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The Evolution of Funerary Practices in Ancient Egypt
Evolution of Burial Traditions
Existence; in all but a few exceptionally rare cases, justification of the state of being is the cornerstone of human culture. The need to uncover meaning in life as well as death has therefore become a timeless desire of man, one which the Ancient Egyptians held to the highest esteem. This civilization and their need to comprehend this life as well as the next led to the creation of an incredibly complex web of religion, woven together by a myriad of gods, goddesses, myths, and rituals. The steadily evolving faith, which began in Pre-dynastic times as fragmentary and varied beliefs and traditions, transformed into a state religion that sustained Egyptian culture through its incredible span of history. While the increasing complexity of the Egyptian belief system can be traced through several aspects of their religion, funerary ideology perhaps best displayed the progressing thought put into existence and the afterlife. It is within the architecture, texts, and ideas of these funerary practices, that one can see the incredible intricacy of an evolving spiritual world, one that would credit the Egyptians as being “more religious than any other people.”
The genesis of funerary rights coincides with the dawning of Egyptian civilization; a time before written records, intense social stratification, and a unified nation. In this Pre-dynastic period, archaeological evidence reveals that even within the simplest society, there was a belief in the divine that called for particular care of the deceased. By the Neolithic era, there is an almost “standardized” practice of burial. The graves, which usually consisted of oval pits, contained a body that would be oriented on its left side, with the head towards the south, facing west. Also, with the settling of populations and the rise of a material culture, grave goods, such as jewelry, pots, slate palettes, and stone tools, became a commonality.
As time progressed, so did the cultural and social complexity of the Ancient Egyptians. With the nearing of a unified nation and the stratification it consequently impress upon society, funerary practices had to be adapted to the more demanding necessities that allowed an individual to attain an afterlife. The early Pre-Dynastic saw the rise of the Naqada Period, whose Amratian and Badarian cultures still buried the majority of their dead simply. With the former although a minority of burials were much larger, containing coffins and far more grave goods, although these goods do not yet seem to have had hierarchical implications. It is not until Naqada II that social stratification is reflected in death. It is at this time that the first wrapped bodies are discovered, along with increasing mass burials and varied graves, ranging from simple pits to partitioned mud-brick enclosures. By the end of Naqada III, there is the appearance of “royal” burials that included multiple roomed tombs equipped with pottery and other elite goods.
The emergence of an Egyptian state at ca.3200 B.C.E brought about yet another major change in traditional funerary practices. With the founding of an unshakable authority -the pharaohnic institution- monumental architecture such as elaborate tombs and mortuary complexes arose at sites like Abydos. The idea of a mortuary cult also began to take hold even in the lowest of classes, who had their own simple cemeteries in contrast to the superstructures constructed for government officials and others of higher status. The glorification of funerary complexes only amplified with the commencement of the Old Kingdom. It was during this period that the mastaba tombs, which were enclosed burial chambers led to by a vertical shaft, quickly gave way to perhaps the hallmark of Ancient Egypt; the pyramid.
As the brainchild of King Djoser’s vizier, Imhotep, the pyramid became a major catalyst of change. At first built as a stepped structure, it achieved its perfected state during the Fourth Dynasty. The grandeur of the innovative architecture not only served as a proper resting place for the pharaoh, but also symbolized the solidity and strength of the Egyptian state. Furthermore, it brought change to the funerary traditions of the remainder of society. Royals, officials, and priests, who were still being buried in mastaba tombs, wished to be buried near their king’s funerary complex with the hopes of maintaining a relationship with him in death. This wish was manifested as well in the royal funerary cult, whose numbers surged during this period.
During the early Fifth Dynasty there came a break from pyramid building. Instead, Sun-temples that revered the God Ra became the sought after resting place of the king. While constructed was fairly different from the pyramid complex, the sun temples still retained the traditions of receiving tribute, harboring a vast array of goods for the departed, and serving as a center of cult worship. Nevertheless, the phase was short lived. By the close of the dynasty, pyramid construction had begun to reappear and again proved to stoke the fires of change. With the introduction of the Pyramid texts, the earliest religious compositions know from Ancient Egypt, the foundation was laid for the cult of Osiris and the development of the concepts and representations of the afterlife.
The decentralization of power during the First Intermediate Period featured a vast array of funerary innovations. Mummy masks were incorporated as well as Coffin Texts, which were found mainly among provincial society. In addition to the new elements of burials, the mastaba tomb itself underwent re-invention. Family groups were often buried in multi-chambered tombs and their status in said family was made visible by means of the burial.
As control was restored and the Middle Kingdom steadily progressed, the cult of Osiris achieved its height in popularity. Tombs and monuments built by the pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom dynasties revered this God of the Necropolis, and with the rapid growth of the cult came the ‘democratization of the afterlife.’ For the first time in Egypt’s religious history, the same funerary privileges were available to both royal and common. Another link between the social classes was established with the idea of the ba, or spiritual force, which was once believed to only exist within the king.
On a more material basis, the mortuary complexes exceeded those of the past in mastery and skill, becoming larger and more beautiful, with added elements such as terraced ambulatories and galleries. The tombs were still equipped with lavish goods, but now also held shabti and paddle dolls, both of which were not seen before this period.
Cartonnage masks were now also a commonality, while the act of mummification itself was increasing, but not yet becoming overly effective.
By the Seventeenth Dynasty, the wealth of tombs had been drastically curtailed, although traditions such as the mass elite burials near royal tombs remained. The location of these burials differed as well. Instead of a prominent cemetery, most royals were buried in the Valley of the Kings in rock cut tombs. But with the rise of the Eighteenth Dynasty and the beginnings of the Amarna Period, funerary culture was again driven by change.
Ideologically, Akhenaten, the tenth ruler of the Eighteenth Dynasty undertook a religious revolution, altering the state religion, mode of worship, and all components of burial architecture. Kings themselves became more closely associated with the gods. Their tombs were more than a lasting glorification of their life’s achievements, and depicted the gods as much as the king himself. Within the burial chambers, inscribed texts were written in a more everyday language, although the line between official and vernacular languages failed to disappear. The tomb itself was although no longer seen as a final resting place. Instead, they served only as a place where the ba went to rest at night; otherwise, the spirit of the dead lived on earth. Even with this major ideological change, funerary rites and tribute continued.
While one can clearly trace the evolution of funerary practices and beliefs, it is impossible to note or understand every single element revealed by history. It is best to surmise the progression of burial traditions as simply an improvement on extending existence on earth into the afterlife. Social statuses, relationships, family, and even material culture were preserved in glorious temples and tombs in order to accompany an individual in death. Such massive amount of care was granted to the preparation of the afterlife not because of a morbid obsession, but because of the insistent will to continue living, even after the unavoidable finality that death presents.
 Taken from Herodotus: The Histories
Copyright Lilith Eden 2011. All Rights Reserved