Ancient Egyptian pot burials were not just for the poor

Interment in ceramic vessels may have symbolized a rebirth to afterlife

Emily Demarco

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122216 em pot burials mainAncient Egyptians buried children, shown here, and adults in pots. The hollow vessels mirror the womb and may have symbolized a rebirth into the afterlife, scientists report. - BÉATRIX MIDANT-REYNES/INSTITUT FRANÇAIS D’ARCHÉOLOGIE ORIENTALE

New research is stirring the pot about an ancient Egyptian burial practice.

Many ancient peoples, including Egyptians, buried some of their dead in ceramic pots or urns. Researchers have long thought these pot burials, which often recycled containers used for domestic purposes, were a common, make-do burial for poor children.

But at least in ancient Egypt, the practice was not limited to children or to impoverished families, according to a new analysis. Bioarchaeologist Ronika Power and Egyptologist Yann Tristant, both of Macquarie University in Sydney, reviewed published accounts of pot burials at 46 sites, most near the Nile River and dating from about 3300 B.C. to 1650 B.C. Their results appear in the December Antiquity.

A little over half of the sites contained the remains of adults. For children, pot burials were less common than expected: Of 746 children, infants and fetuses interred in some type of burial container, 338 were buried in wooden coffins despite wood’s relative scarcity and cost. Another 329 were buried in pots. Most of the rest were placed in baskets or, in a few cases, containers fashioned from materials such as reeds or limestone.

In the tomb of a wealthy governor, an infant was found in a pot containing beads covered in gold foil. Other pot burials held myriad goods — gold, ivory, ostrich eggshell beads, clothing or ceramics. Bodies were either placed directly into urns, or sometimes pots were broken or cut to fit the deceased.

People deliberately chose the containers, in part for symbolic reasons, the researchers now propose. The hollow vessels, which echo the womb, may have been used to represent a rebirth into the afterlife, the scientists say.

R.K. Power and Y. Tristant. From refuse to rebirth: repositioning the pot burial in the Egyptian archaeological record. Antiquity. Vol. 90, December 2016, p. 1474. doi: 10.15184/aqy.2016.176.