A sarcophagus is a stone coffin or a container to hold a coffin. Although early sarcophagi were made to hold coffins within, the term has come to refer to any stone coffin that is placed above ground. The earliest stone sarcophagi were used by Egyptian pharaohs of the 3rd dynasty, which reigned from about 2686 to 2613 B.C.E.
Ancient Egyptians believed in an afterlife, and the sarcophagus was to be the eternal dwelling place of those within it. The sarcophagi of pharaohs and wealthy residents were elaborately decorated with carvings and paintings. The earliest sarcophagi were designed for the pharaohs of Egypt and reflected the architecture of their palaces. Egyptians believed that remembering a person’s name would ensure that he or she would live on in the afterlife, so a sarcophagus also typically included the name of the person or people buried within. External decorations might also record the accomplishments of the deceased. Sarcophagi also typically included a list of food offerings, a door for the soul to pass through, and eyes so that the decedent could continue to view the world. Eventually, sarcophagi were carved to look like the person within, following the curve of the mummy’s body. Sarcophagi might hold more than one coffin. They often had pitched roofs. Beginning at the end of the thirteenth century, sarcophagi were put on sleds or runners so that they could be more easily towed to the cemetery.
The sarcophagus was an important part of an elaborate burial process. Ancient Egyptians believed that they would live on in an afterlife. They prepared a dead person for this afterlife by embalming the body and wrapping it in linens, a process known as mummification. The body was then placed carefully into a mummy case—a box that fit between the mummy and the coffin. The coffin would then be placed within the sarcophagus. Sometimes, the sarcophagus served in place of a coffin.
Some sarcophagi remained hidden for thousands of years. In July of 2018, for instance, Egyptian archaeologists explored a huge 30-ton sarcophagus of black granite that had been discovered at a construction site in Alexandria, Egypt. Inside were the remains of three mummies. Early reports that they were military officers were overturned when DNA analysis revealed that one of the corpses was a woman. Unlike the sarcophagi of the wealthy class, there were neither inscriptions on the sarcophagus nor goods buried with the corpses within, except for a small gold artifact and three sheets of gold. This leaves few clues about who they were or when they lived, creating the very kind of mystery that archaeologists love to solve.
In addition to ancient Egypt, ancient Rome and Greece are also known for using sarcophagi. The carvings on the sarcophagi and the treasures within continue to surprise and delight historians and scientists, giving insight into ancient cultures.