INVESTIGATING A LOST BURIAL FORM
The farther we penetrated into these dismal recesses, we found the bodies much more entire, and every thing less disturbed; and I make no sort of doubt, that if any person had the courage to go to the extremity of the catacombs, he would find many bodies, which had never been examined, and discover curiosities, which would amply recompense the fatigue and danger.
— Earl of Sandwich (1799)
The 'mummy pit' burial phenomenon is currently the subject on an ongoing research project which aims to determine what a 'mummy pit' represents in burial terms and whether it is possible to reconstruct this rite —if not relocate a number of these burials in the field.
Due to the loss of archaeological data caused by prolonged exploitation of the pits, this project takes the somewhat unusual approach of forensically extracting archaeological information from the accounts left by early travellers. These accounts which record these burials when they were still extant, provide enough detail to determine several important factors of the nature of this burial custom.
The initial aim of the project was to determine whether the mummy pits represent a collection of random burial events, perhaps the result of conflict or an epidemic, or whether they instead represent a definable burial custom.
It soon became clear that the number of mummy pit sites found across Egypt and the number of individuals found buried in each pit, were far too great in number to be explained as random collections of mass-graves.
The manner in which the mummies were deposited in these 'pits,' show evidence of some method and care and suggests that the mummy pits may represent a long-lost burial form currently unknown to modern researchers.
SCOPE & SIGNIFICANCE
DATE & CONTENT
The project also aims to reinterpret early travellers' observations of these burial-places, which are often focused more on the horror and intrigue of the pits rather than the nature of their content.
As most travellers recorded encounters with pits which had already been rifled by mummy-hunters, determining the nature of their original content is a challenge. However, there are a small number of travellers who were lucky enough to bear witness to the opening of a newly discovered mummy pit, or were simply more adventurous and ventured further into the depths of these burial places where the burials lay untouched. These accounts can help us to gain a greater understanding of how these burials would have appeared in ancient times, such as when and how this custom was in use and the status and 'cultural identity' of the individuals who were laid to rest within the pits.
From descriptions provided by early travellers, it would appear that the mummy pits represent a communal burial method used by the 'lower classes' of ancient Egyptian society, a demographic which Egyptologists currently know very little about.
It has long been thought that the burial methods used by the lower classes in ancient Egypt has left them 'archaeologically invisible.' This may be the case for many sites, it would appear however that the mummy pit custom was once very prevalent in the Egyptian burial landscape but that the pillaging of the pits has meant that a significant amount of archaeological data has since been lost. This data has not been lost forever however, and can be recovered from the careful study of early travelogues.
It is the information preserved in early travelogues therefore, which holds the key to gaining a better understanding of both the burial practices of the poor in ancient Egypt as well as this new, previously unknown 'collective' custom.
BURIAL CUSTOM OF THE POOR?
REDISCOVERY OF THE 'PITS'?
Early travellers provide enough information in their travel accounts to not only permit a reconstruction of this burial form, but also to potentially relocate a small number which survive in the field.
On occasion, large, collective burials are discovered in Egypt and archaeologists don't know what to make of them. Could these be the last remnants of the collective burials which were so prolific in the period of early travel? How many mummy pit burials managed to survive the 'mummymania' of the Victorian era and await discovery out in the Western desert?
Further research of these modern (re)discoveries of the mummy pits will hopefully provide us with a deeper understanding of the communal burial method.
YOU CAN HELP!
This research project involves collecting as many early accounts of the mummy pits as possible in order to gather enough information to reconstruct this burial form.
If you are aware of any mention of the 'mummy pits' in early traveller accounts, early newspaper articles, correspondence or early archaeological reports, I would be grateful for the information which will be added to the mummy pit database which will be made available for researchers in the near future.
Any information on the mummy pits would greatly help in my ongoing research into these burials, so please get in touch!