Egypt : discovered mummies of ancient priests buried with thousands of afterlife servants

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A massive burial ground holding the remains of several high priests of ancient Egypt, along with their assistants, has been discovered in the northern part of the site of Tuna el-Gebel, Egypt’s antiquities ministry announced Thursday (Jan. 30).

So far, the archaeologists have unearthed 20 stone sarcophagi (coffins) made of a “very good quality of limestone” in the burial ground, which lies about 170 miles (270 kilometers) south of Cairo, said Mostafa Waziri, the general secretary of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, during a news briefing. 

In addition, the burials together contained some 700 amulets, some made of gold or precious stones, along with more than 10,000 shabti figurines made of faience (a glazed ceramic), Waziri said.

The ancient Egyptians believed that shabti figurines served the deceased in the afterlife.

The archaeologists said they aren’t sure how many mummies are buried at the site.

But given that many of the stone sarcophagi have yet to be opened, it is likely that many will be discovered, the researchers said. 

“Excavations are still running. We expect to find more and more and more [discoveries] in this area,” Waziri said. 

Egypt’s Late Period

The high priests buried at the site date to what archaeologists call the “Late Period,” a time when ancient Egypt was often struggling to achieve independence from foreigners, including the Nubians, Assyrians and Persians.

The earliest Late Period burials found to date are from the 26th dynasty (688 B.C. to 525 B.C.), a time when Egypt had regained its independence after the Nubians had ruled it. 

The Late Period ended in 332 B.C., when the armies of Alexander the Great entered Egypt. After the death of Alexander, in 323 B.C., the descendants of Ptolemy I (one of Alexander the Great’s generals) ruled Egypt for almost three centuries, until the Romans took over the country in 30 B.C. 

Though foreign powers often controlled the country, Egyptian religion continued to thrive.

The various foreign rulers, including Roman emperors, tended to respect Egypt’s ancient religious traditions. 

The Emergence of the Servants of the Dead

The ushabti figurine is perhaps the most distinctive artefact symbolising ancient Egyptian culture.

It is certainly the most popular amongst collectors. There are two basic types of these tomb figures.

The most common being the mummiform figure with the hieroglyphic inscription of Chapter 6 from the Egyptian Book of the Dead as well as the names and titles of the deceased.

In the Old Kingdom, or Pyramid Age, only the highest elite had wooden or stone tomb figures representing the deceased, his family and most importantly, his servants.

Safe in the knowledge that an army of servants would do the hard work for him and his family, the tomb’s owner could enjoy eternity as a man of leisure.

In the Middle Kingdom, private wealth and status became more widespread. Burials became simpler, without the finely decorated reliefs of the Old Kingdom that surrounded the tomb’s owner with depictions of his estates and servants.

The nobility were buried in undecorated burial chambers. Instead, the wooden tomb models of male and female servants, estates, and boats dominated Egyptian burial practice.

It was from this that the shabti, or mummiform tomb figure required to do the work of the deceased in the afterlife, was developed.

Answering the Call

These figures were originally called Shawabtis, based on the use of persea or ‘shawab’ wood in their creation.

Wealthy burials were furnished with 365 workers in the form of a mummy and 36 overseer figures, dressed as in everyday attire, more importantly wielding the whip of authority.

“When x is called to carry sand from the west to the east, and east to west, here I am you shall say,” reads the chapter from the Book of the Dead, Egypt’s papyrus guide to the underworld, ruled over by the god Osiris.

Depicted as a mummiform figure himself, this led to the tomb figures being called ushabtis, or ‘answerers’. The deceased himself (or herself) becomes Osiris after passing the various trials of the Egyptian underworld.

Ushabti Collecting Today

Ushabtis are popular with collectors for their range of materials, differing styles and not least because of the genealogical and social information provided in their titles.

The picture above displays the ushabti of Padiusir, who’s name literally translates as ‘A gift given by Osiris’. His mother’s name is given as Irbinat and he is identified as a priest of the goddess Smentet.

He lived during the era when the Persians, then the Greeks occupied Egypt and Herodotus reported that the Egyptian army was defeated by the Persian’s driving cats before them. As the Egyptian’s believed cats to be sacred, the army would not risk harming a sacred animal.

So much can be learned and understood about the structure of ancient Egyptian society from one little statuette moulded from Egyptian faience.

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