Social Institutions & the Pyramids

One idea that really sort of resonated with me during this week’s material was the notion  presented by Prof. Watrall that what was really noteworthy of the construction of monumental mortuary architecture such as the pyramids was not their physical engineering and construction (although that is certainly noteworthy), but the social, cultural, political, economic, and religious institutions and complexity that had to be in place in order for such monuments to be built.

One hugely important thing that I think must have contributed a great deal to creating social environment in which the pyramids could be built is the ancient Egyptian’s cultural and religious beliefs and practices surrounding death and the afterlife. As we have progressed from discussing the predynastic to our current discussions of the Old Kingdom we have seen the complexity of mortuary customs increase.

Last week when we looked at mortuary practices during the late predynastic period we saw the development of the practice of burying the dead with material goods such as ceramics.
This week, we see that this practice has grown into something that would lead ancient Egyptian society to construct for their Pharaohs pyramids so large and complex that they would take 10,000 laborers to construct. We also move from burying elites with material goods such as ceramics to practices of stocking their tombs with vast amounts of all sorts of things – foods, wine, beers, furniture, jewelry, and even sacrificed animals and servants. Clearly, the ancient Egyptian’s view of the afterlife as a part of one’s journey is something that we have seen grow and develop throughout our study of their history.

Another thing that had to be a huge part of Egyptian society in order for the construction of the pyramids to occur was the belief in the power and authority of the Pharaoh and the ability of the Pharaoh to wield that authority through his governing bureaucracy.
When we look at the fact that entire cities came into being because of the work that went into a Pharaoh’s tomb and when we consider the tomb of Semerkhet at Umm el Qa’ab with its imported perfumed oil saturated structure, we have to sort of marvel at the fear and respect of royal authority that must have permeated the entire ancient Egyptian culture.

2 thoughts on “Social Institutions & the Pyramids

  1. I agree with you completely about how important the institutions of ancient Egypt were in the process of building monumental architecture like the pyramids. I thought it was really interesting that the people working on these structures weren’t even slaves, which seems to be the common assumption and what I would have guessed before learning otherwise, but rather, according to chapter 6, workers who “were conscripted for state projects, as one kind of payment of takes to the state” (p. 126). I didn’t really understand how developed Egypt was, but the state being able to keep track of individual/community taxes and substitute work for taxes is a very complex system.

    The fact that area surrounding Giza was basically built to accommodate the workers coming in to work on the pyramids is even more impressive when you read the article by Lehner and have a better understanding of the structures that existed to house even these common workers. I think the dedication to the pharaoh and his power is also evident in the 1st dynasty burials talked about in Chapter 5, especially those in Cemetery B that had not only large numbers of grave goods, but even human and animal sacrifice of attendants who were expected to serve the pharaoh in the afterlife. The authority that the pharaoh represented must have been immense if he was honored so much that others gave up their lives to serve him. I do wonder though if these servants did so willingly or were forced into this…I’m not sure that it would be easy to assess, but maybe in looking at bones with preservation, if evidence was found of struggle or violence then it might indicate the unwillingness of the individuals to be sacrificed with the pharaoh. It seems like they probably would have seen it as an honor though, to be buried with the representative of the gods on earth, even if they were somewhat reluctant to end their own lives to do so. Either way, it does help to show how much importance was placed in the pharaoh.

  2. Yes, the social and cultural content of the lecture was interesting to me also. To read more about the power and authority the pharaohs had aided me in understanding previous lecture content. For example, why the royal officials names were on vessels and ceramics and why they owned slaves. The pharaohs were basically marketing their names to have power in the afterlife. Ceramics and slaves play a significant role in their mortuary practices. The religious aspect of their mortuary practices was interesting also. Their views on religion sparked a thought about cohesion through religion being used to get the people to obey the pharaohs rules. I remember the lecture mentioning how the retainers who worked in the kingdom were sacrificed and buried with the Pharaoh. Were these people promised something in the afterlife? They also buried vessels with the pharaohs. What purpose would these items serve in the afterlife? I was just interested in learning more about the afterlife from the natives view. However, the layout of the tomb was greatly depicted. The pharaoh was buried in the center, then the queens and other royal people were buried in the secondary burials. This layout aids in understanding the hierarchy system of the Egyptians.

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