In class earlier this week Dr. Watrall had mentioned that since the predynastic period falls mostly before the introduction of any form of writing in Egypt, archaeologists dug up burials to learn more about the time period. Consequently, being that my academic field of interest is in mortuary practices, I became immediately intrigued. There was one burial in particular that Dr. Watrall mentioned, shown below, that sparked an interest on my part. This particular mummy, nicknamed “Ginger” for his red hair, is officially called the Gebelein Man for where he was found, at the site of Gebelein near Thebes in Egypt, and what he can tell us about predynastic culture is astounding.
At predynastic sites like Ma’adi, where the dead were buried outside, often in separate graveyards out in the desert, shallow graves were dug, filled with burial goods, and then filled in, sometimes topped with a small mound of sand. Being in contact with the hot desert sand dried the bodies out and that natural mummification is what allows us to observe these burials thousands of years later. The Gebelein Man is currently on exhibit at the British Museum, the grave goods displayed with him are from similar predynastic burials since the objects that accompanied him at his original burial site are unknown. Based on this burial though, archaeologists can infer much of how predynastic cultures viewed the world, the dead, and the afterlife.
The shallow graves were often oval or rectangle in shape, and lined with reed mats. The body was then placed on its side in the fetal position, hands clasped in front of the face. The body usually faced westward, the direction of the afterlife. The goods placed within the burial included pots filled with food for the afterlife, as well as tools made out of stone and flint. All of these factors indicate a special attention was paid to the afterlife and ensuring that the buried individual would have the means to reach it. Intentional, or artificial mummification, as seen in later periods of Egyptian history, was not practiced during the predynastic. All predynastic mummies discovered so far have been naturally mummified by the desert sand they were buried in.
Burials, no matter what culture they may belong to, offer a fantastic insight into the culture and society to which the deceased belonged. We can often tell how the deceased lived his/her life, his/her social status, as well as the deceased’s importance in life. All of this can be gathered from how the individual was buried, as well as what and how much burial goods accompanied the individual into the afterlife. The Gebelein Man tells us the predynastic Egyptians clearly held it a priority that their deceased make it into some sort of afterlife, and probably spent a good deal of limited resources to ensure their deceased a safe and easy passage. He also tells us what the predynastic Egyptians were eating at the time, based on residues left in the pots that once held food to see him into the afterlife.
Mummies like the Gebelein Man can also shed light on various diseases and other causes of death that may have afflicted the ancient Egyptians. It was recently discovered from a CAT Scan at Cromwell Hospital in London that the Gebelein Man was most likely murdered. Damage to his ribs, shoulder bone, and a mark on the flesh of his back indicate that he was stabbed from behind with a copper blade.
When looking into cultures with no written record, especially ones with very little structural remains like predynastic Egypt, burials provide key insights that might otherwise never be known. How a culture treats its dead can tell us a great deal about the culture, its ideals, beliefs, and structure. Well preserved and untouched burials like the Gebelein Man are especially helpful and act as portals back through time where ancient traditions can be observed just as they were practiced thousands of years ago.