Mortuary Practices in the Old Kingdom

This week we learned about the mortuary practices of the New Kingdom and the Valley of Kings. The Valley has always been interesting to me because there is an incredible amount to learn from such a small area. With 61 tombs and multiple people buried in most tombs the number of people originally buried in the Valley is huge. Unfortunately, due to the threat of grave robbers, priests were forced to open several of the tombs and remove the mummies for safe keeping. While it is great that we still have these mummies to study today, you have to wonder what kind of evidence was destroyed by these helpful priests. What knowledge could we have gained if we had found these mummies in situ?

Grave robbing is perhaps the biggest detriment to archaeological work today when trying to understand ancient Egypt. Grave robbers took whatever they could, and the Valley of the Kings is no exception. While it might be thought that it was poor Egyptians that did most of the grave robbing but it was often pharaohs as well. Today, we generally don’t go around looting the graves of our founding fathers and former political leaders. In ancient Egypt, there must have been a strong sense of political and social unrest amongst the poor that would make them destroy a “holy” site. Meanwhile, the richest of the rich were also grave robbing to get better things to put in their own tombs. This can lead to some confusion amongst archaeologists of basic timelines and what everything actually means together.

Something that I was surprised to learn was that pharaohs occasionally would take over a previously built tomb and share it with the previous body. I’ve always thought that pharaohs were a bit egotistical and wanted to create a great space for themselves for when they died (be it a pyramid or a regular tomb). Apparently, some of them were content to not create anything at all and just live off of what the people before them had done. This brings up the question of why? Perhaps some of these pharaohs died a sudden death and had no time to build. Or perhaps they were not well liked and so a tomb was never built for them.

4 thoughts on “Mortuary Practices in the Old Kingdom

  1. You bring up a lot of interesting points in your post that I had not entirely considered before. We do expect the grave robbers of the time to be the poor or at least lower class citizens. The loss of context is almost as devastating as the loss of an artifact itself. Our modern interpretations of the things we have found could be totally changed, which is interesting to think about. It does initially seem odd that the pharaohs or elite would contribute to the grave robbing, especially since the sites are considered holy, but considering how much they campaigned to make their citizens believe they really were the “living image of Amun” or other holy relations, these rulers really put a lot into securing their power. It is almost as if grave robbing previous rulers was the political slander ads we see nowadays, except instead of fighting for election they were trying to prove they were the most wealthy and powerful. You are right though, I don’t think any of our leaders have anything to gain from digging up JFK. Given all this effort, to take over another’s tomb does seem to be quite a contrast. I agree that this was probably a testament to the fact that being the pharaoh or king wasn’t a free ride, and one did have to put some work into creating that image for him or herself.

  2. I could not agree more with you, the Valley of the Kings is an amazing burial site of the ancient Egyptians. While it is a shame that some mummies were not found in situ, it is also important to remember that they were preserved until today. As you mentioned grave robbing was quite a widespread problem throughout the ancient world. This type of activity seems out of place in a way because of the great power the pharaohs held, one would imagine that the people would have had more respect for their deceased rulers. Either way this presents a great obstacle that modern archaeologist have to overcome.

    The idea that pharaohs would share burial chambers with one another dose seem a bit strange. However, during the new kingdom Egypt was at the height of its military power and some pharaohs might not have had enough resources to carry out both warfare and large scale burial construction projects. This could explain why some pharaohs were buried with their predecessors. Whatever the reason it would appear that during the New Kingdom pharaohs had a shift in their think and burial practices that resulted in shared burial tombs. As new discoveries are made their may be a clue to help answer why this shift in burial practices occurred.

  3. I’m happy that you decided to type about the dead. I’m doing my research paper on the topic of burial practices in ancient Egypt and since I started working on it, I’ve found that the topic fascinates me.

    I also find it curious that some pharaohs would share tombs instead of building their own since they tended to build so many monuments to themselves and their gods at the time. Perhaps it is because they wanted to share in the glory of the former ruler in death?

    It would be interesting if archeologists could find out how everything was done originally to see how things were altered by grave robbers and misguided helpers. I feel as though so many secrets of ancient life could be uncovered. It is sad that so many things are altered and even the art could have been altered by well intentioned individuals.

    Besides the grave robbers and the priests, former archeologists themselves altered sites before they knew what they were doing. Archeologists back in the beginning didn’t have the tools or the knowledge that the new archeologists have such as the knowledge that every piece of a site could contain information. This is one of the reasons I decided not to go into archeology. While I have a deep love of ancient cultures, I am too impatient and clumsy to go through the long days and years of hard work it takes to be an archeologist.

  4. I also found the Valley of the Kings lesson super informative. I actually think that for such a large valley, the fact that there were only 61 tombs was a little astonishing. But I guess it was up to the tomb builders to decide how far apart each tomb would be spaced. In my opinion, grave robbing is the saddest aspect of ancient Egypt. What would possess a person to do such a thing? Like you said, social unrest was a probably cause, and it was great that priests went back and took the mummies for safekeeping. Did the priests take the treasures out of the tombs as well, or was it just the mummies? If they only took the mummies, then there is definitely more treasure underground just waiting to be unearthed. I also was surprised to learn that pharaohs would take over other pharaohs’ tombs. It actually happened to Tutankhamun. When he died, work was not completed on his tomb and definitely would not have been done by the time the embalming period was up, so his advisor Ay offered to “take it off of his (Tut’s) hands”, and the king would be buried somewhere else. I keep wondering why Tutankhamun was not buried in a pyramid, like Djoser and Khufu; he was easily as famous as them, and equally as important.

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