From Pits to Palaces: The Evolution of Prehistoric Burial Customs in Ancient Egypt

It would be easy to think that the ancient Egyptians, for all their amazing accomplishments in the arts and sciences, were morbidly obsessed with death.  After all, what do you think of when you imagine ancient Egypt?  The Pyramids:  tombs.  Tutankhamun:  a golden mummy.  Valley of the Kings: a cemetery.

But the truth of the matter is that the Egyptians were obsessed with life, and they fully expected it to continue on the Other Side.  Just as we work, save, and invest for our retirement today, the ancient Egyptians prepared for their eternal retirement amongst the gods.  Most of the art and artifacts connected to this planning, what we would call the funerary tradition and/or architecture, was considered to be the machinery of the afterlife, the tools and rituals required for the care and feeding of a departed spirit.

 

Ancient graves tell us a lot about a given people.  The best preserved artifacts often come from tombs and their contents can tell us who is trading with whom, who is fighting and who is getting along, and how the social strata were arranged.  The preparation of the body tells us about their beliefs and concerns, and the evolution of the tomb type (taphotype?) often parallels the evolution of the culture in question.  How did the Egyptians progress from simple sand pits to Palaces of Eternity such as the mastabas at Giza and rock-cut tombs at Saqqara?

You may be surprised to learn how much we are learning.  I know I was.  At Hierakonpolis alone archaeologists and Egyptologists are tracing the evolution of funerary architecture from oval sandpits with no real superstructure to speak of, to mudbrick-lined rectangular affairs, to the earliest mastabas, complete with plastered and painted walls—all of this centuries before the first pharaoh.  But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

If you think, like I used to, that nothing particularly interesting happens until the Old Kingdom, then venture forth, Gentle Reader, a new vista awaits.  We’ll begin 55,000 years ago with the earliest human grave.  It was found in…  Egypt, where else?

 

Taramsa

Given what we know of the ancient Egyptians and their concern for the afterlife, it should come as no surprise that the oldest human grave so far discovered was in Egypt.  In 1994, archaeologists digging at Taramsa Hill, located near Qena in Upper Egypt, found the skeleton of an anatomically modern human child buried about 55,000 years ago.  Located near the future site of the Temple of Hathor at Dendera, the fragile skeleton had to be fixed with a solution of wood glue to keep it from crumbling to dust.

The body had been placed in a seated position, with the knees drawn up in a semi-contracted posture, leaning backwards in an east-west orientation.  The head was turned to face the rising sun.  “Both the seated position of the skeleton and the surrounding matrix of exploitation waste indicate that this is an intentional burial…the body was simply laid down against the side of the extraction pit and covered up by the extraction debris mixed with artifacts” (Van Peer, Vermeersch & Paulissen, 2010, pp. 216-17).

Ancient bodies, even when they are just skeletons, can tell us much about a given culture.  What they ate, how they died, and other biographical data can be gleaned from even the slightest evidence in the right hands.  But when dealing with a skeleton as fragile as the Taramsa child, what archaeologists really want to find is material culture—those artifacts left behind by the people themselves that communicate what their lives were like.

Generally speaking, the deeper an artifact is found, the older it is, and by analyzing the artifacts found at the same level as a body we can learn about the people who left them.  You must exercise caution—sometimes Egyptians “borrow” grave goods from their predecessors, other times they join them in their graves—and both of these practices can make dating a grave a headache.  But for the most part, the artifacts found with a body come from the time when that person was alive.  Dig a little deeper and you delve into that culture’s history.  Sort thought the layers over the body and you get an idea of where they went.  This process of analyzing the layers of strata allows an archaeologist to form a timeline for the culture in question.

So by analyzing the data collected deeper than the Taramsa child, archaeologists learned that the earliest people around Taramsa Hill used hand axes and employed Nubian-style Levallois flake methods for making tools.  Levallois flake methodology meant that they started with a prepared stone core and then struck flakes from its edges to make it sharp.  This would have been the early part of the Middle Paleolithic Period.  By the mid-part of the Middle Paleolithic Period the hand axes disappear from the strata, and by the time of our 55,000-year-old child (confused yet?), Nubian point Levallois methods have been abandoned in favor of more standardized methods of blade production (Hendrickx & Vermeersch, 2000, pp. 23-4).

So we have learned from the Taramsa child that sandpit burials had a very early beginning in Egypt, more than 50,000 years before the first pharaohs.  Body orientation seems to have been purposeful and symbolically turned to face east in anticipation of the deceased’s rebirth, just as the sun is reborn every morning.  As we shall see, this body orientation will last well into Egypt’s very long prehistory.

 

Gebel Sahaba

Gebel Sahaba (also called Jebel Sahaba) is an early burial ground that spans both sides of the Nile on the border with Nubia, near the modern site of Wadi Halfa, and in the region that would eventually fall under the domain of the First Nome in Upper Egypt.  Along with the nearby burial ground of Tushka, Gebel Sahaba comprises the site known as Cemetery 117.

The geological evidence tells us that the Nile experienced a wild period of higher than normal flooding about 12,000 years ago, and the archaeological evidence shows that the people living in the region of Gebel Sahaba adapted by doing a lot of fishing.  Material remains (bones and such) suggest more fish was culled than could have been consumed immediately.  This, coupled with the discovery of storage pits, tells us that the people of Gebel Sahaba liked to plan ahead.  Unfortunately, they did not appear to have planned for a nearby community that chose arrows over butter—it seems that the people who settled at Gebel Sahaba were wiped out by one of their neighbors, probably during a time of unexpected scarcity (Hendrickx & Vermeersch, 2000, pp. 29-31).

There were fifty-nine graves discovered at Gebel Sahaba, dating from around 10,000 BC.  The interred were buried in simple sandpits covered by sandstone slabs.  The bodies were placed in a semi-contracted position, lying on their left sides with heads facing east.  Although it is not suggested that eastward orientation survived uninterruptedly for 40,000 years, it is interesting to see the pattern repeated en masse.  About half of those buried were women and children, with some graves containing multiple occupants—as many as eight—which practice suggests either hasty burials, or that a lot of bodies required burying around the same time.

The bones of the Gebel Sahaba cemetery show signs of flint arrow and spear impacts, with fragments of the killing weapons still lodged in some of the wound sites.  Skeletons from a smaller cemetery on the opposite bank of the Nile were lacking in such chert wounds.  This, taken with the presence of mass graves and an abundance of women and children buried at the same time, point to a sudden and terrible end for the people of Gebel Sahaba.  The lithic material—arrow and spearheads in particular—were characteristic of the final phase of the Qadan Period (about 13,000 to 9,000 BC), which taken with other local evidence places the Gebel Sahaba slaughter at around 10,000 BC, give or take a few centuries.

Worthy of an episode of Ancient Egypt, CSI, archaeologists were able to piece together an unpleasant moment in history by analyzing the graves of the Gebel Sahaba cemetery.  Who buried these poor folk?  Did some of the villagers escape and then return to bury their dead?  What a sad moment that must have been.  Did the aggressors decide for whatever reason to bury those they had slain?  Part of me wants to believe that the attackers felt remorse over what they had done.  Perhaps a bad season had left them without fish of their own, and the Gebel Sahaba people understandably refused to share theirs, turning neighbor against neighbor.  We will never know the full story, but we know enough for meaningful and informed speculation.

 

Qarunian

What is now referred to as the Qarunian culture was previously called Faiyum B, due to its proximity to the oasis of the same name, and can be dated to around 7,180 to 6,100 BC.  The only burial from the Faiyum area that can be traced to this period is that of a woman, about 35-40 years old, who was discovered close to a site identified as E29G1.  The site is divided into six concentrations labeled A to F.  The burial was found 135 meters away from area F, a stratified area with 13 identifiable levels (Byrnes, 2000).

The Qarunian people were located on the western side of an ancient lake called Lake Moeris (Mer-Wer), part of which survives today as Birket Qarun.  The basin where this lake once stood receded and re-flooded numerous times in ancient days and its shifting boundaries necessitated different names for what were in effect different lakes.  Four different lakes have been thusly identified, and by comparing levels of strata in previously occupied areas with those of the lakes, archaeologists have been able to use the lakes to help set dates for the different settlements they discovered.  The four lakes/periods are Paleomoeris, Premoeris, Protomoeris, and Moeris.  The Qarunian culture is associated with the Premoeris lake levels.

Only skeletal remains were found in the grave, which was apparently a simple pit similar to those at Gebel Sahaba, although the Qarunian human remains were more modern.  There were no grave goods discovered with the body.  The skeleton was buried on its left side and flexed in a nearly fetal position with knees and elbows almost touching and her hands raised—the left under her head and the right with the palm covering the face.  The head was oriented to the south and facing east (Byrnes 2000; Hendrickx and Vermeersch, 2000, p. 36).

The teeth were in better condition than her bones, and she went into the afterlife with nearly a full set.  It was by examining the teeth that the determination was made that she was between 35-40 years old.  Although she was not discovered with grave goods or other artifacts, two clues from the vicinity of her burial helped date her remains and find her place in history.  The yellow sand she was buried in was consistent with shoreline, and she was located at the same level as the Premoeris lake strata.  This and her proximity to Qarunian artifacts in area F at the same level locate the interred in the time and place of the Qarunian culture.

 

Merimda

Merimda was an important center of culture in Lower Egypt, located on the western extremes of the delta, about 60km north of Cairo.  Situated on a rocky terrace formed by a wadi, Merimda has survived archaeologically because it was high enough to avoid the inundation season, which hit the delta more destructively than it did elsewhere in Egypt.  As a dig site, Merimda is divided into five stratigraphic layers which fall into three periods of occupation.  Burials have been recovered from all five layers of strata at Merimda (Hendrickx & Vermeersch, 2000, pp. 37-9; Tristant & Midant-Reynes, 2011, pp. 46-7).

The earliest period of occupation at Merimda falls between 5000 and 4500 BC, and runs concurrent with the Badarian culture, which we will examine in the next section.  Archaeologists have turned up a few lightly constructed housing structures, and from this point forward material culture is usually better attested, if for no other reason than it is more recent.  Postholes show that these dwellings would most likely have been reed huts supported by posts.  The main features of the houses are hearths and grinding stones, the latter of which suggest that labor specialization was still in the future, since milling would have been one of the earliest tasks to be moved out of the house and into special industrial zones.

Pottery from this period is mostly open designs such as bowls, dishes, and cups.  Ceramics were not tempered, but were sometimes polished.  There is some domestication of animals, with sheep being the most common.  The lithic remains consist of blades and flakes, as well as bifacial (flaked in such a way as to produce a cutting edge that is sharp on both sides) scraping tools.

The next culture at Merimda was between 4500 and 3000 BC, called Middle Merimda, and runs current with the Naqada I culture in Upper Egypt.    Housing units are more plentiful and better constructed, as shown by more densely located pits, hearths, and postholes.  Grinding stones in homes show that industry was still located in the household.  There is an increasing diversity of ceramic types, with more advanced polishing but little decoration.  Pottery is straw-tempered and basketwork becomes more evident during this period.

The lithic remains show the increasing importance of farming, with axes and sickles becoming more common, but the abundance of bifacial flint arrow and harpoon heads shows that the Merimda people continued to exploit the plentiful game of the Delta.  The design of some of the flint tools show they were fitted to handles.  Animal husbandry continued to develop, with more cattle and pigs being domesticated during this phase.  Some storage jars were sunk into the ground which would have helped with the protection and preservation of grains.

The next phase, called Classic Merimda, ran from 4000 to 3000 BC and was characterized by increasing contact with, and assimilation into, the Naqada I peoples flowing in from Upper Egypt.  The settlement during this period consists of a large village of well-made oval huts with mud and reed walls.  Smaller buildings and huts were originally thought to be houses, but were more likely industrial buildings and animal pens.  Buildings during the Classic Merimda period are arranged into streets and grouped by building type.  While some grain was probably still being milled at home, industry was increasingly moving toward specialization, which required dedicated work spaces outside the home.

Basket-lined subterranean granaries became a feature during this phase, and basketwork was increasingly used for carting and construction.  More advanced pottery appears, including bottle and jar shapes.  However, evidence of indigenous Lower Egyptian culture becomes rarer as the Classic Merimda phase advances and the Delta folk increasingly adopt the ways of the Naqada I peoples.  The southerners continue to expand northward during this period, but rather than a forcible wiping out of the Delta cultures by the Upper Egyptians, the picture that is emerging with the latest research is one of gradual assimilation of southern ways (Tristant & Midant-Reynes, 2011, pp. 45-6).

Burials during the Classic Merimda phase have resulted in some debate, as the early evidence seemed to suggest that the Merimda people buried their dead not just near, but sometimes in their houses.  This was given credence by the fact that some instances exist of children and adolescents being buried within the village proper in other parts of Egypt.  But again, better methods and analyses have changed the consensus view.  It now seems more likely that burials were not contemporary with housing—previously occupied zones were converted into burial grounds, and some burial grounds experienced a sort of gentrification as they were reclaimed for the living (Bayfield 2009; Byrnes, 2000; Tristant & Midant-Reynes, 2011, p. 47).

Merimda burials were in shallow, oval pits.  The deceased was placed on a reed mat, facing east, in a semi-contracted position.  There is little evidence of grave goods, which contrasts sharply with their Upper Egyptian contemporaries.  It seems the Delta folk in general did not invest much concern in burial conventions before adopting the norms of their southern counterparts. However, archaeology in the Delta always comes with a caveat:  this area was especially prone to flooding, which may have buried evidence as of yet undiscovered.  Fortunately, archaeological work in the Lower Egypt continues.

 

Badarian

Badari was a settlement located near modern-day Asyut in Upper Egypt and may have existed as early as 5000 BC, but we can only say with certainty that the Badarian culture was active from 4400 to 4000 BC.  Originally thought to have given rise to the Naqada I culture, we now know that the two cultures ran concurrent for a long part of their collective histories.  Although Badarian culture itself did not emerge from a single source, the greatest influence seems to have come from the Western Desert.  At their peak, Badarian influence stretched from Badari to as far south as Hierakonpolis.

Badarian housing was lightly constructed and probably temporary, as evidence by indicators that entire settlements periodically uprooted and moved.  There may have been more permanent Badarian settlements closer to the Nile, where they could have exploited the floodplains for agriculture, but the same inundation would have destroyed the evidence of these early constructions, as building in stone was not yet practiced.  However, the existence of specialized craft goods and the development of farming and animal husbandry suggest more stability than a strictly nomadic existence would provide, so it may be more helpful to think of Badarian settlements as semi-permanent (Hendrickx & Vermeersch, 2000, pp. 42-3).

Badarian culture is mostly associated with its pottery, which showed a high degree of innovation.  Badarian ceramics were typically not decorated, with the exception of its characteristic “rippled surface,” which was achieved by combing the surface and then polishing it.  Badarian pottery had thinner walls than previous designs, and was mostly simple open shaped objects such as bowls, dishes, and cups, although pots were also common.  It usually had a fine temper and was made of the reddish brown Nile mud.  Like the Naqada I culture, Badarian pottery often had a black top, but can be easily distinguished by its rippled surface, and the fact that Naqadian pottery is more reddish than brown.

The lithic remains tend to be flake and blade, with some bifacial tools such as scrapers, sickles and punches.  Their tools generally reflect their agrarian culture, being mostly involved in processing vegetative matter, butchering animals, and curing hides.  The Badarians had domesticated sheep and/or goats, and cultivated wheat, barley, and lentils, which they stored in pits for the off season.

Badarian graves were simple oval or circular pits with reed mat linings.  The bodies were laid on their left side in a loosely contracted semi-fetal position, legs bent and hands to the face.  The head was oriented to the south, and the face was turned to the west, which was a departure from the eastern-oriented face of previous cultural groups.  The body was usually wrapped in reed mats or goatskin, with grave goods placed outside of the body wrap.  Some bodies may have been put in twig boxes that anticipate the wooden coffins of the future (Adams, 1988, p. 17; Hendrickx & Vermeersch, 2000, pp. 41-2; Grajetzki, 2003, p. 3).

Grave goods included pottery and some tools, and some graves included finely crafted nonessential items such as ivory fertility figurines and stone bead necklaces.  Graves with more “expensive” goods tended to be segregated into more elite graveyards and sections of cemeteries.  There is an absence of child and adolescent graves, suggesting they were also segregated.  It should be noted that in the Delta region children were often buried in locations previously or subsequently occupied, leading some to erroneously conclude that children were buried in the actual house itself.  Similar assumptions and conclusions must be avoided when searching for the missing Badarian children.

The presence of stone and ivory crafted objects amongst grave goods tells us a couple of things about the Badarians.  First, it shows that industry has at least partially moved out of the home, as finely crafted goods require specialization, and that requires dedicated workspaces.  It also shows that social stratification is beginning to emerge.  Not all graves had well-made and nonessential goods, so we know that at least some people were elite by local standards, even though there is not yet a fantastically wealthy class of citizens like the sort we see building the multi-chambered tombs later at Hierakonpolis and elsewhere (Adams, 1988, p. 55).

The limitation of specialized goods to elite tombs also shows there was no mass production of these items during the Badarian Period, and the fact that some villagers could afford to remove these commodities from the economy and place them in graves shows that they considered themselves to have a pretty secure future in this life and the next.  The presence of fertility figures in graves also seems to indicate a degree of post mortem optimism.  As we shall see as this series progresses, conspicuous consumption with regard to elite burials will become a trademark of powerful Egyptians, royal and non-royal alike.

The presence of shell goods amongst grave offerings tells us that the Badarians engaged in trade with the Red Sea area, and copper suggests some contact with the peoples of the Eastern Desert.  This seems to be confirmed by the presence of flint tools and palettes of Badarian design discovered in the Levant.

We will resume this series with the Naqada I culture in the next article, which will cover the late Predynastic Period through the Protodynastic Period.  By then we shall be well prepared for the Kings of Thinnis, who left so much for us to ponder at Abydos.  But again, I am getting ahead of myself.  Next we will get into the meat and potatoes of how Pharaonic culture was forged at Hierakonpolis, which for a short while was the capital of the (known) world.

 

 

References and Citations

 

Adams, B. (1988). Predynastic Egypt. Oxford: Shire Publications

Andelkovic, B. (2011). Political organization of Egypt in the Predynastic Period. In E. Teeter (Ed.), Before the pyramids.  Chicago: University of Chicago.

Bard, K. (2000). The emergence of the Egyptian state. In I. Shaw (Ed.), Oxford History of Ancient Egypt (Vol. 1st). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bayfield, S. (2009). Egyptian monuments: Merimda beni Salama. Retrieved from http://egyptsites.wordpress.com/2009/03/03/merimda-beni-salama/

Byrnes, A. (2005). Predynastic faiyum, s. cairo and western delta: The e29g1 burial. Retrieved from http://www.faiyum.com/html/epipalaeolithic.html

Cialowicz, K. (2011). Material culture of the Predynastic Period.  In E. Teeter (Ed.), Before the pyramids.  Chicago: University of Chicago.

Friedman, R. (2011). Hierakonpolis. In E. Teeter (Ed.), Before the pyramids.  Chicago: University of Chicago.

Freidman, R. (2009). Interactive dig Hierakonpolis. Retrieved from http://www.archaeology.org/interactive/hierakonpolis/field07/6.html

Grajetzki, W. (2003). Burial customs in ancient Egypt: Life and death for rich and poor. London: Duckworth.

Hendrickx, S., & Vermeersch, P. (2000). Prehistory: from the Paleolithic to the Badarian culture. In I. Shaw (Ed.), Oxford History of Ancient Egypt (Vol. 1st). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hoffman, M., Friedman, R., & Adams, B. (2009). Hierakonpolis online. Retrieved from http://www.hierakonpolis-online.org/Default.htm

Midant-Reynes, B. (2000). The Naqada Period. In I. Shaw (Ed.), Oxford History of Ancient Egypt (Vol. 1st). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stevenson, A. (2011). Material culture of the Predynastic Period.  In E. Teeter (Ed.), Before the pyramids.  Chicago: University of Chicago.

Tristant, Y., & Midant-Reynes, B. (2011). The predynastic cultures of the Nile Delta. In E. Teeter (Ed.), Before the pyramids.  Chicago: University of Chicago.

Van Peer, P., Vermeersch, P., & Paulissen, E. (2010). Chert quarrying, lithic technology, and a modern human burial at the palaeolithic site of Taramsa 1, Upper Egypt. (1st ed.). Leuven: Leuven University Press.

 

Copyright 2012 by Keith Payne, all rights reserved

Copyrighted images are used in accordance with the fair use provisions of copyright law.  The copyrights belong to the owners of the originals, all rights reserved.  Copyrighted images are used strictly for educational purposes.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

This entry was posted on Monday, September 3rd, 2012 at 8:26 pm and is filed under Pre-Dynastic, Tombs. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

7 comments so far

Jean-Pierre Houdin
avatar
 1 

Hi Keith,

Once again, congratulations for this quite instructive and nicely written article about Ancient Egypt Prehistoric burials.
Thanks to you, I still learn a lot about this Prehistoric Period and I’m already waiting for the next article.

Well done ! (as usual)

Jean-Pierre

September 4th, 2012 at 4:17 am
avatar
 2 

Hi Jean-Pierre,

Thank you! :-)

It is, I have to admit, a much more fascinating topic than I had imagined it would be before I started it. I did not know much about the prehistory of Egypt before I began researching this article, and I was very pleasantly surprised. And the material on Hierkonpolis is even more interesting!

As I like to say on Facebook….

More to come…

–K

September 4th, 2012 at 7:52 am
Steve
avatar
 3 

Nice blog post. Just one gentle correction- the site is Merimda (or Merimde), often called Merimda-Beni Salame. Not Mermida.

September 5th, 2012 at 11:28 am
avatar
 4 

Hi Steve,

Too much caffeine, not enough sleep.. ;-)

Thank you very sincerely, Steve. It would have been easy to just cringe and pass on, but you took the time to correct me and spare me further embarrassment! I have corrected all but one occurrence of the Evil Word, and that one is incorporated into a photo, which I will have to re-do when I get the time.

Again, thank you so much!

–K

September 5th, 2012 at 5:42 pm
saudemont jacky
avatar
 5 

Geachte,
Kan mij alles over Egypte mailen, leuke blog .
Ben dagelijks bezig met Egypte.

Vriendelijke groeten,
Jacky.

October 21st, 2012 at 10:47 am
avatar
 6 

Dank je wel, Jacky! :-)

En bedankt voor het lezen. Geniet van uw werk in Egypte!

Cheers,
–K

October 21st, 2012 at 11:23 am
avatar
 7 

The object that you refer to as a bifacial scraping knife is usually called a hollow or concave based arrowhead.

November 21st, 2012 at 3:55 pm

One Trackback/Ping

  1. Digging Deeper – The Weekly Blog Round-Up – 9th September 2012 | The Amateur Archaeologist    Sep 08 2012 / 8pm:

    [...] Em Hotep – Keith writes a detailed article on the evolution of prehistoric burial customs in Ancient Egypt. [...]

Leave a reply

Name (*)
Mail (will not be published) (*)
URI
Comment