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‘Pot burials’ in ancient Egypt weren't just for the poor

While mummification and burial in coffins is the form of burial most closely associated with the upper class and nobility in ancient Egypt, new archaeological research has revealed that another common form of burial during these times was in ceramic funerary urns and pots.

‘Pot burials’ in ancient Egypt weren't just for the poor
A selection of child and infant pot burials from the Pre- to Early Dynastic cemetery of Adaïma, Egypt (reproduced with 
permission of Béatrix Midant-Reynes, Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale) [Credit: Antiquity]
Debunking conventional understanding of the issue, newly published research suggests that the pottery was used in the burials of individuals from the wealthy classes, along with lower classes, as well as for old and young bodies alike.

Several archaeological studies had previously associated this form of ancient internment — also referred to as “pot burial” — with poverty, as the reuse of household vessels for the internment of bodies was perceived to indicate that little value was assigned to these containers or their contents.

However, a new study published in the Antiquity Magazine reveals that these burials were actually held in high esteem, even by wealthy people. And while “pot burial” had previously been associated with the burial of fetuses, infants and children, they may actually have been more the domain of adults.

Bioarchaeologist Ronika Power and Egyptologist Yann Tristant write that pot burial may have held a symbolic association, as these round burial containers resemble wombs or eggs. Thus, ancient Egyptians may have perceived that such funerary pots and urns facilitated the process of rebirth into the afterlife.

Excavated bodily remains have been found placed directly into these pots, while in other cases these funerary pots were cut or broken so as to allow the body to fit within it.

Examples of such pot burials were not only limited to ancient Egypt, but have also been evidenced in archaeological sites in southern Europe, the Middle East, South America, and Southeast Asia.

Power and Tristant consider pot burials at 46 separate sites, most of which are located found by the Nile River and dating from around 3,300 BC to 1,650 BC.

Citing previous archaeological studies, it is reported that the earliest examples of pot burials in Egypt took place around 3,500 BC.

In just over half of these sites remains of adults were found. As for children’s funerary rites, pot burials were less common than expected. From a total of 746 fetuses, infants and children that had been found buried in some variety of containers, 338 buried in wooden coffins (even though wood was scarce and costly in ancient Egypt), while another 329 were buried in pots and urns, and the remainder were buried in baskets or containers constructed from materials including reeds or limestone.

Regarding the issue of class, the excavated tomb of a wealthy governor has recently revealed that it included a pot burial of an infant who may have been his son or relative. This infant’s pot burial contained beads covered with a sheet of gold. Other pot burials associated with the upper classes have been found to include funerary goods such as gold, ivory, ostrich eggshell beads and textiles.

In their jointly-published article, Power and Tristant ask: “Why so many Egyptians chose to bury their deceased family or community members in pots, as it is clear that they had many options at their disposal, including wrapping in linen, animal skins or reed matting; or placement in receptacles constructed from basketry, mud, ceramics, wood or stone.”

The two authors indicate that over time these decisions may have been influenced by localized cultures, foreign influence, religious beliefs, specific funerary rites, among other possibilities.

Power and Tristant conclude: “Precisely what it was that motivated the choice of pots as funerary containers divides opinion.”

Source: Mada Masr [January 07, 2017]

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