History of Burial Beliefs in Ancient Egypt
In Predynastic Egypt, bodies were buried in the sand at the edge of the desert and would often naturally mummify because of the sand and climate. In early Dynastic times, tombs began to be used separating the body from the sand requiring artificial mummification to preserve the body. Mummification in Egypt can be traced back to the 4th dynasty. The mummified remains of King Cheop's mother have been discovered confirming a full mummification process. This discovery is the earliest confirmation of mummification which has been discovered, though evidence of experiential mummification did occurr earlier. From that period until the Christian era some 3000 years later, mummification was practiced with very little variation in Egypt.
In the Old Kingdom, it was believed that the Pharaoh would go into the heavens and join his father, Re, the sun god. His family and high ranking officers could also attain immortality as well as a chance for those who labored on his tomb or pyramid. It was through the favor of the Pharaoh, that people of the Old Kingdom had a chance at immorality. This explains, in part, some the reasons the Pharaoh was able to build huge pyramids for his tomb.
During the first intermediate period; the belief about the after life began to shift. During this time, the worship of Osiris came to the forfront of Egyptian religion. Now, it was believed, any worth person and not just the Pharaoh could spend eternity in Osiris's kingdom. "This was envisaged as a place of lush vegetation, a mirror image of the cultivated land of Egypt, that was situated somewhere below the western horizon or on a group of islands. This kingdom is sometimes called the "Field of Reeds," and the inhabitants were believed to enjoy eternal springtime, unfailing harvests, and no pain or suffering." (Pg. 142, David, 1998)
From the time of the Middle Kingdom on, the beliefs about eternity with Osiris continued to dominate religious beliefs among both the nobility and the commoners of Egypt.
In addition to changes in the beliefs about the after life, there was also a change in the burial practices. During the Old Kingdom period, pyramids were often used to store the pharaoh's body and possessions. The pyramids presented a target for robbers and were often looted. Due to this problem with looting, the pyramids where replaced with rock cut tombs. Many of these tombs were located in the Valley of the Kings just west of Thebes. Even these tombs were not immune from robbery. In 1881, a secret tomb was found just outside the Valley of the Kings. Based on the inscriptions, mummies and items from other tombs were secretly moved by the priest and placed in this alternative tomb in about 960 A.D. to keep them safe.