‘Death has become a big business.’ Elaborate coffins illuminate hidden history of ancient Egypt

‘Death has become a big business.’ Elaborate coffins illuminate hidden history of ancient Egypt

Coffins discovered at the Saqqara burial complex in Egypt date back 2500 years.

AHMED HASAN/AFP via Getty Images

Last week, Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities announced a spectacular find. More than 100 elaborately decorated wooden coffins, many containing intact human mummies, were unearthed at the Saqqara necropolis, a burial complex covering 160 square kilometers and located 20 kilometers south of Cairo. The most recent finds date back roughly 2500 years, to a time archaeologists call Egypt’s late period. Unlike earlier eras in Egyptian history, when prominent people were laid to rest individually in multichambered tombs or inside massive, eye-catching pyramids, Egyptian archaeologists found these coffins stacked two and three deep at the bottom of deep underground shafts.

The artifacts illuminate a lesser known era in Egypt’s history: one separated from the reigns of more familiar pharaohs like Tutankhamun and Ramesses II by more than 700 years of turmoil, civil war, and decline.

Science spoke to University of Tübingen archaeologist Ramadan Hussein, who has excavated extensively at Saqqara but was not part of the latest dig, about what the new finds reveal about the ancient Egyptians. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: Why are there so many coffins at this site?

A: By 650 B.C., Egypt was starting to get back on its feet and become a power in the Mediterranean again. At some point the center of power moves back to Memphis, on the other side of the Nile and also about 20 kilometers south of Cairo. Saqqara once more becomes the main cemetery for a thriving, wealthy city full of temples. All those priests and government officials were high-income individuals; that explains why we have so many beautiful coffins from the late period. The richness of the city at the time is reflected in the richness of the burials.

Meanwhile, there’s an intellectual movement to look back at Egyptian history and revive its traditions. They even call it a renaissance at the time: They’re reviving art, literary traditions, and religious practices from 1000 years earlier. That shows up in the decorations and burial practices. You can see a nostalgia for what was good in Egyptian history in the cemeteries at Saqqara, like inscriptions on the coffins replicating religious texts from the walls of nearby pyramids.

Ramadan Hussein has excavated late period tombs from the Saqqara necropolis.

Ramadan Hussein, Director of the Saqqara Saite Tombs Project/University of Tübingen

Q: Yet Egypt has changed. What do the burials tell you about what was going on at the time?

A: In the late period, Egypt has started becoming an international power again, and as a result it’s becoming a real mosaic of ethnicities: There are Phoenicians and Greeks and Libyans, and you can see their influence in the grave goods, from a gilded silver mask made from imported metal we discovered in 2018 to pottery and precious oils. Trade connections with Greece are intensifying. Many of the coffins at Saqqara are made from expensive wood brought in from southern Europe and elsewhere around the Mediterranean.

Q: But there are no new pyramids.

A: No, but death has become a big business. Discoveries like this are important for what they tell us about how you administer a cemetery and run the business of death. Priests and undertakers at Saqqara are selling everything from mummification services to burial plots. The ideology of death had shifted. People weren’t focused on the size of their tomb, they were happy to be buried in a sacred precinct and a nice coffin.

For example, a lot of these coffins come from shafts cut into older buildings: Apparently the best way to sell new cemetery plots was to put them close to places considered ancient and therefore sacred. Undertakers would just stack as many coffins as they could in tunnels at the bottom of each shaft—they promised customers it would be in a sacred space, not that it would be private.

Q: Is there more to come?

A: Will we see another find like this? Definitely. There are more of these shafts we haven’t found yet. But analyzing the texts and scenes on the Saqqara coffins alone is going to give us work for the next 50 years.

https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/11/death-has-become-big-business-elaborate-coffins-illuminate-hidden-history-ancient-egypt

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