Bonus Blog: Burials

The most important aspect of Egyptian archaeology, in my opinion, is the burial technique.  Burials show not only how people are honored in death, but it also gives us clues to how they lived their lives.  First, a burial can tell us about the importance or social status of that person.  People that are well preserved through mummification and have elaborate and intricate designs on their coffins are most likely wealthy and have a high social ranking.  If they are buried with a large amount of grave goods, animals, or servants, they must have been important in their life.  Also, the type of tomb they are buried in exemplifies their status.  Simple burials or even mass graves most likely contain the lower class, while large tombs or even incredible pyramids contain the high officials and pharaohs.

Another interesting part of burials is that people this well mummified still show signs of injuries that occurred during their life.  More importantly, researchers can see if people died from these injuries or if they healed and continued on with their life.  There are sometimes signs of assistance in the healing process, such as prosthetic limbs.  Many diseases that these people had during their life can still be seen in their ancient mummified bodies.  This shows us which diseases were prominent back then and how old people may have lived with them.

Lastly, we can see how animals were treated through mummified burials.  Ancient Egyptians had quality views of animals, and some were even worshipped as gods.  They were mummified using the same methods as humans, and some were even buried with grave goods in their own coffins.  They had their own cemeteries, unless they were pets buried with their loving owners.  Similar to humans, researches can see if animals had injuries before their death or if that is what they died from.  Some animals were clearly killed and sacrificed to gods, while others show signs of being healed, which shows us that the ancient Egyptians had some type of veterinary practices.

Burials can tell us a lot about not only the deaths of the ancient Egyptians, but also about how they lived in life and their importance to others.  If they used that much effort to mummify, bury, and prepare their dead for the afterlife, then humans and animals must really have been sacred in life.

Iufaa’s Tomb

The most interesting tomb in this week’s reading is the tomb of Iufaa, a lector priest and palace official in the 26th or 27th Dynasty.  This tomb was found at Abusir by a team of Czech archaeologists in the 1990s.  It is pretty obvious that Iufaa was an important man, thus the constructors of the tomb wanted to keep the burial safe from grave robbers.  The vaulted limestone roof of his tomb was located at the bottom of a vertical shaft that was filled with sand that is over twenty-one meters below the ground.  In addition to this main shaft, there were also two vertical subsidiary shafts that were also filled with sand that emptied into the main shaft.  It took the team of archaeologists three years to clear out all of the sand from the three shafts.  If grave robbers wanted to enter the tomb, they would have to remove several hundred cubic meters of sand from the main shaft, and that is just the main shaft!  Since the subsidiary shafts empty into the main shaft, the sand from those would have to be removed too, making it basically an impossible task.  Even if grave robbers were to get into the burial chamber, it would be very difficult to get into the actual tomb.  The chamber was made of limestone blocks, along with the lid to the sarcophagus that weighed twenty-four tons.  A large basalt anthropoid sarcophagus was under the limestone lid, and beneath that were the remains of a decayed wooden coffin.  When all of these cases were removed, a covering of thousands of faience beads were revealed.  It is clear that they were trying to keep thieves out of this grave.   This appears to be a grave of a very important person since they tried to keep robbers out with several techniques.  However, when the mummy was examined, it was not preserved very well.  Thankfully the fingers were still covered with gold foil, marking the priest’s importance.


The process of mummification takes a lot of precision, care, and time.  Mummification techniques have evolved through time, beginning as early as the Dynastic times of ancient Egypt.  The complicated procedure is very interesting, yet some of the techniques are a little confusing.  For example, why did they remove the brain, internal organs, and lungs from the body but not the heart?  Did they not remove the heart because it was too sacred, or was it needed in the afterlife?  Then why would they take out all of the other organs? Were they just unnecessary in the afterlife, or was there a different symbolic, religious, or medical reason?  These organs were obviously still important though because they were cleaned and preserved in containers that were guarded by the sons of Horus.  After all of this, the body was wrapped in linens, protected by amulets.  This whole process takes about one hundred and ten days.  The care of the dead to help them journey through the afterlife was obviously an important task.  This is known because of the time and amount of detail put into preserving the dead.

Current technologies are excellent in providing new information about mummification and the ancient Egyptians.  Many mummies can now be x-rayed and tissues can be rehydrated, which can show evidence of diseases that were present in these mummies when they were living.  X-rays show such problems as trauma, arthritis, poliomyelitis, dental abscesses, and other diseases.  These defects are even seen in royal mummies.  Humorously, the mummy of Makara the priestess who was formerly thought to have been buried with her child was found to be buried with a baboon instead through the use of these new x-ray technologies.  Now, the sex and age of mummies can be determined without unwrapping the linens.  These technologies help by better preserving the bodies because some do not have to be disturbed by unwrapping them and doing autopsies.  Studying mummies provides an interesting view into the life and death of the ancient Egyptians.

Magical Childbirth

In ancient Egyptian society, childbirth was considered a very magical and religious part of life.  Most likely due to large numbers of child burials and stillborns in cemeteries, Egyptians emphasized these magical practices in their women’s childbirth experience.  The Abydos birth bricks, which women in labor would have squatted on to give birth to a child, provide us with the most detailed archaeological evidence for these practices.  It includes images of a human mother and her two assistants, Hathor, the deity associated with fertility and childbirth, and several other known deities.

The most interesting piece of these bricks is the hair color used for the human mother and assistants.  Hair color is traditionally depicted as black, but these women are shown with sky-blue hair color.  The symbolism of this blue color shows us that these women were given a divine form.  The mother and child were also seated on a solid-based throne of divinity, as opposed to just a normal chair.  These changes in form show us the important divine transfiguration of the mother from human form to that of the goddess Hathor.  It exemplifies how childbirth is a very magical practice because a woman needs to be a more divine form to take on and survive such a large and important task as childbirth.

As with other material items, birth bricks most likely differed between households.  People with more wealth and higher social status may have had better quality and more artistically designed birth bricks.  These probably would have been seen as better birthing techniques, which would have made people think they had a better chance of having healthy offspring.  If a human mother has to turns into a goddess to give birth to a child, it must have been seen as a difficult process so magic was needed to assist these women.  These bricks help us see that childbirth was a very important part of ancient Egyptian life since it was seen as such a religious and magical experience.

King Semerkhet’s Peculiar Tomb

The burial that sparked my interest at the Umm el-Qa’ab cemetery is the tomb of King Semerkhet.  It has several unique characteristics that suggest that King Semerkhet was very important to society.  However, not much is known about this king except that he had several disasters during his reign that make the size and superior quality of his tomb peculiar.  The first indication of his importance is the entrance into the tomb, which is a ramp instead of a staircase.  Since staircases are more common entrances to royal tombs, it is interesting as to why this one is a ramp.  Perhaps a ramp is more difficult to construct, showing that this king was superior to others in some way, or so the builder thought.

When excavators such as Flinders Petrie opened the tomb, it was “saturated ‘three feet’ deep with perfumed oil, still strongly scented after 5,000 years” (p. 113).  They determined that this oil was imported from a long distance away, most likely Palestine.  The use of such a large amount of oil makes me wonder why it was necessary to add this to the tomb.  It obviously shows that the king had high status since imported oil from far away is a luxury item, but why was the tomb drenched in it?  Was this done only to exaggerate the fact that the king had power, money, and resources to get such oil, or was there another symbolic reason?  It is also amazing how the scent was preserved so strongly in the tomb for so long.  This preservation must have been possible because it was contained in the air-tight tomb and no intruding air could wash the scent or contents away.

The tomb of King Semerkhet at the Umm el-Qa’ab cemetery is a rather unusual burial.  The first difference is the ramp that enters the tomb, as opposed to the usual staircase.  The other difference is the use of such a large amount of imported oil that still saturated the tomb 5,000 years later.  This indicates that long distance trade was very important and shows that the king had an especially high status even though other sources say differently.  It would be interesting to learn more about King Semerkhet’s reign and burial.

Hieroglyphic Writing

Cemetery U at Abydos contains the earliest evidence for phonetic hieroglyphic writing in Ancient Egypt.  Recently, the Naqada IIIA tomb U-j was discovered at Cemetary U, contributing very important information to this research.  Commodity labels attached to oils and textiles tell the quantity or provenance of these goods, which suggests that commodities were imported from other parts of Egypt at the time.  Excavators have identified what they think are estate names of early rulers on ink inscriptions on ceramic vessels.  These inscriptions are a variety of specific signs in addition to a plant sign.  Hieroglyphic writing then became a system of administrative control.  Even though it was largely used for religion and administration, writing was also used in private circumstances like funerary inscriptions or to show ownership of estates or goods.

Hieroglyphic writing was a large part of the administration of the centralized bureaucracy in Egypt.  It was a way for the administration to collect revenue in the form of taxes and surplus gained from industries, as well as recording inventories and document expenses.  As far as early titles, one of the most important was a royal seal bearer, which appears in Dynasty 1 in the written form.  There may be evidence prior to this, such as royal seals from the Naqada IIIA/B site called Helwan.  Evidence also points out that there was a structured hierarchy by the Early Dynastic period that included defined institutions and allocated personnel.  The personnel described appear to have kinship relations with the ruler, which would have most likely granted them high social status.  They also may have acquired this special status through professional competence, ability, and skills.

Hieroglyphic writing was obviously a significant part of the bureaucracy in Ancient Egypt because it helped both administrations and private practices document and record necessary items.  Writing also probably strongly added to the increasing social complexity since not all people would be able to read or have the opportunity to learn how to read.

Burial Practices at Naqada

The changing burial patterns at Naqada through time are a large indication of social complexity at the site during inhabitation.  In prehistoric and historic societies around the world, people with high social status were buried in a special way, usually with more grave goods such as pottery, jewelry, etc.  For example, complex Native American societies buried their elite in mounds and with a plethora of grave goods to show their status and help them travel better through the afterlife.  Early burials in the Great New Race Cemetery were small in size and only had a few grave goods.  These Naqada I burials do not represent significant social complexity because they do not differ much from each other and the small amount of grave goods does not represent any hierarchy.  However, burials from Naqada II appear to have more social complexity.

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The Intro You’ve All Been Waiting For!

Hello!  My name is Michele and I am a junior here at Michigan State with a major in Anthropology.  Within anthropology, I specifically want to study archaeology.  I have taken several archaeology classes and just returned from the field school at the Morton Village site in Illinois.  Digging up artifacts, finding evidence of structures, and analyzing everything in context was amazing!  I absolutely love archaeology, which is why I am taking this class.  I want to learn about as much archaeology as I can throughout the world so I can figure out what I want to specialize in.  At Michigan State, I have mainly focused on North American archaeology, so learning about Ancient Egypt will be a very new experience for me since I have never studied it before.

Outside of school, I have several hobbies.  I love to read and do photography.  Some people find this funny, but my specialty in photography is taking pictures of food.  The best food pictures I have ever taken were of my lunch at a little café in Montreal, Quebec.  The strawberry pie looked amazing!  I also love to play softball and tennis.  I played for my travel softball team for seven years as a pitcher and first baseman.  I have never played tennis competitively, but I am pretty good at it.

The most unique hobby I have is raising and showing rabbits.  I have done this since I was a little girl in 4-H.  For anyone that knows rabbit breeds, I raise approximately 200 castor Mini Rex.  Ever since high school, I only show at two national shows per year.  However, all of my hard work paid off because I won Best of Breed in 2007 and 2008 at the national convention.  Being a Michigan State has slowed my showing down, but I still love raising my rabbits.

I am very excited to start this class and learn about the wonders of archaeology in Ancient Egypt!