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8-10-2015, 08:32

Reconsidering Modern Perceptions of Ancient Egyptian Afterlives

A widespread external view accuses the ancient Egyptians of being obsessed with death, perhaps under the impact of the largest pyramids and of the intense modern focus on ancient embalming techniques. Egyptological and nationalist responses emphasize how care for an afterlife reflects a deep love of this life and discuss how grand building projects might have unified the country. Against these rather abstract debates, medieval and early modern Arabic and European travelogues can be useful in reconsidering how central such monuments were in life. Most early second-millennium AD visitors to Cairo either never visited the pyramids or encountered them only at the margin of their stay. The same travelers spend varying, but rarely dominant, amounts of time at the equally extraordinary medieval cemeteries. Death is a part, but not a frame, of this Egypt. We might use our imagination to reconstruct, then, not only the original splendors of tomb architecture but first and foremost life in the city, town, and village - not excluding the burials or funerals that take place in all lives. Egyptian archaeology began with urgent tasks of clearing, recording, and maintaining monumental architecture, without ever finding all the resources needed for the scale of either the ancient or the medieval city, or less spectacular graveyards. As a result, we tend to reproduce a picture of this past as monumental tomb and temple (Wendrich 2010, 1-14). In other countries, the reverse general focus may apply; our religious and funerary Egypt contrasts with our economic and urban Iraq or Syria, despite excavation of spectacular tombs and temples there.

The past twenty-five years have brought more publications from settlement excavations in Egypt, allowing new approaches. This shift in fieldwork helps to redress the balance between settlement archaeology and monument preservation. Both branches of fieldwork are needed, but their practitioners have to compete for resources, and as a result, they can become polarized. In the process, the funerary may be lost from the immediate horizon of settlement archaeology, where excavators prioritize knowledge of domestic and working life. Few well-documented excavations publish both a town and its adjacent or internal cemetery, the main examples being at the margins or outside the valley (Abu, Hutwaret, Balat). The resulting tombless town corresponds to a blind spot in the society ofthe excavator: modern consumerism seems the anthropological and historical oddity, in insisting relentlessly on removing death from sight. Life includes burial of the dead by the living.

In sum, the record remains very partial, not only through survival but also through fieldwork strategy, leaving us far from answers to questions, such as: where were most people buried? If most larger cities stood on high ground within the floodplain fields, all but the richest burials might be expected on available high ground nearby. In the few such cemeteries to survive, as at Hutnennesut (Ihnasya), the bodies have rotted away, and the architecture too has decayed in the damp of the river valley. Numerically overshadowing the low desert monumental tomb complexes of Waset and Mennefer, the floodplain island cemetery evokes a very different landscape of eternity, where bodies are closer to the Nile (cf. Figure 1.4). The contrast desert valley gives a sharper edge here to the struggles for an afterlife. Even the burials of kings include unexpected choices. Certainly, the most famous kingship cemeteries of third and second millennia are safely in the nearest high desert (Giza pyramid plateau, the Valley of the Kings at Thebes). However, 1900-1800 Bc pyramid burial chambers are very deep cut, and after 1000 BC, tombs of kings are in lower-lying temple precincts. Instead of an overfamiliar tale of Osiris, this history of human life may bring a series of surprises.