BMCR 2004.01.10

Burial Customs in Ancient Egypt: Life in Death for Rich and Poor

Wolfram Grajetzki, Burial Customs in Ancient Egypt : Life in Death for Rich and Poor. Duckworth Egyptology. London: Duckworth, 2003. viii, 165 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0715632175 $21.95 (pb).

Recently ancient Egypt has once again seized popular imagination, and a fresh slew of books concerning the manner of death and its accompanying rituals have consequently been produced, of which Wolfram Grajetzki’s is the most recent. The book is divided into eleven chapters and is organized chronologically so that the evolution of burial customs can be traced from the late Predynastic Period through the early Roman domination of Egypt. Unlike many recent popular works this book has endnotes, as well as additional end matter in the form of a brief chronology, a glossary, and suggested further readings.

After a brief preface, the author devotes a short chapter to the pre-unification period of Egyptian history, followed by a section on the Early Dynastic. The Old Kingdom is divided over two chapters, the first taking the reader through the Fourth Dynasty and the age of great pyramids, and the second dealing with the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties, and continuing on through the middle of the Middle Kingdom into the late Twelfth Dynasty. This fifth chapter is perhaps the longest in the book, and one of the best crafted and most informative. The discussion of the First Intermediate Period is excellent. Chapter six is a shorter chapter that brings the Middle Kingdom to a close, and continues on through the Second Intermediate Period. The following chapter deals exclusively with the Eighteenth Dynasty, succeeded by a chapter that covers the end of the New Kingdom. The Eighteenth Dynasty chapter (6) contains a very nice section on Nubian burials. Chapter Eight deals with the Third Intermediate Period, followed by a longer chapter on the Late and Persian periods. The tenth chapter covers Egypt under the Ptolomies, and the eleventh and final chapter gives a brief overview of Roman Egypt. The book is extensively and exclusively illustrated by line drawings.

The title of this book sets it out to be an ambitious work, promising to cover all aspects of funerary customs for all classes of ancient Egypt. This would include death, mummification, funerals, tombs, and tomb equipment. It is very clear that the author is more than able to do this, however, not as well as he might, given the length of the book. Overall, the book is well-written, easy to follow, and is a good basic introduction to burials in ancient Egypt. It is very clear that the author is well versed with funerary archaeology of all periods. However, given the title of this work, the reader might expect something a bit longer and meatier. It is unfortunate that the publishers have decided to skimp on length, for parts of some chapters read as lists rather than discussions. Burial customs are never properly explained, although sporadically mentioned in some of the chapters, giving the reader no clear picture as to what was happening at any particular time. Granted, Egyptologists themselves are unsure themselves of the precise developments in funerary beliefs, but for an introductory text a clearer presentation (even admitting ignorance) would be beneficial. Mummification and changes in technology/belief are not really discussed. Although the author tries to do otherwise, in the end poorer graves get short shrift, as they generally do in all Egyptological literature. One of the reasons for this is that one can only say a limited amount about graves that have few burial goods and simple architecture, as the reasons for this are generally the same, regardless of the time period. However, Grajetzki does make some interesting comments about possible overall changes in belief that might have effected burial practices and made them simpler at certain periods (First Intermediate Period, Middle Kingdom, Late New Kingdom). It is clear that the author is compressing his considerable knowledge into brief packets without having the opportunity to provide sufficient analysis.

There are only a few very minor points that this reader would quibble with. The first appears in the preface, where the author states that Egyptologists believe that the poor had no grave goods. This might have been true some decades ago, but is certainly not true today. The evidence suggests that regardless of one’s rank or wealth, an individual would try to provision his/her tomb to the best of his/her abilities, whether this involved gold or faience or shells or ceramic. Even the humblest person could include something to take into the hereafter. Other trivial points one might disagree with, or comment upon, are ignoring the Seila pyramid as one of Snefru’s possible constructions (p. 18), the discussion of the reserve heads (p. 18-19) which ignores their mutilation, and the discussion of child burials which leaves out the sub-floor burials at Abydos (p. 53).

The book is abundantly illustrated with line drawings, most of which are drawn by the author. This makes quite a change from the general trend today of a multitude of photographs and very few drawings. However, one or two photographs of intact burial chambers would not have gone amiss. The line drawings are good, and in some cases very fine, but it is regrettable that they are often reproduced at such a small scale that they become unclear (e.g. Figs. 17, 20, 43, 71, 112) to the uninitiated.

While the other recent books on Egyptian mortuary beliefs and customs ( Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt by John Taylor, and Death and Burial in Ancient Egypt by Salima Ikram) tend to look at funerary traditions in a thematic way, Grajetzki carries out a chronological study with an emphasis on the different classes. What makes his book unique is not only this different social perspective, but also the examples that he uses to illustrate his points. In addition to mentioning the more conventional tombs found in other books, Grajetzki includes less usual tomb groups and burials (e.g. Sep, p. 49). The inclusion of Nubian traditions is also unusual and useful, and serves to make readers aware of the rich culture that flourished together with that of the ancient Egyptians in the Nile Valley. The First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom sections are also excellent, and, especially in the case of the former, shed some light on an obscure period of Egyptian history. These elements, together with the numerous illustrations makes Burial Customs in Ancient Egypt an extremely useful source for both amateurs and professionals, and reminds readers of the rich diversity of intact burials from ancient Egypt.