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The Mysterious 'Mummy Pits' of Ancient Egypt

February 4, 2016

 

'[. . .] I was not yet reconciled to the horrible effects of Arab tomb-rifling, and the dismembered bodies, female heads, and severed limbs I had passed on the way [. . .] Here a horrible scene presented itself— hundreds of human bodies, piled one upon another, lay under out feet, torn and rifled by the Arabs, stripped of their cerecloth, crushed and dismembered. Even now, the guides and Arabs turned them over as if they had been logs of wood, laughed hideously as some distortion became apparent by the flickering lights, and stamped upon the heap in a way that made the blood curdle in one’s veins.'

 

—Mary Postans (1844)

 

Hello and welcome to my website!

 

   My name is Tess, I am a PhD student at Cardiff University and I have been researching the 'mummy pits' of ancient Egypt for over five years now.

   My research began as a Master’s thesis. My supervisor, Prof. Paul Nicholson, suggested that I look into these mysterious burials known simply as 'mummy pits,' as although Egyptologists and archaeologists had long been aware of them, no one actually knew what they were or what they represent in archaeological terms. 

   The only sources which seem to frequently reference these 'pits,' are the accounts written by early travellers who ventured to Egypt during the Victorian period. My aim was to investigate these early accounts in order to see if it was possible to determine what the ‘mummy pits’ represent in burial terms and if any detailed information could be derived from these early travelogues which may help in the reconstruction of this burial form. I was surprised at what I discovered. . .

   The most striking discovery to came to light, was the sheer number of travel accounts which reference these burials. I have managed to collect several thousand so far, and that’s with limiting myself to only studying accounts written in English. There are countless more published in French, German, Italian and many other languages which await future study. The second surprising discovery, was the amount of information that these accounts preserve, something I did not expect to find. If this information is reinterpreted in archaeological terms, it becomes possible to reconstruct this burial form and begin to understand how it would have appeared in ancient times.

   The mummy pits are now the subject of my PhD research and my continued investigation into the nature of these burials over the past few years has revealed a greater depth of information on this long-forgotten burial form.

     So what are ‘mummy pits’?

   They are typically described by early travellers as ‘pits’ found lying beneath the desert surface which contain the mass-burials of mummies. The mummies found in these burial places, are commonly recorded to be in found in unimaginable numbers, with hundreds and even thousands of mummies supposedly found in each pit. Across all mummy pit sites in Egypt, travellers estimated that the overall number of mummies found the pits to number in the millions. There were so many mummies in these pits in fact, that they were able to serve as a source of tourist souvenirs for several centuries and later (in the mid-late 19th century), as a source of material for the material manufacture of paper and fertilizer and other ‘mummy-products’ formed of the flesh, bones and wrappings of mummies. 

   This exploitation of the pits which went on for hundreds of years, has left most of them empty, explaining why modern researchers are typically unaware of their existence and why they haven’t been studied in the field. Burials which resemble these mass-burial pits have however been discovered by archaeologists from time to time, but these have not been set into a wider context as part of the communal ‘mummy pit’ burial custom, due to the current lack of information on this burial phenomenon.

   Although many early travellers believed the mummy pits to simply be impromptu burials, the result of 'death-events' such plague or warfare, there is evidence to suggest that they in fact represent a burial custom used by the 'lower-classes' in the latest period of ancient Egyptian history.

     The 'plain' and poor nature of the mummies found in the pits, has meant that they have historically been viewed to be of little ‘scientific interest’ and as they lacked any elaborate decoration or accompanying artefacts, they were also deemed unsuitable as tourists’ 'mummy-souvenirs,' and were thus routinely ripped apart and used as fuel in camp-fires, or spread over the peasant’s fields as fertilizer (‘sebakh’).

   The rifled nature of the pits meant that many early travellers explored and interpreted them without being aware of their original state which led to them commonly being viewed as ‘plague-pits' or ‘charnel houses’ of death. There were however, a number of travellers who either paid more careful attention to the nature of these burial places, or were simply lucky enough to enter a pit which was more or less intact. These travellers report finding the mummies not in heaps, but in much more ordered state, they were deposited with some method and care so as to suggest that these are not simply ‘store-houses’ for mummies but actual burial places used by a significant number of individuals. What these early travellers had stumbled upon was something very unusual for ancient Egyptian burial practice — communal or collective burial.

    It appears that there was once in Egypt, a communal burial custom which was commonly used a significant proportion of the population and that we are unaware of these burials today because of the damage caused to these burials by their exploitation over the centuries. The only way to reconstruct and to better understand this burial phenomenon therefore, is to carefully study the accounts of early travellers.

     It is my hope that in the near future, once attention has been drawn to the mummy pit burial custom, that those that have survived to the modern day will be studied in the field so that we may develop a greater understanding of this long-lost burial form.

   For now, I shall continue to delve deeper into the nature of this strange and mysterious burial phenomenon and see what further secrets the accounts of early travellers hold. . .

   Follow me on Twitter and FaceBook for more information on all things related to early travel in Egypt and the wonders of Victorian 'Egyptomania', and please, if you come across any references to the mummy pits, send them my way!

 

TB

 

 

 

 

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