Funerary Practices of Middle Class Egypt – 4.5 Centuries Ago

The burial chamber of an Egyptian official who lived up to about 4,500 years ago was unsealed recently, revealing some valuable insights into the funerary practices of the middle class. Pharaonic funerary practices are well-known, though there are still doubtless many things we don’t know, but the practices of non-ruling classes is far less known.

This particular tomb was located last year in Abusir near Cairo, where a 5th and 6th dynasty cemetery resides. The occupant was named Neferinpu and while he wasn’t in the elite-class, he also wasn’t poor by any means. Described by the archaeologists who discovered him as a “politician,” Neferinpu’s tomb was located behind a mud brick wall in a previously known burial chamber about 33 feet below ground and “packed with offerings and personal effects.”

Miroslav Barta, an archaeologist from Czech Republic who led the excavation remarked that intact burials of upper-middle class officials such as this one are rare and the information provided is a wealth that transcends that of gold and silver, which wasn’t found.

Inside the 6.5-foot by 13-foot space, the team found dozens of ceremonial artifacts, including 10 sealed beer jars, more than 80 miniature limestone vessels, a small perfume jug, and plates and cups for symbolic offerings of food and drink.

Also present were four flat-bottomed vessels known as “canopies,” which were used to store internal organs removed during the mummification process.

Beneath the lid of the sarcophagus, the mummy, which was wrapped long before preservation methods were perfected, was badly decomposed.

The body was inlaid with hundreds of Faience beads, and the official’s walking stick, about 6.5 feet long and decorated at the tip with small pieces of gold, was buried at his side.

The sarcophagus also contained a wooden scepter, which Neferinpu would have held in his left hand as sign of his seniority, said Tarek El-Awadi, an official with Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) and chief inspector at Abusir.

“It gives you nice insight into the strata of Egyptian society,” said Salima Ikram. “It gives you a sense of the people who are not a part of uppermost echelons and what was considered customary, proper, or appropriate for someone of that rank,” she added.

4,500-year-old tomb sheds light on burial customs of ancient Egypts middle class

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A Southern Migration Out of Africa: The Arabian Corridor

Sunrise over Sabure by Kambiz KamraniI’m a fairly regular reader of Geotimes, a magazine devoted to geology and Earth-related topics like climate and, sometimes, anthropology. So imagine my surprise when my eye catches the credit to the photograph shown here of the African savannah belonging to an anthropologist friend and then another photo (shown below) to yet another friend! As far as I know, Kambiz Kamrani and Jeff Rose don’t know each other, but I was happy to see them both showcased in the same article all the same.

Kambiz Kamrani, the brains and muscle behind Anthropology.net has the lead photo in the article, “Out of Africa: Following the Arabian Trail“, published in the January issue of Geotimes and written by Erin Wayman.

Jeff Rose is an archaeologist, currently teaching at Oxford Brookes University in the Department of Anthropology and Geography and his specialty is lithics of prehistoric hominids.

The meat of the article is discussing the migration of humans from Africa to the rest of the world through a southern Arabian route via the Horn of Africa. This isn’t necessarily a new idea, but recent discoveries in both archaeology and genetics have put it in a favorable light in recent years. I recall several discussions and lectures I attended with Dr. Rose (who hates to be called “doctor,” so I include this with both respect and fun) in which this very topic was discussed.

Basically, the hypothesis is that there existed a cycle of wet and dry periods in the region during prehistoric times which cause fluctuations in sea levels and periods of dry, inhabitable climates as well as lush, fertile climates on the Southern Arabian Peninsula that were flora and fauna flourished.

Where’s My Contact Lens?

Of course, modern humans evolved in Africa, but Rose suggests that much of the world’s genetic diversity might have emerged from a population outside of Africa. For example, geneticists do not know for certain when the world’s three main mitochondrial lineages — M, N and R — branched from the founding African lineage, L3. But estimates of the ages of the world’s oldest M lineages, found in modern African, Indian and southwest Arabian populations, overlap in time, Rose says. This means the initial divergence of L3 might have happened in Africa, or it might have happened in India or southwest Arabia. “The verdict is still out there,” Rose admits, but he says a lot of genetic variability seems to cluster around southwest Arabia — an indicator that modern human dispersals might have originated in the region.

The primary obstacle to the migration, according to the Geotimes article (and admitted by Jeff elsewhere) is the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, which is 18-30 km wide, depending upon where you stand. The article cites 30 km, but the Perim Narrows are about 18 km wide and at least 50 m deep. During the Pleistocene, this distance may have been shortened to approximately 11 km and 17 m of depth, but still a hazardous distance to cross for Pleistocene humans. But even today the shores of Arabia are visible to those that stand on the African side of the strait, and the temporary switch of current provided by the Indian Ocean Monsoon, which may have temporarily abated the strong outbound current of the Red Sea, which might have swept would be seafarers out to sea. Could such a promise of new territory have presented a temptation for Pleistocene hunter-gatherers?

There is a lot of evidence to suggest that migrations across the Red Sea were certainly possible. Papio hamadryas (the Sacred Baboon), a desert-adapted primate, is found on both sides of the Red Sea and mtDNA studies show that the branching of P. hamadryas lineages occurred between 74-37 kya, which correlates to the branching evident in the mtDNA haplogroup M of human lineages. In addition, lithic assemblages -the stone tools of early humans- show a remarkable similarity on both sides of the Red Sea for periods consistent with the hypothesized migration.

The concept is fascinating and there’s definitely more data to obtain and analyze, but for further reading, I recommend:

Rose, Jeffrey (2007). The Arabian Corridor Migration Model: archaeological evidence for hominin dispersals into Oman during the Middle and Upper Pleistocene. Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies, 37, 219-237.

Open Lab 2007!

Corturnix has announced the winning entries in this year’s Open Laboratory here. I had a couple entries submitted but didn’t make the cut, but if you look at the posts that did, you’ll see why: the winning entries are the top in their fields. I’ve read quite a few of them already, my favs so far are, The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times by Afarensis; and An illustrated history of trepanation by Neurophilosophy (which also happen to be two of my favorite blogs).

Corturnix had nearly 500 entries and only a tenth of them made the cut. I looked over many of the entries that hadn’t and I must say I don’t envy the position of those that chose! There were so many good blogs to choose from.

Now, we just need to wait for Bora to turn it all into a book. I wonder what this year’s cover art will look like…?