The A-Group at Koshtamna

The site of Koshtamna, in the Aswan region, was excavated by John Garstang in 1906. The site is approximately 7 km northeast of Dakka, and contains material remains dating from various periods of Pharaonic history. The majority of Garstang’s finds, however, dated to prehistory; material remains of the Sudanese ‘A-Group’. John Garstang’s excavation at Koshtamna was never published, but the Garstang Museum is working to bring these artefacts, and the story of this site, into the public eye for the first time.

The A-Group

The Sudanese ‘A-Group’ were named by American archaeologist George Andrew Reisner. His ‘Archaeological Survey of Nubia’, conducted between 1907-1909, explored the origins of Nubian civilisation. The A-Group did not have writing, and so this relatively dry classification was imposed upon their remains; we still do not know what these people called themselves. There are numerous issues with Reisner’s classification, and it has been challenged by numerous scholars, but this relatively simplistic naming convention persists in Egyptology and Nubiology today.

The Importance of the A-Group Remains in Museums

Between 1960 and 1970, Egypt constructed the Aswan High Dam across the Nile at Aswan, a region at the southern edge of Egypt. The dam was constructed to control Nile flooding, increase water storage for agricultural irrigation, and generate hydroelectric power. Building the dam, however, came with a serious cost to the archaeological remains in the region.

The construction of the Aswan High Dam resulted in the flooding of Lake Nasser, submerging Nubian remains from Aswan to the Dal Cataract under roughly 50 metres of water. In 1959, the Egyptian government requested the assistance of UNESCO in preserving important archaeological material in this region. In 1960, the International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia began; a series of ‘rescue excavations’ intended to preserve and record as much information about the submerged region as possible. As well as excavating hundreds of sites and preserving thousands of artefacts, the UNESCO campaign also deconstructed and relocated vast pieces of monumental architecture, moving them to safer ground – most famously, the temple of Philae (now located on Agilkia Island).

Due to the haste with which this material was excavated, a great deal of it has not yet been fully studied or published. Furthermore, due to the submerging of the region, one of the only ways to study the A-Group – a cultural group about which we know very little – is to study the material remains now stored in museums around the world. John Garstang’s excavations at Koshtamna, long predating the UNESCO rescue operation, have provided the Garstang Museum with a wealth of A-Group material to study, which may illuminate more about this ‘lost’ civilization.

Koshtamna: The Material Culture

The material found at Koshtamna illustrates the similarities between Predynastic Egyptian and prehistoric Nubian settlements. Much of the material from Koshtamna has parallels across both Sudanese and Egyptian prehistory; for example, numerous objects of personal adornment can be found in the Koshtamna material at the Garstang Museum. Typically, these include ‘necklaces’ made by stringing together shells, bones, or beads made of semiprecious stones; there are also numerous bracelets made of shell or bone. Though the strings tying the ‘necklaces’ together are a (relatively) modern construction, likely done on site at the Garstang excavation, the bored holes in the shells, bones, and semiprecious stones indicate that they were likely originally worn this way (though the precise arrangements are a reconstruction).

Another very common type of object found in the Koshtamna collection is the cosmetic palette – already extensively discussed in a previous blog. Nubian palettes appear similar in size, shape, and material to their Egyptian counterparts; some of these palettes may have been imported from Egypt, or may have been ‘copies’ or interpretations of the Egyptian style. They would likely have been used for a similar purpose, and reflect the natural world in the same way Predynastic Egyptian palettes do, depicting birds, fish, and other Nile Valley fauna. The majority of the palettes from Koshtamna are fragmentary, though this is no surprise – indeed, the majority of cosmetic palettes found in Egypt are also fragmentary (usually, it is only the best and most well-preserved examples that are put on display in museums!).

Pottery, of course, is another regular find at Koshtamna, whether whole vessels or fragmentary sherds. The ceramic vessels in the Koshtamna collection include numerous Egyptian ‘imports’ or ‘imitations’ – classically Egyptian-style morphologies, such as W-Ware (wavy-handled ware) that indicate trade and exchange between the A-Group and the Naqada culture to the north; whether this is direct material trade or simply the exchange of ideas is harder to know for sure. There are also, of course, numerous wares that are more typically ‘Nubian’, including the recognisable ‘black-topped red ware’ that characterises Nubian pottery.

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One of the most interesting finds (so far!) has been the ceramic vessel pictured below – E.6163. This black-topped vessel is marked with two holes around a break in the ceramic; evidence of an ancient repair! Holes like these would be used to bind the two broken parts of the vessel together, using string and (possibly) some form of glue to mend the break. Some 4-5 000 years ago, an individual decided this object was important enough to them that they would rather repair it, once broken, than throw it away and acquire a replacement.

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Burial Practice and Mortuary Culture

What does this collection of material tell us about the A-Group? How was this material used? What was its significance?

It is difficult to reconstruct social behaviour – peoples’ thoughts and feelings – from prehistory, where there is no written evidence to guide our interpretations. However, one of the ways this material was used is obvious – it was included in burials. The majority of the material in the Garstang Museum excavated at Koshtamna comes from individual burials; the ‘K’ numbers you may have noticed on the objects refer to areas of the site and particular burials from where these objects were excavated. Though we know very little about the funerary beliefs of the A-Group, we do know about their burial practices – and once again, a remarkable similarity can be found between the A-Group in Sudan and their Egyptian neighbours to the north.

The image on the left above is from John Garstang’s photographic archive, and shows a typical burial at Koshtamna; the burial is a simple pit, covered with sand. The body is contracted, with the arms raised to the chest and the legs bent, and burial goods – typically pottery, bracelets, palettes, and other material discussed above – are laid around it. The image on the right, also from Garstang’s photographic archive, shows a typical burial at Hierakonpolis in Egypt; the similarities are very notable. Whether these ideas originated in Nubia or Egypt and made their way northward or southward (respectively), or whether (and this is perhaps more likely) there were a number of factors influencing a cultural cross-pollination that resulted in similar burial practices, it is clear that similar ideas were being shared across both cultures. Whilst it would be too simplistic to argue that the individuals interred with these possessions were hoping to ‘bring them to the next life’, this is one of numerous possibilities for why they would be buried in this way.

Illuminating the A-Group

The Sudanese A-Group is an understudied culture group, one often ignored in favour of the later Kerma culture, or the comings and goings of its Egyptian neighbours. However, these material remains provide a vital window into the prehistory of Sudan, and the origins and developments of ideas that would perpetuate and evolve in later Sudanese history, from Nubia to Egypt and beyond.

By Christopher Bebbington.

(Edited by Sarah McBride).

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Object in Focus: Stela of Amenysoneb (E.30)

Ancient Egyptian stelae are slabs of stone or wood which are typically inscribed with funerary and biographical texts and images. The Garstang Museum of Archaeology has a rather unique example of a Middle Kingdom (2055-1650 BCE) stela which belonged to a man called Amenysoneb. This stela dates to the 13th Dynasty (1795-1650 BCE) and was discovered at the site of Abydos by John Garstang in 1907.

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Obverse of Stela. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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Reverse of Stela. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Abydos was a highly important religious and funerary site for the ancient Egyptians. During the Middle Kingdom, the Northern Cemetery at Abydos served as the primary burial ground for non-royal individuals. One area of the site was dedicated to cenotaphs and small ka chapels often containing stelae and ka statues and statuettes. These mud-brick cenotaphs were intended to serve as a place where the ancient Egyptians could commemorate their dead. They were a locus for the offering of food to the ka (soul) of the deceased so that they might be sustained in the afterlife. Not all stelae were placed in cenotaphs, some were erected along a processional route where cult activities honouring the god Osiris took place.

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A stela in mud-brick chapel at Abydos, A.253. Garstang Museum of Archaeology

The stela of Amenysoneb is highly unusual for a number of reasons. The large ankh, perhaps the most eye-catching feature of this object, with the cut-out window is not a common feature of Middle Kingdom stelae. In fact, only five similar examples are known to exist. The double-sided decoration on the stela is also unusual, with most stelae only being decorated on the front side. Unfortunately, the stela is damaged with two corners missing.

The obverse of the stela shows the stela owner, Amenysoneb, on the left of the cut-out. He is raising his hands in adoration to the funerary god Wepwawet who is shown in jackal form above. Traces of paint are visible on Amenysoneb, with his body being painted red-brown and his collar a blue-green. The hieroglyphs above Amenysoneb’s head read ‘Adoration of Wepwawet by the regulator of the phyle (group of priests) of Abydos’, to the right they read ‘Amenysoneb begotten of Waemsha’.

Below this figure of Amenysoneb, is a women holding a lotus flower to her face. This is a common scene in Egyptian art as the lotus held religious and funerary associations. This woman is labelled as ‘His mother, the lady of the house, Nebetitef, the justified’. Below Nebetitef sit her son, Sainheret, and daughter, Nebetaneheh, the siblings of Amenysoneb.

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Obverse, detail of Amenysoneb. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

On the right, two sisters of Amenysoneb sit at his feet and hold lotus flowers. Nenni, the lady of the house, sits underneath Amenysoneb’s feet next to her daughter. In the bottom register, the doorkeeper of the temple, Siankhenptah sits next to his wife Titiu.

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Obverse, detail of figures. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

On the reverse, six registers show different scenes of daily life. Various workmen and women prepare food (top register), slaughter cattle (second register), mill grain and prepare bread and beer (third register), harvest (fourth register), transport grain (fifth register), and sow crops (sixth register).

The depiction of scenes of daily life is common in Egyptian tombs, but on stelae it is perhaps unique to this stela. These scenes were intended to magically provide for the deceased and their ka in the event that physical food offerings were lacking.

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Reverse, detail of registers 1 and 2. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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Reverse, detail of registers 2, 3, and 4. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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Reverse, detail of registers 4, 5, and 6. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Amenysoneb held the title of ‘regulator of the phyle of Abydos’, and he was probably in charge of the rota of the priests at the temple of Osiris at the site. Two other stelae belonging to Amenysoneb are also known, although this is the most unusual and curious example.

Stela were erected where those visiting these sites would see them and speak the words written on them, so it might have interested Amenysoneb to know that as well as an Egyptian and Liverpool audience, his stela has also been seen by visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Suggested Bibliography

Hill, J. A. (2010). ‘Window Between Worlds: The Ankh as a Dominant Theme in Five Middle Kingdom Mortuary Monuments’ In Hawass, Z. and Houser Wegner, J. (eds), Millions of Jubilees: Studies in Honor of David P. Silverman Vol. 1, Cairo: Conseil Suprême des Antiquités, 227-247.

Kitchen, K. (1961). An Unusual Stela from Abydos. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 47, 10-18.

Oppenheim, A., Arnold, D., Arnold, D., Yamamoto, K. (eds) (2015). Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom. New Haven, London: Yale University Press.

By C. Sargent

John Garstang’s Excavations at Jericho

The site of Jericho, located near the Jordan River on the West Bank, is famous for a number of reasons, not the least of which being its importance in biblical literature. The site contains the remains of no less than twenty successive settlements, and is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world (as well as the oldest known city with a protective wall). The Hebrew name for Jericho, Yeriẖo, is likely derived from the Canaanite word reaẖ, meaning “fragrant”. This imagery evokes the natural landscape surrounding the site; Jericho is a Tell site surrounded by copious natural springs which have historically provided a compelling reason for human societies to settle around the site – in fact, the earliest structures pre-date sedentary agriculture and other early cultures around Jericho were pre-ceramic (belonging to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A Phase). At the foot of the Tell itself, a perennial spring provides fresh water and irrigation for the nearby soil, providing ideal conditions for early agriculture. Furthermore, the site itself is located on an important route leading into coastal Palestine and the Fertile Crescent, important centres of early settlement, trade and human migration.

The Garstang Excavation

The first excavations at the site of Jericho took place in 1868 under the auspices of Sir Charles Warren of the British Royal Engineers, who dug into the Tell but found little to interest him and moved on. John Garstang arrived in 1930 and excavated until 1936, reaching the Neolithic phase of site occupation and covering successive incarnations of the city. The aim of the excavation was to investigate the biblical history of the site, attempting to incorporate the stratigraphy of the site into the narrative of conquest portrayed in the Bible. The excavation uncovered four distinct layers of occupation, which Garstang interpreted as four separate cities built on top of each other. It also uncovered a structure, identified as a temple by John Garstang, which showed evidence of regular reconstruction with foundations stretching through multiple occupation phases, as well as a structure identified as a palace standing at the highest point within the city walls.

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Archive photograph from John Garstang’s excavations at Jericho.

The excavations uncovered not only Neolithic assemblages but also deeper deposits belonging to the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A Phase. The work of the Garstang excavation cleared two levels of occupation of the Pre-Pottery Phase, uncovering highly developed settlement architecture (for the time period) consisting of hand-made mud brick walls and fine, burnished plaster on the ceilings and floors. Notably, this architectural style changes completely in the succeeding ceramic phase.

Burial Assemblages at Jericho

The majority of finds from John Garstang’s excavations were ceramic, although many proved difficult to date due to a lack of significant parallels. While the forms of the vessels were similar to material from other Near Eastern sites, consisting primarily of small juglets and open bowls, the decoration was almost entirely unique. This decorated style incorporates motifs of chevrons and triangles in a red pigment, and the decorated vessels exist alongside undecorated vessels made primarily of coarse ceramic with grit and straw inclusions. The majority of these ceramic vessels came from a necropolis west of the Tell, which provided information regarding burial customs at the site.

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A selection of undecorated ceramic bowls, dipper juglets, a cylindrical vase and a pedestal vase from Tomb D13, dated c.2200-1570 BCE.

Tombs were generally small chambers or shallow, round graves containing material including ceramics, flint implements and the remains of offerings such as sheep bones. They varied greatly in size, and older remains and grave goods were often pushed aside to make room for newer series’ of burials with tombs containing anything from four to over a hundred occupants. This form of burial assemblage is typical of Near Eastern sites, but notably the concentration of pottery at Jericho far outstripped the inclusion of other material (although, of course, any potential perishables included in the burials may not have survived). Notably, objects found in these burials illustrated early links with other cultures in the Mediterranean and Egypt.

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Miniature juglets, used to store perfume (J.57.7, J.57.91-92 and J.57.95).

Human Heads!

One of Garstang’s key discoveries at Jericho was a plaster head, with shells for eyes, part of a complete figure. This discovery was made from contexts approximately between the pre-pottery and pottery phases, but more evidence has been discovered relating to human heads at Jericho by later excavations under the direction of Dame Kathleen Kenyon, who excavated a collection of “portrait heads” in 1953. These heads were moulded in plaster around human skulls with inset shells replacing the eyes, identified as objects of interest for early cultic and religious practice at the site. Notably, the skulls themselves are personal and no two are alike, suggesting that they may be representative of actual individuals living at Jericho in the Neolithic period!

Conclusions – A Century of Work

The site of Jericho is a fundamentally important milestone in understanding early human development, settlement and agricultural practices. The excavation history of the site is long and storied, and the work of John Garstang is just one of many excavations that has provided information about Jericho’s rich history. The collection of material from John Garstang’s excavations illustrates the vibrant cultures developing at the site in the Neolithic, and his discovery of the aceramic culture has led to Jericho being considered a quintessential example of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A Phase.

Chris Bebbington.

Reflections of the Natural World – Predynastic Palettes

Egyptian ‘cosmetic’ palettes are found during the Predynastic period, they are made of flat pieces of stone – often described as ‘slate’, but in actuality siltstone – on which pigmented material could be ground up and made into cosmetics. The palette is a curious piece of material culture in Egyptian history; they are found throughout both Egypt and Nubia, and take on various distinct forms and evolutions throughout the Predynastic Period. Despite their ubiquity in the burial context, palettes quickly vanish from the archaeological record during the Pharaonic Period, disappearing not only from the material culture of Pharaonic Egyptian burials from the 1st Dynasty onwards but also from later material culture found in Nubian C-group burials.

Animal Forms

Palettes come in a variety of forms. In the Badarian to early Naqada I Period, they were primarily simplistic rectangular pieces of siltstone, clearly a form more suited to functionality than aesthetic value. In the later Naqada I, II & III periods, however, palette forms change to become predominantly shaped into forms reminiscent of animals. Of these zoomorphic palettes, the most common representations include fish, birds and turtles, though there are also more unusual examples such as hippopotami and gazelles.

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Predynastic oblong palette from the Hierakonpolis Fort Cemetery (E.5308a).

 

The Nubian A-Group also had their own distinctive cosmetic palettes, though there is evidence of importation of Egyptian palettes as well. These palettes were usually made from quartz, rather than siltstone, with most Egyptian siltstone palettes being found in the northern regions, closer to the First Cataract. Nubian palettes have similar feature to their Egyptian neighbours, though often of simpler geometric shapes rather than zoomorphic forms; there is evidence of use from observable malachite residue on many palettes, and they were usually deposited in burial contexts.

The Importance of Iconography

Animal iconography is used across all mediums of Predynastic art, including ceramic vessels, taking the recognisable forms of turtles, birds, fish, hippopotami and other animals found represented in cosmetic palettes. Perhaps the most obvious form of animal representation in Predynastic vessels are theriomorphic stone and ceramic vessels, such as those found in Cemetery T at Naqada and in the Main Deposit at Hierakonpolis. Similar zoomorphic material is found on a range of objects of beautification and personal adornment, including ivory bangles and combs with carved tops in the form of bull horns or birds, as well as on prehistoric graffiti across the breadth of Egypt.

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Predynastic fish-shaped palette (E. 5318).

 

The use of animal iconography across Predynastic material culture illustrates the importance of these animals to the Egyptian people at this time. These recurring motifs indicate that the fauna of the Nile Valley was of great importance to Predynastic Egyptians, and while any symbolic or religious associations can only be conjectured about, the actual animals themselves played a key part in the visual landscape that prehistoric Egyptians inhabited. As well as illustrating the Preydnastic fascination with the native fauna, palettes also indicate the importance of cosmetics and beautification in Predynastic society, as well as providing evidence for trade between regions in Upper Egypt and A-Group sites in the Sudan.

Christopher Bebbington.

Burials and Grave Goods in the Predynastic – You Can Take It With You!

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.

Pottery

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.

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The decoration used on Predynastic D-Ware vessels gives modern scholars an insight into the motifs and iconography that were important or relevant to ancient Egyptian culture at this time (E.3033).

 

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.

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Petrie’s C-Ware is named for the iconic white ‘crossed-line’ decoration which can be seen on this bowl. This is another common form of pottery decoration in the Predynastic (E.4195).

Palettes

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.

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Fish-shaped palettes are a very common feature of graves in the Predynastic, further illustrating the importance of the river Nile and the fauna around and within it during this formative period of Egyptian culture (E.5318).

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.

Figurines

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.

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Predynastic ceramic figurines usually include emphasis on the genitalia and a lack of decoration on the face. However, ivory statuettes such as this piece from the Louvre (E 11887) often have great deal of detail devoted to their facial features (photograph by Guillaume Blanchard, distributed under a CC A-SA 1.0 license).

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.

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The depictions of humans on D-ware vessels can be strikingly similar to human-shaped figurines and Predynastic rock art (E.3027).

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.

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This shell bracelet from Hierakonpolis illustrates how objects of personal adornment were made not only from luxurious precious metals and stones, but also more easily-accessible material (E.7262).

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.

Chris Bebbington.

Ancient Egyptian Mummies

 

 

Content Warning: Images of unwrapped mummy. 

 

 

The discovery and analysis of mummies from ancient Egypt, has fueled a long-standing fascination with ancient Egyptian culture. Mummies enable the modern audience to connect with the physical forms of people who lived thousands of years ago. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mummies inspired morbid curiosity among the upper classes and wealthy patrons would host ‘unwrapping’ parties where the remarkably preserved bodies would be have their bandages removed, bringing people face to face with ancient Egyptians. Modern analysis of mummies is far more controlled and scientific, involving scanning, x-rays, DNA analysis and blood tests. For example, the mummy displayed here at the Garstang Museum is known to be blood group A from the tests performed on it in preparation for their later use in testing the mummy of Tutankhamun. The stunning preservation of mummies enables archaeologists to reconstruct ancient lifeways in beautiful technicolour, but the process of mummification is perhaps one of the most intriguing practices in ancient Egypt.

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The Garstang Mummy (2015/13)

How to make a mummy?

The extensive, 70 day embalming and burial process was an important part of Egyptian belief, and was crucial for a successful journey into the afterlife. The mummification process consisted of two main components: the embalming of the remains, and the wrapping and burial of the body.

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Canopic jar heads in the shape of the hawk-headed deity Qebehsenuef and the baboon-headed deity Hapi (E.7840 E.7841).

During the embalming process, the body was washed with water from the Nile for purification. The internal organs were then removed and stored in canopic jars. Canopic jars come in sets of four, each identifiable with a specific god; Imsety, a human-headed jar to store the liver; Qebehsenuef, a falcon-headed jar to store the intestines; Hapy, a baboon-headed jar to store the lungs; and Duamutef, a jackal-headed jar to store the stomach.

Next the heart (ib) was put back into the body, and the body was stuffed and covered with natron (salt) to dry it out, before being covered for 40 days. The body was then unwrapped for the final time to be coated in embalming oils before being stuffed with dry materials to give the corpse the appearance of life.

The wrapping of the corpse began with the head and neck, then the individual fingers and toes, and finally limbs. Ritual spells would be spoken over the mummy by priests during the wrapping to protect against evil spirits in the journey into the afterlife. The limbs were then bound into the body with cloth that was wrapped around the entire corpse, and liquid resins were used to glue the bandages tightly. The body was then placed into a series of coffins for its final journey.

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Canopic jars featuring the human-headed deity Imsety and the hawk-headed deity Qebehsenuef (E.5267 & E.5266).

How do we know about the mummification process?

Greek historical texts are a useful (if often confusing) source of information for mummification; writers including Diodorus of Sicily and Herodotus discuss mummification practices in ancient Egypt. Herodotus left little to the imagination in his description of the processes:

“…making a cut near the flank with a sharp knife of Ethiopian stone, and then take out all the intestines, and clean the belly, rinsing it with palm wine and bruised spices.”

Perhaps even more interesting in Herodotus’ writing is the discussion of burial practices when there is little physical body to preserve:

“…anyone, Egyptian or foreigner, known to have been carried off by a crocodile or drowned by the river itself, must by all means be embalmed and wrapped as attractively as possible and buried in a sacred coffin by the people of the place where he is cast ashore…”

Mummy Mysteries

At the Garstang Museum, a mummy placed in a child’s coffin was always believed to be the remains of a child. However, X-Ray analysis revealed that the mummified remains were those of two cats, wrapped to look like a child.

There are two obvious possibilities here; the most likely theory is that there was a mistake by the embalmers leading to the original body being lost and replaced, but it is possible that the child was carried away by some creature from the Nile. The embalmers may have crafted the best impression of a child mummy they could to allow the ka (soul) of the child to carry on into the afterlife with some form of a physical body buried in their place, as alluded to in Herodotus.

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Child’s coffin containing the mummified remains of two cats (E.537).

Preserving Identity

The processes and rituals behind mummification have long fascinated societies around the world, from ancient Greek travellers and historians to modern archaeological scientists. Mummies provide a remarkable opportunity to understand ancient Egyptian people, their lives and their identities. Arguably, the most striking feature of mummies is how easily identifiable they are as humans, allowing a modern audience to look directly into the face of the past.

Greta Brown.