Mastaba Tombs of the Old Kingdom

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Mastaba Tombs of the Old Kingdom

House for Eternity.

The mastaba tomb's name comes from the Arabic word meaning "bench," for its resemblance to a mud brick bench sitting on the desert sand. Such benches are often located in front of houses. One name that the ancient Egyptians gave to tombs was per djet, "house of eternity." The Egyptians thought of the tomb as one of the places in which their souls would live after they died. The soul divisions included the ba that could travel between the mummy and the next world, the ka that could inhabit a statue of a deceased person, and the akh that was transformed in the tomb into a spirit that could live in the next world. Not only did the ba and the ka spend time with the mummy and the statue of the deceased in the tomb, but also supplies that a person would need in the next life were stored in the tomb, just as there were storage facilities in a house. A deceased person could even receive mail at the tomb just as mail could be delivered to a person in this life. In fact all the functions that a person performed in life—sleeping, eating, dressing, receiving friends—were performed in the tomb by the deceased.

Earliest Egyptian Tombs.

In the very earliest periods, Egyptians buried their dead in oval-shaped pits in the desert. From the Nagada I Period (3800–3500 b.c.e.), grave goods such as pots, tools, and weapons were included in the grave along with the body. These graves were unmarked, but the grave goods show that from the earliest period the Egyptians believed that people needed supplies to take with them to the next world. In the Nagada II Period (3500–3300 b.c.e.), the Egyptians dug more rectangular pits for graves and sometimes lined them with basket-work, reed matting, or wood. These simple linings were the precursors of coffins. It was only during the first two dynasties (3100–2675 b.c.e.) that the Egyptians began to build superstructures over pit graves called mastabas. At first they built them of mud brick, but later switched to stone. The type remained the basic burial architecture for the region around Memphis used by the wealthy into 3100 b.c.e. and later.

Mastabas of Dynasties One, Two, and Three.

The mastabas built during the First and Second Dynasties were decorated with the palace façade motif derived from the enclosure wall of the contemporary royal palace as well as the funerary enclosures of kings in this period. First-dynasty mastabas had plastered and painted exteriors, though this feature apparently did not continue into the Second Dynasty. Though the first mastabas had storage chambers, storage moved to the substructure during the course of the First Dynasty. A staircase led to these storage chambers and the burial chamber. The mastaba became a solid brick block with retaining walls and a rubble core. On the east side of the mastaba, architects placed two offering niches where the living could make offerings. Later, architects built exterior chapels on the east side of the tomb, in addition to interior chapels shaped like a corridor, and cruciform chapels on the interior. The living used all of these places to make offerings to the dead. Yet, no definite progression of these types can currently be deduced. They continued into the Third Dynasty as the typical burial for the wealthy, even as kings began to build step pyramids.

Fourth-Dynasty Mastabas.

At the beginning of the Fourth Dynasty (2625–2500 b.c.e.), mud brick continued to be the main construction material of mastabas with some elements such as lintels—the top element of a doorway that rests on the sides of the doorway called jambs—made of stone. By the time Khufu built the Great Pyramid, however, all of the surrounding mastaba tombs were limestone. Probably this change is due to the fact that these mastabas belonged to the very richest non-royal people. Most of them were at least relatives of the royal family and held high office in the bureaucracy. The mastaba itself was mostly solid with a corridor that led to two chapels on the east side, built over shafts excavated into the bedrock. The shaft extended to the roof of the mastaba that gave the only access to it and to the burial chamber. At the bottom of the shaft a tunnel extending to the west led to the burial chamber. A stone sarcophagus, decorated with the palace façade motif similar to the older superstructures, rested in a niche in the west wall. A canopic chest—the name given to the container holding the mummified lungs, liver, stomach, and intestines—lay buried in a niche either on the south or southeast wall. Egyptians employed elaborate measures to thwart tomb robbers, such as filling the tunnel with rubble after the burial or inserting large blocking stones. These precautions were largely unsuccessful. Nearly all of the Old Kingdom mastabas were robbed in antiquity.

Fifth- and Sixth-dynasty Mastabas.

The superstructure of Fifth- and Sixth-dynasty mastabas (2500–2170 b.c.e.) was more complex than the earlier, solid-core mastabas. Designers now included interior chapels in the superstructure. These chapels were often L-shaped, though cruciform (cross-shaped) chapels also existed. The overall size of these chapels was only a tiny part of the solid core of the structure. Very wealthy people began to include interior chapels with multiple rooms sometimes connected by columned halls near the end of the Fifth Dynasty and beginning of the Sixth Dynasty. More and more, the mastaba began to resemble a nobleman's house. Stairs to the roof from the interior of the mastaba allowed access to the burial shaft that continued to be accessed there. The burial shaft extended through the mastaba core then continued into the bedrock. A tunnel led west to the burial chamber. In the burial chambers of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties designers buried the deceased in a pit excavated into the bedrock, and placed a stone lid over the pit after the mummy's burial.

The False Door.

The structure in mastaba tombs known as the false door is a stylized model of a door. It combines an offering place, door jambs, a lintel, and a stela, each carved from stone, though some Third-dynasty examples are wood. The name of the deceased was inscribed on each element, along with his or her titles. If there were two false doors in the western interior wall of the mastaba, the southern one was inscribed for the deceased tomb owner while the northern one was inscribed for his wife. The stela above the false door was often decorated with an image of the deceased at the symbolic funerary meal as well as images of the deceased's family performing rituals that ensured continued life in the next world. The false door, according to Egyptian belief, allowed the ka (soul) of the deceased to travel between the world of the living and the world of the dead and deliver food offerings to the deceased, one of the ka's main functions after death.


introduction: The tomb was a deceased person's house for eternity. Not only did the deceased eat, drink, dress, and sleep in the tomb, but also he or she could receive mail there. The following two letters were deposited at the tomb of Inherhenmet at Kaw, a site in Middle Egypt. In it, the living son, Shepsi, asks his deceased father, Inherhenmet, and mother, Iy, to intervene in a dispute with his brother, Sebkhotep, who is also dead. According to the texts, this brother had caused the living son to lose his land on earth. Shepsi suggested that his parents bring a lawsuit against his brother to restore the land to him, especially considering all the things he had done for his father, his mother, and even his deceased brother. It is unknown how the results of the suit would be communicated to Shepsi.

It is Shepsi who speaks to his father, Inherhenmet. This is a reminder of your journey to the prison, to the place where Son's son Hotpui was, when you brought the foreleg of an ox, and when I came with Newayof, and when you said, "Welcome, you two! Sit and eat meat!" Am I being injured in your presence by my brother, without having done or said anything? (And yet) I buried him, I brought him from …, I placed him among the fellow-owners of his tomb, although he owed me thirty gallons of barley [and other commodities]. He has done this against me wrongfully, since you said to me, "All my property is vested in you, Shepsi." Look, all my fields have been taken away! … Litigate with him since your scribes are with you in one city …

It is Shepsi who speaks to his mother Iy. This is a reminder of the fact that you did say to me, "Bring me quails that I may eat them," and I brought to you seven quails, and you ate them. Am I being injured before you, the children being very discontent with me? Who will then pour water for you [make sacrifices for you]? Oh may you judge between me and Sebkhotep! I brought him from another town … and gave him his burial clothing. Why does he work against me without my having said or done anything?

source: "Letter From Shepśi to his father Inherhenmet," adapted from Alan H. Gardiner and Kurt Sethe, Egyptian Letters to the Dead (London: Egypt Exploration Society, 1928): 4–5.

Opposing Trends.

It is striking that Fifth- and Sixth-dynasty mastabas are so much bigger and more elaborate than Fourth-dynasty mastabas. This trend is exactly the opposite of the changes from Fourth to Fifth- and Sixth-dynasty royal pyramids, which became smaller over the same time period. These trends suggest again that resources were increasingly directed away from the royal pyramid and instead to other goals during the course of the Old Kingdom.


Naguib Kanawati, The Tomb and its Significance in Ancient Egypt (Cairo: Al Ahram Commercial Press, 1987).

Philip Watson, Egyptian Pyramids and Mastaba Tombs (Aylesbury, England: Shire Publications, Ltd., 1987).