In Death They Gave Us Life: Part 1

Exploring Egypt


One cannot deny that we owe not only our culture, but also our understanding of the evolution of this culture and way of life, to our ancient ancestors.  We are offered a window into the faraway lives of ancient people through the materials and sources they left behind, and what better way is there to construct a picture of life in the ancient world than to examine the objects considered so precious that individuals took them to their graves.  When thinking about tombs rich in ‘treasures’, Ancient Egypt, with its magnificent pyramids and majestic pharaohs standing as a majestic and unforgettable testimony to civilization, leaps immediately into mind.  Egyptian tombs and burials can offer so much information on life in this ancient society, making them the perfect place to begin my journey to discover how in death, the ancients let us witness not decay and darkness, but life in all its splendour.  This brief examination of Egyptian burials will demonstrate the full potential of these sites and finds to provide the modern historian with a view of ancient Egyptian life through the construction of three concentric spheres, personal, social and natural, each one detailing an aspect of Egyptian life wider than the last.
A glance at the belongings which accompany a person in death reveals a great deal about their owner, and the life that he or she led, thus establishing the personal, first sphere of ancient Egyptian life. It is by examining these personal items found within graves that we begin this investigation into ancient Egyptian life, before stepping back and using other sources to establish a wider context.  The perfect way to demonstrate this is to examine small personal objects, such as jewellery.  After a day of volunteering at World Museum, Liverpool (http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/wml/) , I took some time to have a look at the Egyptian gallery, and came across a case of such objects, taken from Middle Kingdom tombs (ranging from the 11th to 19th dynasties) at Abydos.

Objects from tombs at Abydos. (World Museum, Liverpool)
This case houses jewellery, amulets, and even a fragment of a shoulder harp, all items which can indicate not only the wealth of the person to whom they belonged, but also their beliefs and superstitions, and even lifestyle.  For example, the case contains ‘Order of the Golden Fly’ medals, found in a New Kingdom (18th dynasty) tomb, awarded for military achievement.  Thus just by considering the very personal belongings of someone, it is relatively easy to construct an idea of an individual’s life.
So it’s possible to learn a great deal about an individual, but what of the ancient social system as a whole?  Although it is great to be able to tell how rich or poor someone is based on their possessions, this information is useless if it cannot be put into a wider social context, which constitutes the second of these concentric spheres.  It is possible to gain a greater understanding of Egyptian society and social views by once again examining objects which entered the grave.  During a recent visit to Cambridge, I spent some time visiting the Fitzwilliam Museum (http://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/) , and came across some rather fascinating objects from the burial of Khety in the late 11th/early 12th dynasty (1985-1950 BC).  The objects which attracted my curiosity were a collection of models, boats, a granary, butchery and brewery, evidently included in the burial on account of Egyptian beliefs and rituals concerning sustenance in the afterlife.  However, it was not the ritual significance of these models which interested me, but the importance of their appearance, as this helps to construct a picture of a wider Egyptian society. 

Models from the tomb of Khety. (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)
It’s not just the fact that these models show the execution of ‘everyday tasks’, providing insight into that part of Egyptian life, which makes them interesting, but, more importantly, the portrayal of the people performing these tasks.  The uniformity with which the model people have been made could suggest two contrasting things, a lack of understanding or even a feeling of indifference towards other (lower) orders of ancient Egyptian society, or a rather surprising notion of a kind of equality.
On the one hand, the people depicted in the models, carrying out manual, laborious tasks, would not have been of the same social order as whoever requested that the models accompany the burial.  One could assume that the upper levels of ancient Egyptian society had little regard for ‘the masses’, so their perception of individuals who would carry out tasks such as butchery and bread making would have been narrow or even somewhat undefined.  This could account for the uniform decoration of the model people performing these tasks, which stands in stark contrast to the lavish and intricate decoration of the tomb’s sarcophagus. 
However, on the other hand, such uniform and plain decoration might not represent a lack of social understanding, but rather a shared comprehension of burial rituals and the notion of life after death, which could go so far as to act as an area of equality across all tiers of ancient Egyptian society. Assuming that the majority of ancient Egyptians held the belief that the body would need food and drink to sustain it in the afterlife, and that such provisions should be made in order to successfully make that journey, it seems plausible that the unassuming decoration of the figures in these models is actually necessary.  Everyone, regardless of their social standing in life, would require such provisions in the afterlife, and so the standardisation of these model people could be interpreted to demonstrate the idea of a ritual shared across the whole of society: a kind of common ground.
Having considered how a broader social context can be constructed based on grave objects, it is time to turn attention to the third and final sphere of ancient Egyptian life: the natural environment within which this ancient society flourished.  While visiting the Neues Museum in Berlin (http://www.neues-museum.de/) , I came across the reliefs from the tomb of Metjen, dating to roughly 2600 BC, which depict the wildlife of the Nile valley.  

Relief depicting wildlife. (Neues Museum, Berlin)
Although, given their idealistic nature, reliefs such as should be interpreted with a pinch of salt, they really help to set the scene within which ancient Egyptian society, and the individuals within it lived and functioned.
I hope that this rather brief investigation into the contents of Egyptian tombs has helped to show how echoes of ancient life can, ironically, be found in places of death, and how these echoes can be put together to create a wonderfully broad representation of ancient life! 




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