Predynastic Burial and Beauty

As an anthropology major with a focus in archaeology and religion,  I have always been interested in how different groups of people bury their dead.  One question that I have wondered about again and again came up for me while doing this week’s reading.  How do archaeologists know that a burial is intentional without grave goods?  I would assume that they might determine this from body placement.  Perhaps the bodies have an intentional placement to them, such as arms across the chest, or perfectly straight down at their sides.  The other thing that may have indicated intentional burial, when grave goods were not present, could be the location of the grave inside of a cemetery or mortuary area.

The other thing that I found interesting was the directional placement of the burials in pre-dynastic Egypt and the way that they varied between upper and lower Egypt.  I wonder what this said about the early cosmology of the area.  Did this indicate something about the position of “heaven” as it did/does in other cultures.  Or was there some other significance?  Why was this direction changed between upper and lower Egypt?  When I look at the map I notice that in both cases the bodies were faced looking away from the Nile.  In the case of the lower Egyptian settlement of Wadi Digla, which is east of the Nile, the bodies were placed with their head to the south facing to the east.  In the case of the upper Egyptian settlement of Naqada, located west of Nile, bodies were positioned facing to the west.  Was this to protect the life giving force of the Nile?

Another topic that sparked my interest was the proof of people altering their appearances.  The reading discusses one woman who had dyed her hair to cover gray and used extensions to make her hair long and curly.  This, to me, indicates that the early Egyptians and a very clear notion of what beauty meant to them.  I find it interesting that we still do these things today!  I wonder how much our idea of beauty has changed since then.

~Cristina M. Cao

3 thoughts on “Predynastic Burial and Beauty

  1. I think that one way archeologists knew that a burial was purposeful, and that a body had not just ended up underground because of natural reasons, was the position of the body. As you mentioned, the bodies were placed in different positions based on region. This shows that someone intentionally buried them. The lack of grave goods does not symbolize the lack of intent. There could be many reasons that the body was not found with grave goods. The person’s family may have been poor and unable to afford to bury anything with their dead. It is also possible that the body was buried with grave goods and something happened to them, such as theft, before the archeologists discovered them. Not having grave goods available at the site probably makes it harder for archeologists to date the site, at least if they wanted to use sequence dating.

    I hadn’t made the connection between position to the Nile and body position upon burial. I found this very interesting to think about. I wonder if you are correct in saying that this was to protect the Nile in some way. Maybe, because the Nile represented life in so many ways the ancient Egyptians did not want the dead to look at it and possibly contaminate it or bring death upon it. It could also have to do with a part of thier religion that I do not understand. Maybe the two regions worshipped a different god as thier main deity and each god required the dead to face different ways.

    • Hello Melissa,
      Thank you for your thoughts. I agree with you on the grave goods; often they were buried without grave goods for several reasons, but we can still tell that this is intentional burial. I have wondered about this in the past. When did groups first begin intentional burial, and if there were no grave goods, how can we differentiate these from natural burial? I took an anthro class last semester about human evolution and we talked about the first burials briefly in that class, but this is an ongoing series of questions for me.

      I do agree with you on the theory that maybe the predynastic Egyptians in these two settlements were trying to protect the Nile. I saw several times in Ancient Greek society an idea of the death being unclean in some way. Maybe this is why the bodies were positioned facing away from the Nile. If they were placed looking to the Nile, they may have contaminated it and caused the life giving force of the river to wane in some way. Their heads may have been positioned to the south because that is were the after life was. Or perhaps, because that is were life comes from, the origin of the Nile, so that is where life goes when it is complete; a kind of reincarnation of the life energy.

      ~Cristina M. Cao

  2. It is interesting that you noticed that the bodies were buried facing away from the Nile. I had not thought of that, but you are indeed correct. I, too, wonder what significance that has for their culture. I also wondered if maybe the eyes of the dead could protect the Nile or watch over it in some way, facing outward to see intruders. I very much appreciate your interesting observation.
    I wrote in my blog post for this week about people from these cultures altering their appearances as well. It was only noted in our readings and video lectures that a woman used hair dye and hair extensions, but I wonder if men used these cosmetic items as well. We have read about evidence of slate palettes used for grinding minerals for cosmetic purposes as well. Were these buried only with women or with men as well? With children, too, perhaps? You ask about how our ideas of beauty may be similar or have changed since then in our different cultures. Women obviously still dye their hair to cover up grey hair, and it seems like every single female on tv or in the movies or magazines has hair extensions of some kind or another as well. I think I remember reading in a popular science article (National Geographic, perhaps?) that there was some evidence of how ancient Egyptians applied their make-up, as it were. Maybe we’ll get to that later in the class. =]

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