Typically, the modern audience associates burial and funerary ritual in ancient Egypt with the iconic imagery of the Pharaonic period – meticulously mummified bodies locked away deep in tombs filled with ancient treasures. However, the practice of preserving the body after death and providing assemblages of burial objects dates much earlier, going as far back as at least c. 6000 years ago. These early burials – such as the iconic Gebelein Predynastic “mummies” – did not go through a deliberate process of preservation, but instead were naturally desiccated by the desert environment that they were buried in.
The lack of written language and knowledge of Predynastic funerary ritual poses a problem for the modern Egyptologist – how to interpret the assemblages of goods that were deposited alongside the body. Without any literature to allow the Egyptians themselves to “tell” us why they included these objects in burials, we must carefully extrapolate and interpret the meanings and significance behind these objects. It is undeniable, however, that their inclusion in burials illustrates that these objects proved important in some fashion for the deceased.
The most common grave good found in Predynastic burials is the simple pot. These come in various forms but decorated (or D-Ware) vessels are of particular interest. These vessels were painted with iconography and imagery reflective of the geography of the Nile Valley, the natural flora and fauna of the region, and human activities. Often, they include depictions of boats indicating the importance of riverine trade in the Predynastic.
Generally, Predynastic burials contain numerous ceramics, often placed over the body or alongside it. Occasionally these vessels contain other grave goods, such as ceramic figurines. Whether the inclusion of these vessels indicates that they belonged to the deceased or their family is unclear; they may have been included in burials for a specific ritual purpose, or as goods that could be taken to the next life.
Another very common grave good associated with the Predynastic is the cosmetic palette. These objects are most commonly made of siltstone (often described as ‘slate’) and come in a variety of forms. The Badarian and Naqada I period palettes are often simple oblong shapes on which pigmented material such as malachite could be ground up into cosmetic powder. In the later Naqada periods, however, palettes commonly took on a host of forms that reflected the fauna of the Nile Valley – common examples include turtles, fish and birds.
The use of animal shapes in these palettes has clear parallels across the breadth of Predynastic Egyptian art. Animal iconography is commonly found on Predynastic decorated vessels, taking the recognisable forms of turtles, birds, fish, hippopotami and other animal forms, indicating the importance of the natural world and the flora and fauna of the Nile Valley to Predynastic Egyptian social groups. Notably, residue from cosmetics and evidence of wear has been found on numerous palettes, indicating that they were not just burial goods but also were used in life – whether specifically by the deceased, or by someone with a familial/social relation to them.
One of the more unusual forms of burial good found in Predynastic graves is the anthropomorphic figurine. Usually made of ceramic, understanding the meaning of these figurines has posed a significant challenge to Egyptologists. The lack of defined facial features and individual, personal aspects in the form of the figurines suggests that they were not personal representation of the deceased; instead it has been theorised that they represented a deity (often characterised as a ‘fertility’ or ‘mother goddess’) or had a ritual meaning. It has been suggested that, alternatively, these figurines might have been ritually deposited (or even, in some cases, ritually broken) as part of the burial rites or as a display of mourning.
Some of the most striking examples are the “steatopygous” female figurines (a word that refers to their large buttocks), which often have their arms raised over their heads. This gesture can be seen in representations of humans across Predynastic art, from figurines to decoration on vessels, to graffiti and art on cave walls. One interpretation of this gesture is that it refers to some kind of ritual behaviour or form of worship, and the presence of these figurines might indicate that the deceased had a personal connection with religious customs or divine spirituality.
Personal Adornment and Miscellanea
Objects found in Predynastic burials often reflect practices of personal adornment or status, such as the inclusion of imported beads of lapis lazuli from far as Afghanistan, obsidian from as far as Ethiopia and meteoric iron. These more luxurious and “high-status” objects may have been impersonated in other burials through the use of alternative materials – for example, bone and shell bracelets are a relatively common find and these may have been impersonations of objects of personal adornment made from a more affordable, readily-available material.
Other miscellaneous objects in burials may have reflected information about the individual, their status in society, or their social roles and relationships – for example, objects made of flint such as knives, scrapers and arrowheads may illustrate something particular about the deceased (although this is impossible to know for sure). These objects may have been included for a specific funerary purpose, but they may instead be objects that had a special significance for the deceased or for the larger community engaging with the funerary ritual.
Funerary Customs in the Predynastic
Burials are fundamental to our understanding of the Egyptian Predynastic, with cemeteries often the only archaeological sites that have survived. The study of these burials does not just tell us more about the funerary beliefs and burial culture of Predynastic Egyptians, but also illustrates the development of stratification and hierarchies in social groups, the themes and iconography that was important at this time, and the vast trade networks that existed even at this early point in human history. While the large tombs and detailed burial customs of Pharaonic Egypt are perhaps more famous and well-known, their rich lineage can be traced back to the simple pit burials of the Predynastic.