Monday, September 11, 2017

Roman Era Tombs Discovered in Egypt Reveal Diverse Trends in Burial Architecture and Grave Goods

Ancient Origins

Not all Egyptian tombs are alike. Apart from the impact of social status, there is also a difference in architectural styles and burial preferences over the long history of their existence. This can be noted in five Roman era mudbrick tombs which have been unearthed during excavation works at the Beir Al-Shaghala site in Dakhla Oasis.

 The Beir Al-Shaghala site is located near three other archaeological sites - Mut al- Kharab, Tal Markula, and Koam Beshay. The well-preserved tombs were found by an archaeological mission from the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, who have been working at the site since 2002 according to Egypt Independent.

Tombs at the Beir Al-Shaghala site, Egypt. (Ministry of Antiquities)

Head of the Ancient Egyptian Antiquities Sector Ayma Ashmawi described the differing layouts of the tombs to Egyptian Streets:

“The first one has an entrance that leads to a rectangular hall with two burial chambers; the second tomb has a domed ceiling and its entrance leads to a burial chamber, while the third one is a pyramid shaped tomb which the mission has yet succeeded to uncover its upper part. The fourth and fifth tombs are sharing one entrance and each tomb has a burial chamber with a domed ceiling.”

The vaulted ceiling in one of the tombs. (Ministry of Antiquities)

The tombs have provided a wealth of interesting artifacts. So far, Ahram Online reports archaeologists have found pottery vessels of varying shapes and sizes, a gypsum funerary mask painted yellow, a clay incense burner, and the base of a small sandstone sphinx statue.

The funerary mask found in one of the tombs. (Ministry of Antiquities)

Two ostraca (ink-inscribed shards of pottery) were also discovered - one written in hieroglyphic text and the other in hieratic. Bryan Hill explained the rise of hieratic script in a previous article for Ancient Origins. He wrote:

“Egyptian hieroglyphs are among the oldest writing systems in the world, dating back some 5,200 years […] Around 2700 BC, hieratic (meaning ‘priestly’ by the Greeks) script was introduced which was a form of writing more akin to alphabet letters. Hieratic script eventually became widely used as a faster, more functional form of writing and used for monumental inscriptions. It remained the Egyptian script for about two millennia or until Demotic script was introduced in the 7th century BC.”

An ostracon found in a tomb. (Ministry of Antiquities)

Work will continue at Beir Al-Shaghala to see if more ancient treasures can be recovered.

The five tombs add to eight other well-preserved Roman era tombs that were discovered in previous excavations at the archaeological site.

University College London explains some of the general differences in tomb style and burial preferences in the Roman era of Egypt. By the Roman period, shabtis and canopic jars were out of fashion (they were ‘so pre-Ptolemaic Period’). Instead, “Objects of daily use […] became a popular burial good again under Roman rule: in particular, cosmetic objects are commonly found with women.” This Roman era excavation is thus important as few cemeteries of the Roman Period have been properly audited and finds documented.

 Mummy portraits, or at least Roman or Greek style funerary masks, were preferred over Egyptian style mummy masks. But plaster masks in the Greek/Roman style were apparently the favorite option for the elite.

Fayum mummy portraits of two women. (Left: Public Domain and Right: Public Domain)

By this time, coffins had largely become nothing more elaborate than simple boxes, but mummification became more popular. Multiple burials were also more common for people of all levels of society.

Clay pots of different shapes and sizes were found in the tombs. (Ministry of Antiquities)

Top Image: The five Roman tombs found at the Beir Al-Shaghala site in the Dakhla Oasis of Egypt's Western Desert. (Ministry of Antiquities) Insert: A funerary mask found in one of the tombs. (Ministry of Antiquities)

 By Alicia McDermott

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