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Weighing of the heart scene from the Book of the Dead of Hunefer.

Death and Rebirth: Startling New Information Emerges About Ancient Egyptian Pot Burials

Ancient Egyptian funerary practices were not just about making mummies. Surprising new information reveals that pot burials were not just for poor children in ancient Egypt either. Instead, it seems that citizens of any age and socio-economic class could have been laid to rest in this way, even wealthy adults. Rather than economic necessity, ancient Egyptian beliefs about death and rebirth may have been the reason behind this burial style.

A Practice Not Limited to Poor Children

Many different nations in the ancient world– including Egypt –buried some of their dead in ceramic pots or urns. Archaeologists and historians considered that these pot burials were mostly used for poor civilians, especially children. However, bioarchaeologist Ronika Power and Egyptologist Yann Tristant of Macquarie University in Sydney,  beg to differ .

They reviewed the published accounts of pot burials (dating from about 3300 BC to 1650 BC) at 46 sites, most of them near the Nile River. These bodies were either interred directly into the urns, or sometimes pots were carefully broken or cut to fit the dead. Unpredictably, they discovered that more than half of the sites contained adult remains, and it was noted that pot burials for children were not as common as most people would think.

Map of Egypt featuring published pot burial sites and attested demographic categories.

Map of Egypt featuring published pot burial sites and attested demographic categories. ( Cartography: Sandra Aussel )

In fact , out of 746 children, babies, and fetuses positioned in some kind of burial container, 338 were buried in wooden coffins - despite wood’s high cost at the time - and 329 were buried in pots. The majority of the remaining children were placed in baskets or, for a minority, in containers fashioned from materials such as reeds or limestone.

Doing away with possible socio-economic factors related to the pot burials, the researchers found evidence of wealth in many cases as well. For example, an infant was found in a pot that also contained beads covered in gold foil within the tomb of a rich and powerful governor. Other pot burials included gold, ivory, ostrich eggshell beads, clothing, or ceramics.

Some child and infant pot burials from the Pre- to Early Dynastic cemetery of Adaïma, Egypt.

Some child and infant pot burials from the Pre- to Early Dynastic cemetery of Adaïma, Egypt. ( Béatrix Midant-Reynes, Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale )

The experts now suggest that ancient Egyptians intentionally picked the containers. This was a choice that was probably made for symbolic reasons. The scientists suggested that the hollow vessels, which echo the womb, were probably used to represent a rebirth into the afterlife.

The Importance of Burials in Ancient Egypt and The Egyptian Book of the Dead

Regardless of social position, sacred spells from the work known as The Egyptian Book of the Dead were recited in order to direct the soul toward the “Hall of Truth” and the judgement of the great god Osiris. The Egyptian Book of the Dead is a collection of spells which was thought to enable the soul of the deceased to navigate the afterlife. Its famous title was given by western scholars; the original title would translate as The Book of Coming Forth by Day or Spells for Going Forth by Day .

According to this book, Osiris would weigh the heart of the deceased against the white feather of Ma'at and, if one's heart was found lighter than the feather, the individual was given passage to the Field of Reeds - the Egyptian paradise which was an eternal mirror image of one's life on earth. If one's heart was found to be heavier than the feather of Ma'at, however, it was thrown to the floor where it was eaten by the god Ammit and the soul of the individual would cease to exist.

Weighing of the heart scene from the Book of the Dead of Hunefer.

Weighing of the heart scene from the Book of the Dead of Hunefer. ( Public Domain )

With these thoughts in mind, you can easily understand why a proper burial would have played a significant role in an individual’s afterlife in ancient Egypt, no matter what socio-economic position the person held in society during life.

Top Image: Two child pot burials from the Pre- to Early Dynastic cemetery of Adaïma, Egypt. Source: Béatrix Midant-Reynes, Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale

By Theodoros Karasavvas

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