Perception of Non-Elites

This exhibit explores the ways in which the common people of ancient Egypt and Greece were represented through burials. Burials of royalty and elites in ancient societies often contained monuments, statues, steles, and a plethora of grave goods- all of which help provide insight into the perception of elites. Non-elite burials usually contain far fewer grave goods and many lack markers or statues of some sort. However, looking at the similarities and differences in various burials shows what was important in the non-elite funerary culture and if it differed from the culture of the elites.

In Ancient Egypt, most of the burial sites were located away from cities. There was also segregation between elite and non-elite cemeteries. Predynastic cemetery HK-43 consists of about 452 graves containing an estimated 500 bodies[i]. Located south of Hierakonpolis in the desert, these graves were dug in a variety of shapes, circular, oval, and rectangular, and organized in various patterns. Though many of the graves were organized in a linear fashion, the graves in the southern part of the cemetery were arranged in large, densely packed circles around an empty central space. It is most likely the organization pertained to related family members of all ages and both sexes- further DNA testing will help confirm that hypothesis[ii]. All the bodies were laid on their left side, facing west (the direction of the underworld), in a contracted position, and covered or wrapped in reed mats.

Reed mats in grave Source: Marshall, Chris. “Meeting Matty.” Nekhen News. 2003. Print, 17.

There was an abundance of mats used to wrap the bodies in burials. It is most likely that there was a large market for funerary mats since the non-elites could not afford coffins[iii].  Many of the bodies were accompanied by a couple pieces of pottery dating from Naqada II. The scant amount of pottery found in many of the graves indicated that the inhabitants were relatively impoverished and most likely the working class of Hierakonpolis[iv]. The pottery in the graves contained beer and bread. Sometimes there were ashy remains indicating a funerary feast- the ancient Egyptians believed the dead need sustenance for the afterlife. Additionally cuts in the mats and arrangement of the spines indicated grave robbers had stolen objects that were hung around the deceased’s neck- it is possible the object was a pendant or amulet[v]. Many of the discovered bodies showed lacerations high up on the neck- some cuts were severe enough to imply decapitation. However extreme the injuries, the bodies were always buried with the head in place. Since the ancient Egyptians believed in reincarnation and an afterlife, a whole body was important for burial. This is also evident in elite burials where tombs would sometimes contain reserve heads[vi].

Burial 333 in cemetery HK43 provided further insight to the funerary culture of the non-elite Egyptians. In a cemetery of relatively scarce grave goods, this woman was buried with four pots, an elaborate palette, and a basket filled with goods unique to the grave. There were various amulets and pendants, tools for the cosmetic palette, game pieces, a bag containing potpourri, and flint blades. It was also unique that the woman, in her 40s-50s was buried with a pillow under her head- much more effort had been put into her burial. Archaeologists presume that the basket was a type of medical kit and the woman was most likely a witch doctor or wise woman[vii]. There is also the possibility that she was a hairdresser because of Mohawk hairstyle that was still preserved[viii].

Mohawk hairstyle of B333 Source: Friedman, Renee. “A Basket of Delights: The 2003 Excavations at HK43.” Academia: 2003.

However the orientation of the graves around this woman is notable- there are many children’s graves oriented around hers. It is possible that she provided a type of protection for them in the afterlife.

In Ancient Greece, the graves were not always exclusive of the settlements. There were fifteen burials dating from late Helladic III (1090-1060 BC) discovered in Lefkandi. These burials were interesting in that they were buried inside the settlement and the number of children outnumbered the adults. Many of the graves were located under buildings.

Plan of excavated buildings at Lefkandi with burials indicated by number Source: Musgrave “The Late Helladic IIIC Intramural Burials at Lefkandi, Euboea” Print, 1991.

Analysis of the bones showed most of the individuals had succumbed to death because of disease or malnutrition, indicating a low standard of living[ix]. The bodies were also poorly preserved and the earth had crushed many of the bones. Even with the limited amount of preserved bones, there was enough evidence to show pathological lesions- the community was not healthy and had a low quality of life. Interestingly enough though, oral hygiene was better considering the implied overall hygiene of the bodies[x]. Comparing the ages of the individuals indicated a peak in deaths at birth and between two and three years old. Scholars presume after the children were weaned, they received poor nutrition and thus easily succumbed to a variety of diseases [xi]. The location of the burials can also indicate how the Greeks were not as concerned with contamination from the dead, especially children. The lack of burial goods also shows how funerary culture for non-elites was not as focused on the afterlife. There were three burials that did contain burial offerings indicating the impoverished still did believe in an idea of an afterlife for the deceased[xii].

Though it is risky to make generalizations and compare two burials sites from two completely different periods, it seems the ancient Egyptians were more focused on the afterlife while ancient Greeks tried to individually and uniquely represent the dead. In the case of lower classes however, it was much harder for the people to afford the goods to have a burial similar to those of the elites. Especially in ancient Greece, the non-elites like those in Lefkandi were not able to afford burial goods and depictions, such as stele or monuments. However the grave goods, even when scarce, indicate that both societies believed in the importance of an afterlife. Since it did cost money for elaborate burials, it seems it was much easier for elites to represent themselves in specific ways while non-elites could not even afford some of the basic burials goods.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[i] Renee F. Friedman, Amy Maish, Fahmy G. Ahmed, John C. Darnell, and Edward D. Johnson, “Preliminary Report on Field Work at Hierakonpolis: 1996-1998,” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, 36 (1999): 1-35, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40000200 (accessed April 28, 2013).

[ii]Friedman. “Preliminary Report on Field Work at Hierakonpolis: 1996-1998,” 5.

[iii] Friedman. “Preliminary Report on Field Work at Hierakonpolis: 1996-1998,” 10.

[iv] Friedman. “Preliminary Report on Field Work at Hierakonpolis: 1996-1998,” 8.

[v] Friedman. “Preliminary Report on Field Work at Hierakonpolis: 1996-1998,” 12.

[vi] N.B. Millet, “The Reserve Heads of the Old Kingdom.” Studies in Ancient Egypt, The Aegean, and Sudan. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1981): 129-131. http://www.gizapyramids.org/pdf library/millet_fs_dunham.pdf.

[vii] Renee Friedman, “A Basket of Delights: The 2003 Excavations at HK43,” Nekhen News, 15 (2003): 18-19.

[viii] Friedman. “A Basket of Delights: The 2003 Excavations at HK43,” 19.

[ix] Jonathan H. Musgrave, and M.R. Popham, “The Late Helladic IIIC Intramural Burials at Lefkandi, Euboea,” The Annual of the British School at Athens, 86 (1991): 273-296.

[x] Musgrave. “The Late Helladic IIIC Intramural Burials at Lefkandi, Euboea,” 289.

[xi] Musgrave. “The Late Helladic IIIC Intramural Burials at Lefkandi, Euboea,” 287.

[xii] Musgrave. “The Late Helladic IIIC Intramural Burials at Lefkandi, Euboea,” 284.

 

 

 

Bibliography:

Friedman, Renee. “A Basket of Delights: The 2003 Excavations at HK43.” Nekhen News. 15. (2003): 18-19.

Friedman, Renee F. , Amy Maish, Fahmy G. Ahmed, John C. Darnell, and Edward D. Johnson. “Preliminary Report on Field Work at Hierakonpolis: 1996-1998.” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt. 36. (1999): 1-35. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40000200 (accessed April 28, 2013).

Millet, N.B. “The Reserve Heads of the Old Kingdom.” Studies in Ancient Egypt, The Aegean, and Sudan. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1981): 129-131. http://www.gizapyramids.org/pdf library/millet_fs_dunham.pdf.

Musgrave, Jonathan H., and M.R. Popham. “The Late Helladic IIIC Intramural Burials at Lefkandi, Euboea.” The Annual of the British School at Athens. 86. (1991): 273-296.