Friday, September 19, 2014

Death in Ancient Egypt

A.J. Spencer
Penguin Books
Great Britain
ISBN-10: 0140136894

"Bodies were also set on fire after robberies, perhaps with the intention of avoiding any evil influence,". "In one case at Thebes, however, the reason was more prosaic, mummies of children having been ignited for the purpose of illuminating the chamber while the robbers carried out their work."

This 256-page paperback has within its numerous schematics to demonstrate the authors words as well as a nice section of black and white pictures, many of unusual note. Mr. Spencer opens with a standard rundown of ancient Egyptian history, periods, dynasties and rulers of note.

The author moves forward on the subject of mummification beginning with the desiccated corpses of the ancestors lying in simple shallow desert burials exposed by the desert winds. The desire of protecting the ancestors caused elaborate developments which encased the burial in tombs and boxes, this causing a rapid and unintended destruction of the body.

The author points out examples of important mummified bodies found, including the arm decorated with bracelets discovered in the First Dynasty tomb of King Djer which was thrown out at the museum along with its delicate linen wrappings, minus the bracelets, one of which was damaged deliberately by the museum director for better display. While the extremely rare and important Fourth Dynasty mummy of Ranefer found at Meydum was destroyed during the bombing of London in World War II.

Mr. Spencer moves on in chapter 3 to the provisions of the dead from simple food pot's, blades, combs and makeup palettes to tombs filled with every luxury a noble could afford not to leave to his or her greedy heirs.This stock of dusty valuables would have been well known to the mortuary officials who did not rob the poor tombs within the individual cemeteries but only the rich burials, knowledge of which could only have been gleaned by those who buried the dead in the first place.

This problem made even the most clever tomb builder to ultimately fail at the protection of the grave from false corridors plugged with blocks of stone to sand devices that continuously bring more debris on the robbers as they dug. The unfortunate of many such devices intended to stop robbers is many were never put in place or closed after the burial perhaps with the intention for the return of the burial party to access it later.

     "Some details of the robbing of certain sarcophagi reveal once more that the robbers had accurate knowledge of the layout of the chamber; in one tomb at Dendera the sarcophagus stood tightly up against one wall, and it had been rifled by someone tunneling through that wall and the side of the sarcophagus in a single operation, without even entering the chamber."

The author delves into the various techniques of embalming including the basic three forms mentioned by Herotodus. The development of the art of mummification up to Herotodus' time has left little evidence of early dynastic embalming though the presence of resins and wrappings on corpses is known of, as are the various canopic boxes and canopic emplacements within tombs of the IV'th Dynasty nobles including the burial of King Khufu's mother.

The following two thousand years the embalmers perfected the preservation of the corpse achieving the best consistent results in the XXII'nd Dynasty with the art of mummification degenerating down to Herotodus' time and on into the Graeco-Roman era. The aforementioned section of pictures presents here the reader with excavation images including a fascinating funerary feast left in a 2nd Dynasty tomb and another picture of Ptolemaic mummies as left by robbers.

The ultimate goal  of a goodly eternity brought on a system of evolving fetishes as individual or group devices, such as servant statuettes or kingly devices like "magic bricks" inscribed with spells to keep harm at bay while placating the necessary gods. Mr. Spencer delves into coffins and sarcophagi of various periods including construction and development from a contracted coffin to anthropomorphic coffins in nests with vaulted lidded sarcophagi.

Perhaps one of the most interesting chapters is on the various animal cemeteries and cults practiced through animal sacrifices and burials from the elaborate Apis bull catacomb at Saqqara to lesser vaults containing millions of feathered occupants. We are told of the burial of the mothers of the Apis bulls,

     "The layout of the place is similar to the Late Period galleries of the Apis bulls, although on a much smaller scale and far more ruined. The axial passage is flanked on either side by sunk emplacements for sarcophagi, which had been deliberately smashed to fragments by Coptic intruders."

The presentation brought forward fine details not found in many books on Egyptian funerary constructs and beliefs resulting in substantial ground works for the reader to base future studies in the interest of students young and old on "Death in Ancient Egypt".

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