts throughout Egypt. Osiris had a faithful wife Isis who, along with her sister Nephthys, gathered the pieces together. Using her magical abilities, Isis put the pieces back together, but Osiris could never again live like the other gods. He, therefore, reigned as lord of the underworld, while his son, Horus, became the ruler of Egypt (see below). Osiris is represented as a mummified king.

Because the legend told of Osiris' death and rebirth, the Egyptians honored him as the god of the dead. He is depicted as a mummy holding the crook and flail, the insignia of kingship. During the Old Kingdom (ca. 2750-2250 B.C.), he became associated with the deceased pharaoh in the afterlife. During the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2025-1627/1606 B.C.), when many of the funerary rituals became available to much of the population, all individuals became associated with Osiris upon their deaths.

Horus, the falcon-headed son of Osiris and Isis, is the hero of a legend related to the Osiris myth. The focus of this legend is on a battle between Horus and his uncle Seth for the throne of Egypt. This battle was very intense because Horus also wanted to avenge his father's murder. Horus eventually defeated Seth and became the ruler of Egypt (the kings of Egypt were considered to be Horus on earth). During the course of the battle, however, Seth tore out and broke Horus' eye by smashing it on the ground. Another god, Thoth, picked up the eye and restored it. This eye became a very powerful amulet known as the wedjet-eye and is frequently seen in tombs or in jewelry.

Thoth, the restorer of the eye, is generally depicted with the head of an ibis, a common Egyptian bird. Thoth was the scribe of the gods and was believed to have invented writing. He possessed wonderful magic and was also associated with the moon and time. Sometimes he is represented by a baboon, when he is depicted as a whole animal rather than a man with a baboon's head.

As the religion of Egypt evolved, various gods gained importance. Hundreds of years after the pyramids were built, the major center of government moved south to the city of Thebes, and the local god of that city became the head of the Egyptian pantheon. This was the god Amun and a very large and impressive temple was built in his honor near the modern village of Karnak. Although the ram and the goose were considered to be the sacred animals of Amun, the god himself is always portrayed as a man. Amun's wife was the goddess Mut. Mut is often portrayed as a woman wearing a vulture headdress, but can also have a lion's head or be represented as a vulture.

Another goddess was Hathor, who took several forms, all related to a cow. Sometimes she was depicted with a cow's head or just with the ears or horns of a cow. At other times a whole cow was used as her representation. A major deity, she was identified with beauty and music. Many temples were built in her honor.

The goddess Sekhmet represented war, destruction, and pestilence. Usually portrayed with the head of a lion on a woman's body, she was also associated in another aspect with the cat.

Another deity who was often portrayed with the head of an animal is Anubis. He had the head of a doglike animal called a jackal. Because jackals lived in the low desert where cemeteries were located, Anubis came to be honored as the god of the necropolis. Anubis also served as the god of embalming, in charge of preparing bodies for burial.

We do not know why the Egyptians chose to associate some gods and goddesses with animals or why a certain animal species came to represent a specific deity. All the animals that developed sacred associations, however, were native to Egypt at some time during its history.

Cult Temples

Cult temples were places where religious rituals took place in ancient Egypt. Unlike modern churches, however, cult temples were not intended to hold gatherings of worshipers. Instead, they were regarded as a home for a particular god, and entrance privileges were reserved for the king and the temple's priests. A deity's presence within a temple was personified by a statue, and the ritual care of that statue required it to be fed, dressed, and anointed with a perfumed oil every day. In theory, it was the king's obligation to attend to the needs of the deities in the cult temples. In actual fact, the king was physically unable to preside at all the temples in Egypt, so he appointed priests to act as his representatives in the daily rituals.

Daily rituals at cult temples began in the predawn hours with the slaughter of the animals needed for the day's food offerings. At dawn a procession of carefully groomed priests clad in long white linen robes entered the temple after stopping to wash and purify themselves in a sacred lake outside the structure. The priests deposited their offerings of food in the temple's outer, column-bordered courtyard and kindled incense such as myrrh. After walking through a series of roofed inner halls and opening the doors to the god's shrine, the priest conducted a ritual that involved making additional food offerings, burning more incense, and washing, anointing, and dressing the statue. At the conclusion of this service, the priest backed out of the sanctuary, wiping away the marks of his footprints as he went. At noon the chief priest entered the sanctuary again for a shorter ritual in which he offered the god refreshment. In the evening the food offerings were removed, and the sanctuary containing the god's statue was sealed.

In theory the deities ate the food offerings, while in fact the food was eaten by the priests after they removed it from the temple. The Egyptians believed that if they made a statement or carried out some activity involving a specific concern, their words or action would bring about a result. For that reason, they were not bothered that the food never disappeared.

The Egyptian belief that certain animals were sacred to specific deities led temple priests to raise and care for a few of the species sacred to the temple's god or goddess. These animals, whether a cat, bull, crocodile, falcon, or ibis, lived in relative luxury on the temple grounds, and when they died, they were mummified so they could enjoy an afterlife. During the Late Period (ca. 664-332 B.C.), toward the end of ancient Egyptian history, the temple priests found it economically profitable to raise large numbers of these animals on the temple grounds so that animal mummies could be sold to pilgrims to be used as votive offerings at temples. This practice grew into a business of major proportions for the cult temples. One temple necropolis, for example, housed over four million ibis mummies. The Egyptians built mortuary temples as well as cult temples. Whereas cult temples honored a specific deity, mortuary temples honored not only a deity but also a specific deceased pharaoh. However, the architecture of both was similar, as were the rituals performed in them. The temple as an institution was at the heart of Egyptian society. It reminded the Egyptians of the nature of their world and their role in their divine kingdom.


Asimov, Issac. The Egyptians. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1967. (Grade 6-adult)

Cottrell, Leonard. Land of the Pharaohs. Cleveland: Collins Publishing Co., 1960. (Grades 3-6)

Fairservis, Walter. Egypt, Gift of the Nile. New York: Macmillan, 1963. (Grade 5-adult)

James, T.G.H. An Introduction to Ancient Egypt. NewYork: Harper & Row, 1979. (Grade 7-adult)

Leacroft, Helen. The Buildings of Ancient Egypt. New York: Scott, 1963. (Grade 4-adult)

Lurker, Manfred. Gods and Symbols of Ancient Egypt: An Illustrated Dictionary. Revised by Peter A. Clayton. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1984. (Grade 7-adult)

Romano, James F. Death, Burial, and Afterlife in Ancient Egypt. Pittsburgh: Carnegie Museum of Natural History, 1990. (Grade 6-adult)

Trigger, B.G.; B. Kemp; and D. O'Connor. Ancient Egypt: A Social History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983. (Adult)

Classroom Activities

1. Write an essay. Ask your class to imagine that they are designing an exhibit about the world view of modern Americans. What items would they include? For example, a globe or a picture taken from a satellite might symbolize our view of the earth as a planet moving through space. A microscope might represent our knowledge of life forms and structures not visible to the naked eye. Have students list ten items in their essay and explain there reasons for including each.

2. Create a mural or collage of animal symbols in our culture. After discussing the associations ancient Egyptians made between their deities and specific animals, spend some time talking about animal symbols in our own culture. Have your students use old newspapers and magazines to find pictures of animal trademarks, symbols, mascots, and so on. Discuss the traits each of these animals exhibits.

3. Examine myths. Dozens of myths are part of our own culture. Discuss the lesson that a particular modern myth teaches and the relevance, if any, that it has to actual historical facts. Have the students research the creation myths of another culture and report their findings to the class.

The Hall

In The Walton Hall of Ancient Egypt the exhibit cases entitled "Creation Myths," "The Deities," "Cult Temples," and "Animal Mummies" deal with the ancient Egyptians' religion and their deities. On a curved wall near the reconstructed tomb, nineteen different gods and goddesses are pictured. Deities are also depicted o the walls of the reconstructed tomb, on coffins, and on other artifacts in the hall. Directly outside the hall is a diorama of colossal statues, one of which represents the god Horus, and a copy of a statue of the goddess Sekhmet.

Funerary Customs

Much of our knowledge about ancient Egyptian culture comes from archaeological evidence uncovered in tombs. Objects, inscriptions, and paintings from tombs have led Egyptologists to conclude that what appeared to be a preoccupation with death was in actuality an overwhelming desire to secure and perpetuate in the afterlife the "good life" enjoyed on earth.

Preparing for the Afterlife

Over the more than three thousand years of ancient Egypt's history, traditional beliefs about the transition to eternal life persisted, with new ideas being incorporated from time to time. Most important for full participation in the afterlife was the need for an individual's identity to be preserved. Consequently, the body had to remain intact, and the person had to receive regular offerings of food and drink.

The afterlife was assured by (1) preserving the body through mummification; (2) protecting the body in a tomb and inscribing a person's name on the tomb walls, funerary stela, and burial equipment; and (3) providing food and drink or illustrating food stuffs and writing about food offerings in tombs in case appropriate relatives or priests were not available to make food offerings. These paintings and funerary inscriptions, which provided the owner of the tomb with "a thousand bread, a thousand cattle," were thought capable of sustaining the individual. The Egyptians also provided their tombs with many kinds of equipment, including furniture, utensils, clothing, jewelry, and cosmetics, according to their wealth, to ensure their material comfort in the best possible afterlife.

To ensure divine protection, funerary texts were written at first only on the walls of pharaohs' tombs and later on papyrus left in the tombs of private people. These texts included such writings as adaptations of the myth about the death of Osiris and spells to protect the deceased on his or her dangerous journey to the underworld.

The Egyptians believed that a person's spirit or soul was composed of three distinct parts, the ka (its vital force or "spiritual twin"), the ba (its personality or spirit), and the akh. The ka was created at a person's birth and needed a body to continue to live after an individual's death. It could also live in a statue of the deceased. The ba was a person's spirit, represented most commonly by a human-headed bird, that was released at the time of death. It could leave the tomb during the daylight hours to travel around the earth and was also with the deceased at his or her judgment. The akh was the "immortality" of an individual and resided in the heavens.

The final step in the transition to the afterlife was the judgment by Osiris, god of the underworld, in a ritual known as the Weighing of the Heart. If a person had led a decent life, he or she would be judged worthy of eternal life. Many spells and rituals were designed to ensure a favorable judgment and were written in the papyrus or linen "Book of the Dead."

The Burial Rites

When a person died, the whole family went into mourning. Women wailed, special clothing was worn, and men stopped shaving and eating. When a pharaoh died, the entire country mourned, and although the ancient Egyptians emphasized cleanliness, all shaving and bathing ceased.

The corpse was taken by boat from the east bank of the Nile, where most people lived, to the west bank. Cemeteries were located in the western low desert because the west was associated with the setting sun and death. First the body was placed in a purification tent where it was cleansed and dressed in clean clothes. Next it was brought to the embalming tent where it was preserved. The embalming priests wore masks representing Anubis, the god of embalming, and recited prayers and spells.


The process of mummification, the form of embalming practiced by the ancient Egyptians, changed over time from the Old Kingdom (ca. 2750-2250 B.C.), when it was available only to kings, to the New Kingdom (ca. 1539-1070 B.C.), when it was available to everyone. The level of mummification depended on what one could afford. The most fully developed form involved four basic steps:

1. All of the internal organs, except the heart, were removed. Since the organs were the first parts of the body to decompose but were necessary in the afterlife, they were mummified and put in canopic jars that were placed in the tomb at the time of burial. The heart was believed to be the seat of intelligence and emotion and was, therefore, left in the body. The brain, on the other hand, was regarded as having no significant value and, beginning in the New Kingdom, was removed through the nose and discarded.

2. The body was packed and covered with natron, a salty drying agent, and left to dry out for forty to fifty days. By this time all the body's liquid had been absorbed and only the hair, skin, and bones were left.

3. The body cavity was stuffed with resin, sawdust, or linen and shaped to restore the deceased's form and features.

4. The body was then tightly wrapped in many layers of linen with numerous amulets wrapped between the layers. The most important amulet was the scarab beetle, which was placed over the heart. Jewelry was also placed among the bandages. At each stage of wrapping, a priest recited spells and prayers. This whole procedure could take as long as fifteen days. After the wrapping was complete, the body was put into a shroud. The entire mummification process took about seventy days.

The Funeral Procession

After the embalming was completed, the family was notified that it was time to leave its home on the east bank and travel by boat to the west bank for the funeral. The survivors formed a procession that also included priests and professional mourners to journey to the tomb. Servants carried flowers, offerings, food and drink, sacred ritual oils, and all the objects intended for burial. Some of the most important of these were a large box containing the canopic jars and a chest containing statuettes called shabtis.

A priest performed the Opening of the Mouth ceremony on the mummy at the entrance of the tomb. This ritual gave the deceased the ability to speak, eat, and have full use of his or her body. After the mummy was put in a coffin and then in a sarcophagus, it was placed in the burial chamber. Included in the tomb were all the funerary figurines, headrests, models of daily life, furniture, jars, cosmetics, and games necessary to ensure the deceased's enjoyment of the afterlife.

After the door was sealed, a banquet was held outside of the tomb entrance. When all the mummification equipment was buried near the tomb, the funeral was over.


In the Predynastic Period (ca. 4500-3100 B.C.), bodies were buried in the fetal position in shallow, rectangular or oval graves dug directly in the sand away from any arable land. With the founding of the Egyptian state at the beginning of Dynasty I (ca. 3100 B.C.), burial practices changed and tombs began to appear. During the Dynastic Period three basic types of tombs evolved: mastabas, rock-cut tombs, and, for many kings up to the time of the New Kingdom, pyramids. During the first dynasties the Egyptians began to build mastabas of mud brick. These early mastabas consisted of a rectangular-shaped chapel above ground with a burial chamber below ground. Mastaba tombs enjoyed great popularity in the Old and Middle Kingdoms. The later mastabas were often built of stone, with larger chapels and a series of chambers above ground.

The first known pyramid was the Step Pyramid of King Djoser at Saqqara (Dynasty III, ca. 2700 B.C.). Its superstructure was a configuration of six squared-off mastabas of diminishing size set on top of one another, with the burial chamber below ground.

True pyramids had smooth sides. The Dynasty IV pyramids, including Pharaoh Khufu's Great Pyramid at Giza, were probably the largest ever built and consisted of large stone blocks faced with limestone. Later pyramids were smaller and usually had a rubble-filled core. Pyramids did not stand alone but were part of a complex of buildings that included various temples.

In areas with steep cliffs, the Egyptians tended to cut tombs deep into the rock. These rock-cut tombs first appeared in the Old Kingdom, and by the New Kingdom royal rock-cut tombs were widespread. These royal tombs were in a remote valley that we call the Valley of the Kings and consisted of a series of rooms cut into the sides of steep cliffs. Nonroyal people also used rock-cut tombs that were often topped with small brick pyramids.

All ancient Egyptians believed in the afterlife and spent their lives preparing for it. Pharaohs built the finest tombs, collected the most elaborate funerary equipment, and were mummified in the most expensive way. Others were able to provide for their afterlives according to their earthly means. Regardless of their wealth, however, they all expected the afterlife to be an idealized version of their earthly existence.


Aliki. Mummies made in Egypt. New York: Harper & Row, Junior Books Division, 1985. (Grade K-6)

Cottrell, Leonard. The Secrets of Tutankhamens's Tomb. Greenwich, Conn: New York Graphic Society Publishers, 1964. (Grade 4 and up)

Glubok, Shirley. The Mummy of Ramose: The Life and Death of an Ancient Egyptian Nobleman. New York: Harper & Row, 1978. (Grade 3-6)

Macauley, David. Pyramid. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975. (Grade 5 and up)

Older Students and Teachers

Andrews, Carol. Egyptian Mummies. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984.

David, A. Rosalie. The Ancient Egyptians. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984.

Desroches-Noblecourt, Cristiane. Tutankhamen. New York: Doublday & Company, 1965.

James, T.G.H. An Introduction to Ancient Egypt. NewYork: Harper & Row, 1979. (Grade 7-adult)

Romano, James F. Death, Burial, and Afterlife in Ancient Egypt. Pittsburgh: Carnegie Museum of Natural History, 1990.

Spencer, A.J. Death in Ancient Egypt. London: Penguin Books, 1982.

Classroom Activities

1. The lives of ancient Egyptians were dominated by rituals designed to ensure a perfect afterlife. Research these ancient Egyptians rituals and compare and contrast them with modern- day rituals surrounding various ceremonies. Have students list rituals they have participated in recently.

2. Have students research various ancient Egyptian amulets to learn their meaning and use. The students may also make amulets out of self-hardening clay. Discuss good luck symbols used today, and try to find their origins.

3. Imagine that people today have beliefs similar to those of the ancient Egyptians. Ask the students to list the things they might put in a tomb to ensure a comfortable afterlife.

The Hall

The Walton Hall of Ancient Egypt contains a reconstruction of the central burial chamber of the "middle-class" tomb of Sennedjem where you will find artifacts excavated from similar tombs of the New Kingdom. The hall also has two human mummies and several animal mummies; the latter were used as offerings to the deities. Also on view are many objects thought to be necessary for the deceased in the afterlife. One of the highlights of the hall is the funerary boat, one of five or six similar boats from the pyramid complex of Senwosret III, that were probably used in his funeral procession.



Existence after death. The ancient Egyptians believed the perfect afterlife was an idealized version of their earthly existence.


Good luck charm. Many represented gods or goddesses or their symbols. Others were hieroglyphs that stood for protective words such as life, good, beauty, and stability. By wearing such charms, the owner received the powers associated with the deity or hieroglyph.


To rub with a perfumed oil or ointment.

Archaeological Evidence

The material remains of past human societies, studied by scientists called archaeologists.

"Book of the Dead"

A New Kingdom collection of spells often written on papyrus or linen and placed in the tomb with the mummy to give it protection in its journey to the afterlife. It was actually called the "Chapters of Coming Forth by Day."

Canopic Jars

Four jars that contained the deceased's lungs, liver, intestines, and stomach. They were buried with the mummy in the tomb.


A stretch of rapids interrupting the flow of the Nile, caused by boulders of granite interspersed in the Nubian sandstone belt.


A musical instrument consisting of two sticks tied together and played like castanets.

Crook and Flail

Symbols of kingship. The crook is a shepherd's staff with a hook at the upper end; the flail is a free-swinging stick tied to the end of a long handle.


A system of religious worship or ritual.


A usually triangular deposit of silt at the mouth of a river where it flows into a sea or ocean.


A support for the head of a person sleeping on his or her side. It consisted of a curved portion, which held the head, on a pedestal about the height of the shoulder.


A large, heron-like, wading bird with long legs and a long, slender, curved bill.


The annual flood of the Nile River that occurred in ancient times from June to early October. It was caused by rains in Central Africa and melting snow and rains in the Ethiopian highlands.


A form of water lily that bears a showy flower. It was a symbol of Upper Egypt.

Lower Egypt

The area of Egypt consisting of the Nile River's fan-shaped delta. The Nile flows north through Lower Egypt into the Mediterranean Sea.


Early tombs built of mud brick or stone in a rectangular shape at ground level with a burial chamber below ground.

Mortuary Temple

A structure where the dead were prepared for burial and worshiped.


The preserved corpse of an ancient Egyptian.


A fragrant, bitter-tasting gum resin exuded from several varieties of trees in east Africa and the Arabian peninsula, used in making incense and perfume.


(From the Greek word for cemetery). A large, important burial ground that was used over a long period of time.


A staircase descending into the Nile with marks indicating various levels above low water. It was used for measuring and recording inundation levels.


An area in a desert that is fertile because of the presence of water.


All the officially recognized gods of a people.


A reed that grows in the marshes along the banks of the Nile. It was used to make the paper-like writing material of the same name. Papyrus was a symbol of Lower Egypt.


Burial tombs of pharaohs during the Old and Middle Kingdoms. They were always part of a pyramid complex that included a funerary temple and a valley temple connected by a causeway.

Sacred Lake

A man-made lake on the grounds of a temple. It was used in purification rituals.


A dung beetle, which came to symbolize rebirth for the ancient Egyptians, who watched the insect's young appear "spontaneously" from the ground. They did not realize that the adult beetle had deposited eggs in a dung ball in the ground. Also, an Egyptian amulet shaped like a beetle.


A person whose occupation was writing.


Statuettes of servants placed in tombs to work for the deceased in the afterlife.


A device consisting of a long pole with a bucket on one end and a weight on the other. It was used to raise water from the river or canal in irrigating land.


A place of worship centered around a sacred scene or object, such as a religious image in a niche.

Sistrum(plural, sistra)

A musical rattle used in religious ceremonies in ancient Egypt.

Stela (plural, stelae)

A free-standing slab of stone (rarely of wood) inscribed, usually on one side, with text and pictures that record primarily the name and titles of the deceased and his family and the offering formulae requesting supplies necessary for eternal life.


A curved piece of flat wood thrown in hunting to hit the wings of birds in flight.

Upper Egypt

The area of Egypt located south of the Delta.

Valley of the Kings

The modern name of the remote valley on the west bank of Thebes where royal rock-cut tombs were built during the New Kingdom.

Votive Offering

An object given, dedicated, or consecrated in fulfillment of a vow or a pledge.

Weighing of the heart

The ancient Egyptians believed that the heart recorded all of the good and bad deeds of a person's life, and was needed for judgment in the afterlife. After a person died, the heart was weighed against the feather of Maat (the goddess of truth and justice). The scales were watched by Anubis (the jackal-headed god of embalming) and the results recorded by Thoth (the ibis-headed god of writing). If a person had led a decent life, the heart balanced with the feather and the person was rendered worthy to live forever in paradise with Osiris (the god of the underworld).

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