Bonus Blog: Importance of Mortuary Practices

The average person has at least a small amount of knowledge of ancient Egyptian history and culture, but what they do not know, is that this awareness came majorly from material artifacts recovered from tomb excavations. Though this idea seems to be repeated by anyone who has a passion for the field, it is still remarkable to me the amount of history literally written on the walls. The Egyptians were known for depicting scenes of daily life, writing out funerary texts to allow for a smooth transition into the afterlife, and much more on the walls of the rooms they were to spend eternity. Because their religious rituals delegated that the deceased be buried with everything needed in the afterlife, including the majority of his/her earthly possessions, we are able to physically handle their history. This is the reason that mortuary practices could be considered the most important topic to explore in this field of research.

Ancient Egyptian mortuary practices included mummification of the deceased. This was because of a religious emphasis on the importance of the physical body in the afterlife. If this aspect of the religion was not there, mummification of the deceased would not exist, therefor much of the evidence found by research done on these mummies would not exist. Through scientific analysis, such as X-ray and CT scanning, a wealth of information has been revealed about how these individuals lived and died. According to a British Museum article on mummification, these processes of scientific analysis have made it possible to “identify conditions such as Lung Cancer, Osteoarthritis, Tuberculosis, as well as parasitic disorders”. Without these preserved mummies, modern researchers would not have nearly as much information on the life and death of ancient Egyptian civilians.

The locations of these burial sites, situated in the desert west of the Nile, with incredible arid conditions, have allowed natural preservation of these ancient cities. The ancient Egyptians were also aware of this natural process, taking advantage when developing the artificial mummification process. The primary evidence for the Predynastic period, in particular, derives from burial sites. As Alice Stevenson states in her work on “Predynastic Burials”:

     “In Upper Egypt, there is a clear trend over the period towards greater investment in mortuary facilities and rituals, experimentation in body treatments [artificial mummification], and increasing disparity in burial forms and content between a small number of elite and a larger non-elite population.”

This reiterates the fact that mortuary practices illuminate more than just religious principles of the time, but also the socioeconomic transformations that were taking place. It was through cemetery sites such as Naqada and Hierakonpolis, that the Predynastic period was even recognized and classified.

Throughout ancient history, the Egyptians paid great care and attention when handling the disposal of the dead. Again, Alice Stevenson makes a point that “there is a general tendency to interpret these mortuary contexts as simply being for the benefit of the deceased and their afterlife, but the social significance of these practices for the surviving community should be acknowledged”.

Mortuary practices go a lot deeper than a simple religious context. It represents a “competitive status display, identity expression, and social memory formation”. Through their intricate processes, modern researchers can recreate the history of this mystical and mysterious civilization.  Little did they know, individual and societal memory would last forever.

Stevenson, Alice. (2009). Predynastic Burials. UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, 1(1). nelc_uee_7937. Retrieved from: http://www.escholarship.org/uc/item/2m3463b2