Burial sites excavated by archaeologists can provide vast amounts of information regarding how people may have lived. For example, one can observe the fashions worn by the deceased and sometimes their friends and family.
When studying elaborate grave goods and tomb layouts, the social status and wealth of the living, before their death, is sometimes illustrated. Offerings made to the dead, for example, food or drinks provide information regarding the diet of the deceased whilst they had been alive.
Sometimes miniature model replica’s of homes, gardens, bakers, brewers, artisans and herders were placed inside burials, which can suggest the career the deceased may have had in life and the technology that was used to accomplish their trade. Fortunately for archaeologists, hieroglyphic and other scripts for example, Coptic and Hieratic were written on walls, coffins and other grave goods, which sometimes lists the expenses, hopes and dreams, famines, wars or social status the deceased may have encountered in his or her life.
However, one cannot gain complete knowledge of the daily life of the deceased because archaeologists can only assume through their analysis of burials what the deceased had done in their lives. Therefore, this article will focus on wealth in order to gain understanding of the position and social status of the dead and it will provide evidence of the foods people ate in life, due to the food and drink given as an offering to the deceased.
This article will examine fashion to ascertain the possible wealth and status of the deceased and will provide evidence of daily life by observing texts within tombs. The health problems the deceased had in life will be analysed by studying skeletal remains of early state civilizations and skeletal remains from the burials at Bahrain. Furthermore, this article will suggest how the dead had lived by studying varying civilizations and their trade networks from Egypt and Bahrain, the Aztec and Maya as well as the Sumerian people buried at the royal Cemetery at Ur.
The early state civilizations of the world were vibrant and wealthy in respect to burial practices and the offerings contained within them. The Egyptians, Sumerians, Maya, Aztec and people from Bahrain were from early state civilizations that had great wealth and power, which one can observe by studying burials and the offerings in them. Social status and rank were important in early civilizations because they helped to regulate and unify the lives of the people that lived within them. Each of the latter civilizations varied in their religious beliefs and burial practices. However, after researching the skeletal remains, artefacts and offerings made within the graves of the deceased, one can gain recognition and an understanding of the lives the dead and their society’s people.
The ancient Egyptians had an immense love for life that compelled them to go to great lengths of preparation for death, which they believed would ensure their lives continued in the Field of Reeds [heaven] (Teeter & Brewer 2008: 169-89). Egyptian burial practises provide an insight in to the lives of the ancient Egyptian people. For example, warfare (Robins 2000: 95, 160), social status ,wealth, hopes and dreams, professions (Robins 2000: 83), technology, trade goods, alliances and kin or marital relationships. Furthermore, letters to the dead give insight in to the necessities of life (Brewer & Teeter 2008: 106-7).
Several letters that were written in the Eleventh and Twelfth Dynasties provide examples of people requesting medical cures, help with fertility, aid against rivals and help with legal situations, for instance, marital disputes or claims for land and territory (Brewer & Teeter 2008: 107). Evidence of misfortune and depression is inscribed in a Twenty-First Dynasty tomb of a widower’s wife. For example, the widower writes his complaints of hardship, which he believes is the fault of his deceased wife, whom he had nursed while she suffered a fatal illness (Brewer & Teeter 2008: 108). Spell number one hundred and twenty-five in The Book of the Dead (Robins 2000: 182; Coffin & Stacey 2005: 108; Egyptian Book of the Dead no date: online; Budge 1895: online), provides evidence of homosexuality.
Negative confessions were believed to be recited at one of the twelve gates of the twelve hours of the night and, due to stating the words ‘I have not practised homosexuality,’ it suggest homosexuality was a possibly familiar in ancient Egypt (Teeter & Brewer 2008: 112).
Dress style appears to have been important in Egyptian life (Booth 2005: 16-7; Brewer & Teeter 2008: 116). For example, depictions of women wearing tight fitting sheath style dresses were discovered in the Sixth Dynasty, Old kingdom mastaba (Roth 1993: 41) of Mereruka at Saqqara (Brewer & Teeter 2008: 116-7). However, Brewer and Teeter (2008: 116-7) suggest, tight dresses would have been impractical. Therefore, it is more likely they represented the Egyptians idealized view of how the female body should be represented in life with an emphasis on sensual female appearances (Brewer & Teeter 2008: 116-7).
Evidence of male fashions are illustrated on tomb reliefs (Booth 2005: 16) that provide detail of rank, wealth and social status (Brewer & Teeter 2008: 118; Davies 2004: 11). For example, depicted on the wall of Mereruka, a man is wearing a kilt with triangular panelled pleats that sat above the knee and he is holding a staff, which indicates his high status (Brewer & Teeter 2008: 118).
Tomb reliefs from the twenty-Sixth Dynasty provide evidence of board games, which could be played by several people in a social setting (McIntosh & Twist 2003: 145; Brewer & Teeter 2008: 120-1). Furthermore, Eighteenth Dynasty tombs provide evidence of another popular board game called senet, which suggests recreational activities were enjoyed (Brewer & Teeter 2008: 121). Banquets and feasting were popular forms of leisure and social activities (Brewer & Teeter 2008: 121). For example, tomb paintings provide evidence of people socializing while drinking beer and wine and eating bread, leak, onion, garlic, beans, peas, lentils, melons, fish (Robins 2000: 104, 127, 220) and fowl (Brewer & Teeter 2008: 121).
Drunkenness (Wengrow 2006: 96; Spencer 2003: 65) appears to have been prevalent. The Nineteenth Dynasty tomb of Neferhotep at Luxor, illustrates a noble woman vomiting after consuming too much beer (Wengrow 2006: 96; Spencer 2003: 65).
Music was played during banquets, festivals or other social occasions (Brewer & Teeter 2008: 124). The tomb of Kheruef at Luxor provides evidence of musicians entertaining people while at a feast (Brewer & Teeter 2008: 124). Furthermore, Egyptian tomb reliefs provide evidence of industry (Scarre & Fagan 2003: 142), which illustrates the professional lives of the ancient Egyptians (Brewer & “Teeter 2008 144). The Eighteenth Dynasty tomb of Rekhmire depicts the requirements needed for bricking making (Brewer & Teeter 2008: 144).
Clay and wooden models (Scarre & Fagan 2003: 130; Robins 1997: 73, 105; Brewer & Teeter 2008 192-3; McIntosh & Twist 2003: 87) regularly replicate life and industry in miniature versions that provide detailed evidence of how and where people lived. For example, ‘soul houses’ [offering trays] have been discovered in copious tombs. They illustrate the architecture, and style of houses most common people probably lived in (Brewer & Teeter 2008: 148-50).
Further evidence of how people lived is illustrated in the tomb of Djehutynefer during the eighteenth Dynasty at Thebes (Brewer & Teeter 2008: 155). The tomb relief depicts a three-story house with people living in it that were possible related to the one family unit (Brewer & Teeter 2008: 155). The main reception and family rooms were located on the top and bottom floors. Weavers wove in the basement and circular granaries appear to have been located on the roof, which provides evidence of the residential lifestyle and architecture of ancient Egyptians (Brewer & Teeter 2008: 155) homes.
Bahrain consists of a series of small islands off the east coast of Saudi Arabia in the Arabian Gulf (Littleton 2007: 176-7). Suggested from the analysis of a small number of tombs, which incorporated a far greater proportion of costly artefacts, the people of Bahrain lived a lifestyle where social classes were differentiated into elites and commoners (Littleton 2007: 176-8).
Mummies and skeletal remains provide evidence of illness and mortality rates of the deceased (David 1993: 65; Taylor 1996: 97-105; Baker, Dupras and Tocheri 2005: 3-28; Janssen 2006: 5; Renfrew & Bahn 2004: 67, 454; Scarre 2005: 377; Davies 2003: 23) at Bahrain and other civilizations. Judith Littleton (2007: 186-9) argues the skeletal specimens from some of the Bahrain burial mounds have indicated health was relatively poor and malaria was prevalent, due to the high incidence of rickets occurring in the Hellenistic infant burials. Furthermore, there appears to have been a high incidence of anaemia in the female skeletal remains, rather than the male, which suggests women were not consuming as much iron in their diets as men (Cohen & Crane-Kramer 2007: 187).
North American burials provide evidence of both the Maya and Aztec populations practising human sacrifice, warfare and utilizing a highly complex calendrical system (Scarre & Fagan 2003: 452; Townsend 2003: 71-2, 116, 127, 130; Coe & Koontz 2005: 11, 62, 78, 93, 135, 180; McIntosh & Twist 2003: 206; Coe 1999: 7, 59-63, 95, 101, 108, 130-5, 180). However, in the case of the Maya, the acts of human sacrifice and warfare were not recognized until the Maya hieroglyph was deciphered (Coe 1999: 193-217). It is now evident that tomb walls often depict blood sacrifice, which appears to have been a daily requirement in the lives of nobility and commoners. Tomb scenes often depict nobility running sting ray spines through their ears, calves and tongue.
According to Lynn Meskell and Rosemary Joyce (2003: 138-9), the Maya usually buried their dead under the floors of areas of social activities and gatherings. Classic Maya burials excavated at Rio Azul in Guatemala, provide evidence of the bodies being laid out on built in benches that replicate areas the living sat in during the day. Pottery was usually offered to the dead and occasionally food remnants inside the pottery vessels have left residue within them, which provides evidence of the Maya’ diet (Meskell & Joyce 2003: 138-9). For example, chocolate was made from the cacao bean and has been known to leave residue in some pottery vessels (Meskell & Joyce 2003: 138-9). However, Maya texts suggest chocolate was not offered to the lower classes, due to its high value (Meskell & Joyce 2003: 189-9). Therefore, one can assume when cacao is found in burial offerings, it suggests the deceased lived a life of high status and wealth.
Due, to minimal surviving or known burials of the Aztec people, only limited information regarding daily life can be ascertained from their burial practises (Halstead 1924: 257). Some evidence does exist, for example, information regarding industry and technology is evident. Burials in the Aztec ruin suggest masonry was practiced in building and construction techniques. In addition, plaster was used in making the layers of the floor above burial pits, and sandstone blocks were carved and placed around the burials.
Therefore, one can suggest the Aztec people had knowledge and capabilities concerning building techniques (Halstead 1924: 257). While there is no evidence of the Aztec using a pottery wheel, there is evidence of using pottery vessels as funerary offerings (Halstead 1924: 214-19), which provides evidence of pottery production and use. The pottery does not provide evidence of who made the vessels or how often they were used in life. The most commonly styled pottery vessels found in tombs appears to be shaped like a jug with no lip and black and white patterns (Halstead 1924: 214-19) decorated on it.
Burial 27 contained a skeletal specimen of a young girl that appears to have died from severe injuries to the hip and arm (Halstead 1924: 214-19), which were possibly caused from falling from a tremendous height. Wooden splints were strapped to her arm in an attempt to repair the broken bones; however, the girl appears to have died before the wound was healed (Halstead 1924: 214-19). Therefore, it is impossible to determine whether the wooden splints would have been affective in healing the bones correctly. Yet, the attempts made on repairing her arm suggest the Aztec people practised a primitive form of surgery, which implies to some degree that people cared for each other or at least attempted to do so (Halstead 1924: 214-19).
During excavations conducted by Saburo Sugiyama at the Aztec Pyramid of the Moon, in Teotihuacan, trade links between the Maya and Aztec nobility were observed (Science News 29 October 2002: online). For example, jade artefacts carved in the Maya style were recovered from the burials (Science News 29 October 2002: online). The jade artefacts are considered to have been symbols of royalty, which suggests there were marriage alliances and extensive trade network agreements occurring between the Maya and Aztec ruling classes (Science News 29 October 2002: online). The latter theory is supported by the fact jade was a high status material that was not found in the Aztec territories (Science News 29 October 2002: online). Furthermore, the closest site for obtaining jade was located in the Mayan territory of Motagua Valley in Guatemala (Science News 29 October 2002: online).
Ur: Sumerian Burials
The royal tombs in the cemetery at Ur provide evidence of Sumerian people and their social status (Coffin & Stacey 2005: 23-4; Scarre & Fagan 2003: 14-16; McIntosh & Twist 2003: 49; Scarre 2005: 444-6; Renfrew & Bahn 2006: 317, 420). According to Jane McIntosh and Clint Twist (2003: 49), there were more than two thousand people buried in the Royal Cemetery at Ur. However, only sixteen of the burials were of royal personage (Helstad no date: online). Each of the royal graves contained sacrificial victims, ranging from six to eighty people in each burial (Helstad no date: online; Irving & Ambers 2002: 206). However, according to Helstad (no date: online), the sacrificial victims displayed no signs of a violent death. Therefore, due to the cups found next to each victim, it is suggested that the victims drank poison willingly in order to accompany their master into the otherworld (Helstad no date: online). The graves provide evidence of a ruling class that were possibly royalty, furthermore, the suggestion of willingly sacrificing ones self indicates the ruling class may have been dearly loved by their attendants and servants in life.
The kings were generally buried at lower levels of the tombs than their attendants were (Helstad no date: online), which provides evidence of social status in the Sumerian early Dynastic III period. Many of the attendants were buried with amour, weapons and lavish jewellery, which indicates the attendants were not slaves. Furthermore, the weaponry and amour suggest a warrior class of people lived at Sumer. Leonard Woolley excavated the graves of solders, which provides evidence of armies, therefore there may have been warfare and battles fought by the army (Helstad no date: online).
Playing or listening to music is apparent in the lives of the Sumerians. For example, according to Helstad (no date: online), the harp or lyre was found in many of the tombs, which provides evidence of musical talent or appreciation. The most lavish and spectacular grave at Ur, according to Scarre and Fagan (2003: 88), was that of Pu-abi. She is believed to have been of the ruling class or a high court official, due to the exuberance and wealth of her burial (Scarre & Fagan 2003: 89). Her tomb was built of stone and sealed with a stone vault (Scarre & Fagan 2003: 89), which indicates skills were developed in the art of masonry. Her body was laid on a wooden bier and was dressed in a lavish cloak of carnelian beads, lapis
Moreover, gold (Scarre & Fagan 2003: 89). Her head had a wig placed on it and she was adorned with a gold headband (Scarre & Fagan 2003: 89). Three female sacrificial attendants accompanied her; however, her death pit, which was adjacent to her burial chamber, contained the larger grave artefacts (Scarre & Fagan 2003: 89). Inside the death pit was an extremely large clothes chest and a sledge chariot, which was decorated in a mosaic of red, white and blue, and pulled by two sacrificial oxen (Scarre & Fagan 2003: 89). The oxen’s skeletons lay next to the chariot and were accompanied by four male attendants, furthermore guarding the entrance to the death pit were five guards that had copper daggers at their waists (Scarre & Fagan 2003: 89). Thirteen female attendants were laid out in two rows in the annex to the death pit (Scarre & Fagan 2003:89). Pu-abi’s burial indicates she was of a very high status, and possibly well respected and cared for, due to the amount of sacrificial victims who were willing to give their lives for in order to accompany her into the otherworld.
In conclusion, this article has provided evidence that the Egyptian, Bahrain, Maya, Aztec and Sumerian people lived in hierarchical societies and social status was important. It has shown that many of the people were literate and that they had trade networks, which were created possibly by marriage alliances. This essay has shown that grave goods can provide details of what people ate and drank, and clothing fashions help to define status. Moreover, one has shown the kinds of illnesses and injuries that existed in early states. Furthermore, evidence of sacrificial victims, willing or not, suggests the importance, social status, and power of the deceased. Evidence of the fears, hopes and dreams of the living and dead has been provided from texts within the burials. Lastly, architecture used in building wooden and clay models provided evidence of the technology and skills required in life for the surviving members of the deceased’s family, friends, slaves or attendants.
Header Image : Wall Fragment from the Tomb of Amenemhet and His Wife Hemet. WikiPedia
Written by : Jasmyne PenDragon
HeritageDaily : Archaeology News : Archaeology Magazine
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