Greater Manchester Humanist Group Meeting Report. BOB PARTRIDGE AND VICTOR BLUNDEN OF THE MANCHESTER ANCIENT EGYPT STUDIES SOCIETY. May 14th 1997. Friends Meeting House, Mount Street Manchester.
Manchester Science Museum has one of the country’s finest collections of ancient Egyptian artifacts and mummies, so it is no surprise that we also have an excellent Society dedicated to promoting knowledge of life in ancient Egypt. Our guest speakers provided commentary on a stunning slide show, that brought this exciting period of history to life for us. Bob Partridge spoke first, giving us an insight into the development of Egyptian burial and funeral customs. The time scale covered was staggering. Egyptian society flourished in a series of economic and social peaks and troughs, for over 3,000 years, culminating with the death of Cleopatra and Roman domination.
The first slides showed human corpses discovered from an early period when burial involved no more than interring the body in the ground and shoving sand and earth over it, (and possibly a erecting modest cairn of stones over the graves. Many such bodies were desiccated by purely natural means. The sand below surface ground level stays cold and preserved bodies, which were often buried quickly after death had taken place. It may have been that in noticing such states of preservation themselves, many Egyptians began to examine and experiment with the processes of preserving the bodies in states closely approximating the live human form.
Early coffins were large heavy earthenware jars and for wealthier citizens, wooden crates, often painted ornately. At first the bodies would be folded and crumpled up in a pattern resembling the foetal position, but in time, the coffins grew longer and the bodies were laid out flat. Wealthier people had tombs while those not so well off were laid to rest in the ground in the coffins. This provides another clue as to why Egyptians took an interest in preserving the corpses. Coffin manufacture, especially of customised sarcophagi for wealthier customers, took time. The body often had to be kept presentable for days, weeks or even months while funeral preparations were conducted. Bodies were encased in plaster, and bandage wrapped, in order to exclude air that could swell, bloat and even explode a corpse. Bandage wrapping developed in time to a fine art, and modern nursing techniques of bandaging owes a debt to the Egyptian practitioners. No one, however was deluded that this would preserve the corpse for all eternity. The bodies would rot away within, leaving the casings and bandagings intact. Many such body casings have been found with the faces of the deceased painted with extraordinary attention to detail, precision and realism, onto the plaster and bandage body casings. In many tombs life sized painted statues of the deceased were also found. Towards the close of this exciting chapter of history, the paintings and statues begin to show Roman and Greek artistic influences too. Many of the tomb robbers who desecrated these graves looking for easy plunder took the painted faces and statues but failed to consider the value to historians and archaeologists of later years of the corpses and coffins themselves. These were often opened and vandalised beyond repair. The bodies would then quickly rot away once exposed to the hot desert heat. On the Major tomb burials always took place deep underground, often down as far as 90 feet. The tunnel systems leading to the burial chambers were often a torturous warren of corridors and mazes, possibly to deter ghouls and tomb robbers, who were active even when Egyptian society was at its height.
By the Middle period of their history, the mummification process grew much more complex. Linen was used the body was filed with preservative solutions. Bodily organs were removed, and sealed in jars, though the heart was always left inside the body, and may have been regarded as the source of life and reasoning ability. The brain was removed, usually by being dragged out through the nostril cavity on tweezers, and quite frequently destroyed by those so eager to preserve everything else. (A detail that delights children when the speakers address school parties on this delightfully gruesome spectacle). The process makes utter nonsense of the old Boris Karloff style marauding killer mummy movies too. (sadly). The organs removed are often found preserved in their own right in ornate jars kept close to the corpse in the tomb. The preservation of bodies was seldom perfect. The embalming agents and oils used often discoloured the skin quite drastically.
Bodies have fared badly since Egyptian Civilisation collapsed into Roman and Christian and later Islamic domination. Bodies were thrown around and vandalised by grave breakers, and undamaged bodies are rare. Once Egyptian souvenir hunting became fashionable in the late Victorian era, many bodies were further abused by those who stole heads and hands to take home as mementoes. Heads usually survive the test of time best of all.
The great pyramids at Giza have been plundered virtually empty. Tutenkhamen’s royal; tomb is of course the only one found intact. The solid gold mask is valued in millions of pounds, but the body of the boy king itself is badly decomposed. His burial rites included having the coffin and tomb covered in rich perfumes, which have with time soaked through the porous sarcophagus and severely corrupted his body.
The burial rites of the ancient Egyptians evolved slowly with much trial and error experimentation. Even at the height of the practice, with the interment of Tutenkhamen, mistakes were made.
After a quick break, Victor Blunden took over to give a complementary talk on religious ritual and beliefs in ancient Egypt, while it was Bob’s turn to operate the slide projector.
The Pharaoh was a living and all powerful incarnation of God to his peoples. The pyramids arose as his stairways to the heavens, and as Victor described the Pyramids as having been coated in white limestone to dazzle the eyes of passers by for miles around, they must of resembled ‘solidified sunlight’. (one of the most beautiful and apt descriptive terms ever used in one of our meetings as one member told me afterwards).
Contrary to popular belief the pyramids were not built by slaves conscripted to the job on pain of death, but were built predominantly by local labour teams, paid in food and by barter. It was not unlike the approach adapted by later European Cathedral builders. We tend to marvel at the pyramids as architecturally perfect monuments, but later ones in particular were often badly built. They looked good on the outside, but the inner structure quickly caved in. (cowboy builders not being as modern a phenomena as we might have expected).
Once a tomb was built, the mummified body was taken in, and food was brought in as an offering to feed the ‘Ka’ (The soul or essence of the deceased that was believed to live on). Many paintings and relief's of the period show animals being taken into the tombs but never shows them returning. They were sacrificed as soul food for the Ka’s.
In the later Egyptian period, the priesthood grew incredibly rich and politically influential. Temple annexes and centres of worship were built alongside the tombs and often matched them in size and splendour.
The bodies were buried with written instructions on how to proceed through the early stages of their afterlife. The texts of such instructions formed what is now known as The Egyptian Book Of The Dead, written to assure kings and Pharaohs that they will survive comfortably after death. Osiris, the principle god of the Underworld was originally just the God of regrowth and regeneration and crop plant fertility. His promotion was a product of increasing belief that people may be reborn in some way after death just as plants achieve.
The funeral practice was carefully conducted and followed a remarkably consistent pattern in most cases for the rich and powerful. The coffin was pulled on a sledge, and invariably by ‘four’ men. Slide after slide depicted this scenario. Internal organ jars rested on top of the coffin. Another figure carried a chair. The Chair was seen to be an important symbol of power and influence. Ordinary people, if not standing, were given benches, pews, or floors to sit on,. A throne like chair denoted respectability. This is why we now have Committee Chairpersons. A fierce dog like God called Anubis was brought along too, as a guardian for the internal organs.
At funerals, the sexes were usually segregated. Priests were usually bald, having shaved their hair purposely. Women were also employed as professional mourners. They are depicted wailing and tearing off their clothes, and revealing their breasts in their anguish. Women from the family of the deceased are similarly dressed in such pictures, but they maintain a sense of decorum and stay dressed throughout the ceremony.
Food is laid out by the coffin (later taken as stipend food to feed the priests and other dignitaries). Another common image, depicted in several slides, is the brutal mutilation of a young calf from which one leg is severed and placed in close proximity to the coffin. This is widely believed to be due to a severed limb often being seen to move because of muscle spasm reactions for up to four hours after detachment. The ebbing movement and life from the limb may have been seen by the Egyptians as transmigrating to the body in the coffin.
Once the funeral is over, the corpse is left in peace. The Ka leaves its body and begins the hazardous journey to the underworld. This perilous quest is made easier by the corpse having his Book Of The Dead with him. On route he encounters various guardian gods (some, like the Greek Cerberus, resembling multi-headed animals) and demons who challenge him with riddles and problems. He can then cheat by cribbing up on the answer in his purchased book and proceed on his way.
At journey’s end, the Ka must give a ‘negative confession before up to forty-two gods. He doesn’t admit to offences he had committed, but boasts of what he hasn’t done wrong. "Well, I never committed adultery’ he may say, or I never murdered anyone. He will keep quiet about the robberies he did commit. Once he has finished, his heart is taken to a scale and weighed against the feather of truth. If he proves to be a liar, he is promptly devoured by monsters and simply goes off to oblivion. The artwork always depicts successful journeys though. No one is seen to fail and get devoured. Such is the power of propaganda. Those who get to the Underworld are then depicted in the paintings and relief's as having a relatively easy time of it. There's some work to do, but not much. In many pictures, the citizens of the Underworld cheerfully push ploughs and do farm work in their best clothes which stay unsoiled.
There was little time for our many questions alas, but this was a rich and deeply rewarding talk, evoking images of an age and a belief system that is no more. Somehow, the burial customs of the Judao, Christian age lack colour and imagination in comparison to the Egyptian approach. I may not believe in the God of our age, but after this talk, I found myself wishing I lived in an era when there were bigger, and better gods not to believe in, instead. Religion hasn’t evolved from the age of romantic mythology. It has taken an enormous step backwards.
The Manchester Ancient Egypt Studies Society are holding a day school entitled ‘Daily Life in Ancient Egypt’ on at Platt Chapel, Manchester, on August 10th (Sunday). from 9.30 am to 4.30 pm. Both of our speakers are among the presenters there. Places are limited so hurry up and book if you wish to go. Entry costs £15.00. Further details of this event and membership details for the Society itself are available from the Society Secretary, Victor Blunden, at 12, Thornleigh Road, Fallowfield, Manchester M14 7RD before the end of July.
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