Prehistoric Burials in Ancient Egypt Paleolithic Burials

The oldest known skeleton in Ancient Egypt was discovered in a burial site referred to as Taramsa 1, close to the Temple of Hathor at Dendera. The body of an “anatomically modern” child was found which was dated to around 55,000 years ago (Pleistocene Age). The body was seated, with its legs bending to the left, leaning backwards in an east-west orientation. The head was looking up to the east, the left arm resting on the pelvis, and the right arm was behind the back. Although numerous blades, shards and flakes were also found in the grave, they are not thought to be burial gifts.

Nazlet Khater (an Upper Paleolithic site near Tahata in Upper Egypt) is the site of the oldest known underground mine in Ancient Egypt. Close to the mine archaeologists discovered two graves tentatively dated to 30,000 – 35,000 B.C. One grave was in a very poor state, but in the other the body was clearly placed on its back, knees bent, head tilted to face the west. The left arm rested on the pelvis, the right stretched along the body. A bifacially shaped axe had been carefully placed at the bottom of the grave close to the head.

Richard Mortel, CC BY 2.0  via Wikimedia Commons
Nazlet Khater skeleton, Richard Mortel, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Qadan burials dating to between 14,000 and 12,000 B.C. (late Paleolithic) have been excavated at Gebel Sahaba (near Wadi Halfa in Lower Nubia). Bodies, a large number of which showed signs of violence and many of whom were buried in mass graves, were semi-contracted (where the body is placed in a fetal position) on their left sides with heads facing east. They were interred in pits covered with large sandstone slabs. Near contemporary burials at Wadi Tuskka (north of Abu Simbel) were marked by the placement of cattle skulls.

Neolithic Burials

The Quarian people lived in the high ground overlooking Proto-Moeris (dating to around 7050 BC). A single burial of a woman has been discovered in this location. The body was in a partially contracted position on the left side, head oriented south and facing east. Her left hand was under her head, her right covering her face. She was not buried with any grave goods.

In the Neolithic period, contracted burials in a shallow oval pit within the boundaries of settlements were common in both the Merimde and el-Omari cultures of Lower Egypt. Although the low number of burials, in particular of adult males, may suggest that there may have been cemeteries lying outwith the settlements which have not been discovered.

While the Merimde burials did not usually include grave goods, the el-Omari burials often included a single pot. This contrasts with the sophistication of Badarian (Middle Egyptian circa 4400 to 4000 BC) graves which display the first signs of ceremonial burial.

Badari grave goods

Three cemeteries were discovered close to Gebel Ramlah (north-west of Gebel Playa) where numerous late Neolithic peoples were buried in undisturbed graves. Dated to around 4600 to 4300 BC there were both individual and multiple burials, possibly representing family burials. Bodies were flexed and laid on their right sides, heads to the west facing south with hands positioned in front of their faces.

There were many grave goods included in burials, most notably jewellery (formed from a wide variety of materials including carnelian, shell, agate, chalcedony, hematite, and limestone), flint and agate arrowheads, blades and flakes, bone daggers, granite palettes, bone needles, calciform pottery (including some black topped pots), and cattle horns containing pigments. There was evidence that teeth were repositioned after death, and that a post mortem fracture was “fixed” by the placement of bracelets around the fracture site, suggesting a desire to preserve the body after death

Badari figurine
Badari figurine

Bodies were placed in contracted positions on the left side of a shallow oval grave, with the head to the south of the grave and facing the west. Bodies were sometimes clothed in linen and animal furs, and bodies were sometimes wrapped in, or placed on, reed matting. Although the Badarian burials generally included few grave goods, there was often one pot and sometimes pieces of jewellery (formed from shells, bone, beads, or ivory), cosmetic palettes, and chert tools.

The items included in the burial and the orientation of the body may offer clues regarding the social status of the deceased and the conceptions of death and rebirth held by the culture. There is clear evidence of social stratification in the wealth of grave goods, and some evidence that social status determined the placement of the grave site.

Traditionally, it had been argued that during the Prehistoric Period bodies dried out naturally when they were buried in the hot sand of the desert. The molding of the body with linen soaked in resin is viewed as an early stage in the development of mummification, but firm evidence for this first appears in the Old Kingdom. However, in 2014 Jones et al presented evidence of the use of resins in burials from the earliest recorded ancient Egyptian cemeteries at Mostagedda in the Badari region, suggesting that even at this early stage, Egyptians were experimenting with the preservation of the dead.

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Copyright J Hill 2016