As early as the Neolithic period, the ancient Egyptians buried their dead in cemeteries, and eventually an elaborate funerary cult developed around the tombs. Necropolises therefore emerged as privileged areas of monumental and artistic display, and consequently they are among the most prominent, archaeological sites of pharaonic Egypt.

Role in Archaeological Research.

Attracted by the richness of these sites, Egyptological research has tended to concentrate on tombs and cemeteries, while neglecting other aspects of the archaeological record, the settlements in particular. The deficits in our knowledge that resulted from this attitude are being felt more and more acutely, and it is certainly advisable to strive for a more balanced appreciation of the available evidence. The prominence of the funerary sector, however, is an inherent trait of pharaonic culture.

The prosopographical and historical information derived from inscriptions in the tombs of kings and the elite is crucial to an understanding of the composition of the aristocracy, the organization of the administration, and many other aspects of the workings of society. The buildings and their decoration stand out as the finest examples of pharaonic art, scenes of daily activities on the walls provide lively (though heavily biased) views of life in ancient Egypt. Recovering and recording these monuments was always a priority of archaeology in Egypt. The necropolises of the elite are vast sites, and individual tombs are often quite complex, so their exploration is still far from complete. Even the site of Giza, which was excavated systematically during the early decades of the twentieth century, is still far from exhausted. Sites like Saqqara or the Theban necropolis are even less systematically explored.

The cemeteries of the ordinary people held rather less appeal to artistically and epigraphically minded archaeologists. Their scientific potential became evident when the whole epoch of Egyptian prehistory became known through W. M. Flinders Petrie's 1895 excavations in the cemeteries of Naqada and Ballas, and when George Reisner's 1910 excavations in the cemeteries of Shellal near Aswan revealed the existence of several indigenous Nubian cultures. In fact, the material from cemeteries is particularly suited to define archaeological cultures and their chronological subphases. The principle of chronological seriation, ingeniously discovered by Petrie, provided the methodological key to make the best use of this potential. Petrie also realized that it was no less necessary to describe the material culture of the historical phases of pharaonic Egypt, and the excavation of cemeteries was the ideal way to fill in the corpora of artifact types that were to embody his fascinating vision of a “systematic archaeology” of ancient Egypt. Consequently Petrie and his coworkers spent considerable effort on systematically exploring the cemeteries situated on the desert margins during the decades before World War II. Brunton's extensive work in the area between Qau and Matmar south of Asyut (1922–1931), where he uncovered more than five thousand burials ranging from the early Neolithic until Coptic times, marks the climax of this strain in Egyptian archaeology. Deriving the definition of archaeological phases from cemetery data has come under criticism in recent years. This seems only partly justified, however. In fact, the information derived from the excavation of cemeteries is still fundamental to our knowledge of the material culture of ancient Egypt. The appreciation of many of these excavations, however, is seriously hampered by incomplete publication; in many cases, it would be both

Necropolis

Necropolis. Representation of tombs in a necropolis, from a stele at Giza.

possible and worthwhile to supplement the printed volumes on the basis of the original documentation and the finds kept in museum collections.

Although a great deal of archaeological work has been done on ancient Egyptian cemetery sites, most of this work focused on individual tombs or on classes of objects and their chronology. It has been less common to study cemeteries as coherent entities playing a part in the cultural life of a community, and to address their significance within an anthropological framework. Reisner, however, grasped the importance of this aspect already in his pioneering analysis of an Old Kingdom cemetery at Naga ed-Deir (opposite Abydos), excavated in 1901–1902. In his publication, Reisner attempts to reconstruct the social composition of a provincial community on the basis of its cemetery, contrasting the cultural situation at this remote site in Upper Egypt with the contemporary necropolises of the elite. This great work well exemplifies the potential of cemetery data to elucidate the internal differentiation of pharaonic culture along both social and geographical lines. More recent studies address their value for the reconstruction of settlement patterns and demographic development as well. This new anthropological perspective can be applied to the analysis of the great wealth of cemetery data which are already available, and it should influence the research design of new excavations. A site should be excavated completely enough to enable population estimates; the excavated human remains should be analyzed by an expert biologist; close attention should be given to complex patterns of use and reuse and of cult activities; and an attempt should be made to establish the relationship between a cemetery and the settlement to which it belongs.

Necropolises and Settlements.

Egyptian cemeteries lie outside the settlements they served. Only burials of babies and very small children (often deposited in large jars) are regularly encountered within settlements, and special beliefs were probably associated with this custom; W. Blackman in The Fellahin of Upper Egypt (London, 1927, p. 101) reports that babies were buried within houses in modern Egypt to make sure that the mother would have another child. Otherwise, burial within the settlement is irregular; rarely, bodies of low-ranking persons are found interred in abandoned building plots. Burials in the Neolithic settlement of Merimda Beni Salama, which gave rise to the interpretation that house burial was a regular trait of the prehistoric cultures of Lower Egypt, have been shown by subsequent excavations not to have been strictly contemporary with the settlement remains. The custom of house burial, securely attested at Tell ed-Dabʿa during the Second Intermediate Period, resulted from the influence of the Syrian-Palestinian Middle Bronze II culture in the eastern Delta during that time.

The Egyptian ideal held that a cemetery should be situated on the Western Desert margin, and terms like “The Beautiful West” are used frequently as synonyms for “necropolis.” Many necropolises—and, in fact, all royal necropolises—conform to this ideal, but just as many do not. Cemeteries are found on the eastern and western banks of the valley, naturally confined to sites not reached by the annual inundation. Cemeteries were preferably located immediately outside or rather close to a settlement. A greater distance between settlement and necropolis (up to a few kilometers) was accepted only if the site had to satisfy specific technical or locational demands. For the rock-cut tombs of the elite from the late Old Kingdom onward, for example, sites in the flanks of the desert mountains had to be chosen, preferably at places that overlooked the territory formerly governed by the tomb-owner. For the pyramid cemeteries of the Old Kingdom, sites were selected that afforded easy access to quarries and occupied commanding positions, like the desert plateaus of Giza or Abu Rowash. Such cemeteries were at a considerable distance from residences, and therefore settlements were founded to house the people associated with the necropolis in an administrative, construction, or maintenance capacity.

The distribution pattern of cemeteries in the country, as revealed by archaeological excavation, is severely distorted by unequal preservation. Because of the rise of the alluvial land over the course of time, most of the cemeteries that originally lay in the plain of the valley and in the Delta are now buried under several meters of Nile mud, creating the false impression that cemeteries lay exclusively on the desert margins. Even here, however, preservation is rather unequal in the different sections of the valley. In Middle Egypt, for instance, the western desert margin, which was very low, was also covered by the rise of the alluvium. If the hazards of preservation and recovery are carefully taken into account, cemeteries provide the most valuable information on the structure of settlement available from ancient Egypt, and in particular on the distribution of social groups across the country.

The close relationship between settlement and cemetery does not imply, however, that the group buried in a cemetery is identical with the population of a nearby settlement. Rather, it is obvious that access to a cemetery could depend on status and social affiliation. Cemeteries of the elite were normally inaccessible to burials of ordinary people; on the other hand, there are cemeteries where only children were interred. The unequal representation of the sexes, a very common feature in Egyptian cemeteries, equally attests to selective processes.

Types and Layouts.

Ancient Egyptian cemeteries were not fenced in, and there was no communal cult site nor, as a rule, a temple attached to them. From an archaeological point of view, cemetery sites may be classified according to their geographical situation and according to the types of tombs that occupy them. In addition, the size of the group buried in a cemetery and its social structure are to be considered.

In prehistoric times, cemeteries were laid out on flat ground where strata of soft rock, compacted gravel, or sand offered little resistance to the excavation of graves. The tombs are scattered informally over the available space and were probably marked on the surface by small tumuli. Today, however, most of the surface layer has been eroded away.

A special type of elite cemetery appeared in the second half of the fourth millennium BCE near emerging Upper Egyptian cities such as Hierakonpolis, Naqada, and Abydos. These cemeteries were reserved for members of the uppermost level of local society. The first dynasty royal cemetery at Abydos also belongs to this class of necropolis.

During the Old Kingdom and in subsequent periods, the layout pattern of village cemeteries remained basically similar (though all other aspects of funerary culture underwent profound changes). Tomb shafts became deeper, and the tombs were covered by small mastabas. The cemeteries of important provincial towns are considerably larger, and the presence of a local elite makes itself felt. In the Old Kingdom, these people were buried in large mastaba tombs, and places like Edfu, Naga ed-Deir, and Qau illustrate well how these important buildings preferably formed a continuous row occupying the most conspicuous part of the cemetery, while the lesser tombs were scattered in front of or behind this line. The layout of these cemeteries served to emphasize the dominant role of the elite within local society.

A specific type of necropolis developed during the Old Kingdom in the cemeteries of the royal court near the capital. Here the tombs of the most important officials were concentrated, and these sites abound in monuments of high artistic and epigraphic importance. Court cemeteries in the strict sense appear at the beginning of the fourth dynasty at Meidum, Dahshur, and Giza, where the royal mortuary complexes—the tombs of the members of the royal family and the important officials—were laid out (at least in part) according to a common master plan. The individual mastabas were arranged on a regular grid and built in standard sizes and shapes. The general principle of uniting the ruling elite in a monumental necropolis centered around the mortuary complex of the reigning king remained in effect throughout pharaonic history and characterizes, to a greater or lesser degree, the structure of the cemeteries of the Egyptian capitals.

The invention of rock-cut tombs during the latter part of the fourth dynasty had a considerable impact on the appearance of Egyptian necropolises. Already during the fifth dynasty, a type of tomb adapted to the geological conditions of Upper Egypt was developed, and it rapidly established itself there as the standard model for monumental tombs. The forecourts and the façades of these tombs are cut into the slope of the hillside, while the chapels and the burial apartments are excavated from the living rock. From this time, the flanks of the desert mountains approaching the Nile Valley became the preferred sites for the tombs of the provincial elite, which are usually laid out in several horizontal rows halfway up the hillside, so as to overlook the valley. Depending on the conditions at an individual site, cemeteries of shaft tombs of the lesser inhabitants of the town may be excavated on the hill slope or on the plain below the file of rock-cut tombs.

During the Middle Kingdom, the layouts developed during the late Old Kingdom largely remained in effect throughout Upper Egypt. Here the archaeological record is characterized by rock-cut tomb necropolises of the local elite near important provincial towns, and by cemeteries of simple shaft tombs, originally covered by small chapels, for the ordinary inhabitants. The court cemeteries near the royal residence reverted to Old Kingdom patterns as well, though on a less grandiose scale. Here the most important officials of the administration were buried in tombs, often archaistic mastabas, attached to the pyramid complexes of the kings. A special role was played by the necropolis of Abydos during the Middle Kingdom. Its importance as the principal center of the cult of Osiris attracted many people who were eager to participate in its festivals. Numerous mortuary chapels, including cenotaphs, therefore cluster near the processional routes used during these occasions.

During the New Kingdom, the Theban necropolis gained supreme importance. Starting in the early eighteenth dynasty, the kings and their family members were buried in the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens, two strictly exclusive areas, sheltered from sight from the valley by the first range of the desert mountains. Lined up along the margin of the valley, the mortuary temples of the kings were, at the same time, shrines devoted to the cult of the god Amun, and they played an important part in the festivals of the Theban necropolis. The sites of these temples and the processional routes used during these festivals had an important impact on the location of the tombs of private individuals in the necropolis. These were mainly rock-cut tombs, some of them decorated with the finest paintings that have survived from ancient Egypt. In their location, a ranking according to status can often be discerned.

A necropolis duplicating the basic layout of that at Thebes was begun at Tell el-Amarna during the reign of Akhenaten. A second important necropolis, mainly of the later New Kingdom, is situated at Saqqara, where the officials associated with Egypt's northern capital at Memphis were buried in sumptuous tombs of temple-like appearance. In Upper Egypt, small groups of decorated rock-cut tombs have been found at a few sites. In addition, there is a series of town cemeteries in Egypt, and, in particular, in Nubia. At these sites, the tombs of lesser provincial officials and townspeople are well attested.

During the Late period, the necropolises of the important political centers of the country, Thebes and the Memphite region, continue to flourish. Cemeteries of ordinary people as well as individual decorated tombs are attested throughout the country. Very exceptional as a type of cemetery, however, are the burials of members of the ruling house within temple precincts during the Third Intermediate Period and the Late period. Archaeologically attested examples of this custom are the burials of the kings of the twenty-first to twenty-third dynasties at Tanis, and the Third Intermediate Period and Late period tombs in front of the temple of Medinet Habu in Western Thebes— in particular, those of the “divine consorts of Amun,” dating from the twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth dynasties. Similarly, the scions of the twenty-ninth dynasty are buried within the great Temenos of Ba-neb-djed at Mendes. A similar situation is described by Herodotus for the temple of Sais.

Patterns of Use through Time.

Necropolises were often used for a considerable span of time, especially if they served large, permanent communities and if important elite tombs were present on the site. Because of the accumulation of tombs over the course of time, the center of occupation often shifted gradually from one location to another. Sometimes clear patterns of growth emerge from this process and can provide important information for establishing the archaeological chronology of a cemetery. Yet it can sometimes be shown that family members wished to be buried in close proximity to their ancestors; there are several cases in which sons had their tombs built next to those of their fathers or even chose to be buried in their fathers' tombs; in a few cases, groups of tombs spanning several generations of a single family can be discerned. Reisner grounded his interpretation of the structure of the fourth dynasty cemetery at Giza and of an Old Kingdom provincial cemetery at Naga ed-Deir mainly on hypothetical family groups, but he overemphasized the importance of this principle. In fact, there are no cemeteries that show an overall segmentary structure which could reflect long-term family groups among the occupants.

The gradual shift of a cemetery from one site to another is often associated with a shift in the social level of its occupants. Areas that had been reserved for elite tombs came to be occupied by lesser burials after the cult activities at the large tombs had ceased. Then the spaces available between the earlier buildings, in their courts and even in their chapels, were densely filled in with small tombs; in rock-cut tombs, intrusive shafts were added to receive humble burials. This sequence of reuse often followed the original occupation directly, and the personnel associated with the cults of the larger tombs even played an important part in it.

Necropolises in Social Life.

Ancient Egyptian necropolises were complex social institutions, but evidence to elucidate this is sparse and unevenly distributed. The extant documents refer mainly to the elite level of society and to the necropolises of important centers. Any attempt to generalize from this evidence should take into account the differences among individual places and among social strata.

The right to receive a burial and a mortuary cult depended, in theory, on the king. In practice, however, this claim represented a reality, to a certain degree, only for the elite and the necropolises of the royal residence; after all, the sixth dynasty nomarch Djau at Deir el-Gebrawi refers in his inscriptions to a document testifying to his right to build a tomb for himself. In general, however, both burial and mortuary cult depended on the status and means of the deceased and their families.

The texts state that tombs should be built in “a pure place in which no tomb had been before.” In fact, archaeological observations tend to confirm that people were careful, as far as possible, not to infringe on earlier tombs, at least not on those still in use for burials. From the late Old Kingdom onward it became more and more the rule that a single tomb served for burials of the members of an extended family over several generations, and ownership of the tomb was passed on through inheritance. There is one instance on record in which a tomb in the Theban necropolis that had become vacant was assigned to a new owner by a state official at the end of the eighteenth dynasty.

Sometimes elite tombs were built by the king and assigned to his officials, or individual items of the furnishings of the tomb—like false door stelae or costly sarcophagi—were presented by the king to his followers. Similarly, great officials sometimes cared for the burials of their attendants. In most cases, however, tombs were built from private means, and, during the Old Kingdom, tomb inscriptions frequently assert that the tomb was built from the rightful possessions of the tomb-owner and that the craftsmen who built and decorated it had received fair payment.

Apart from building the tomb, steps to secure its mortuary cult had to be taken. The cult at the tomb usually depended on the family of the deceased, ideally the eldest son. In the elite level of society, however, it was common to set up a special foundation to guarantee regular offerings in the future. A certain amount of property was set apart and assigned, on a hereditary basis, to a group of mortuary priests who in return were to conduct the cult for the deceased. Among Old Kingdom tomb inscriptions there are several documents concerned with regulations of this type. A series of contracts in the tomb of the twelfth Dynasty nomarch Djefaihapy at Asyut attest to complex legal arrangements regarding his mortuary cult between the tomb-owner, the priesthoods of the temples of Asyut, and several necropolis officials.

Both through the resources regularly spent on tomb construction and through the endowments for the mortuary cults, considerable wealth was concentrated in the necropolis, providing a living for a considerable number of people. First, specialist workmen were needed to excavate and eventually decorate tombs on demand, as well as workshops to provide stelae, coffins, and other tomb equipment. A special class of stonemasons even took their title from this business. During the Middle Kingdom in particular there is a series of titles attesting to a complex organization of these gangs. During the New Kingdom, they are also found to be associated with various temples and the state administration. In fact, necropolis workmen are also listed as members of expeditions to quarries, and their title was understood to denote their special range of skills. Nevertheless, necropolis workmen are regularly found in various forms of employment in necropolises. The best-known community of workmen attached to a necropolis is the village of Deir el-Medina in western Thebes during the New Kingdom. Their main task was to excavate and decorate the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens, but it is well attested that they also manufactured tomb furnishings on demand. Although this special group of workmen was housed in a separate village in the Theban cemetery, other necropolis workers, as well as the priests serving the mortuary cults, probably lived in the villages or towns near the necopolises, or, in the case of the royal necropolises of the Old and Middle Kingdoms, in the pyramid towns.

The necropolises were under the civil administration. The Theban necropolis was supervised during the New Kingdom by a “mayor for the western side of Thebes” who was also the chief of the necropolis police. In the Middle Kingdom contracts of Djefaihapy, mentioned above, there is a possible reference to an “overseer of the necropolis,” and, in the same texts, an “officer of the desert” (i.e., of the necropolis) is mentioned. This person was probably in charge of security in the necropolis; during the Middle Kingdom, the title “Guard of the Necropolis” is attested as well.

In the performance of the mortuary cult, festivals were of particular importance. During the Old Kingdom (and, in a modified form, also in later periods) a standard list of festivals is attested, which features, among others, New Year's Day, various dates in the lunar month, and the festivals of the gods Thoth, Sokar, and Min. With the probable exception of the wag-festival, these occasions were not festivals for the dead in a restricted sense. Rather, the mortuary cults were eager to participate in these wider communal celebrations.

From the Middle Kingdom onward it is evident from the documents that mortuary cults became linked more and more with the cults and festivals of local gods and their temples. Statues for private individuals were set up in the temples to participate ideally in the daily offerings of the gods. From the contracts for the mortuary cult of Djefaihapy, it emerges that offerings were to be presented to his statues during the processional festivals of Wepwawet and Anubis, the local gods of his hometown, Asyut.

Among the known “festivals of the necropolis,” the most comprehensive documentation is available for the Valley Festival, which was celebrated in the Theban necropolis at least from the twelfth dynasty onward. Its ceremonies are depicted in the wall decorations of Theban tombs, especially during the eighteenth dynasty. During this festival, the image of the god Amun from the Karnak temple was carried in festive procession to the west bank to visit the gods of the Theban necropolis and the mortuary temples of the kings. On this occasion, cultic activities at the tombs reached their climax; families gathered at the tombs of their ancestors to celebrate the festival with joyful banquets.

Linking the cult of the dead to the great festivals of a town did not merely take advantage of the stability of the cults of the gods. Rather, it was central to the symbolic meaning of these festivals to display the sense of community and collective identity uniting the population of a town or a region. Therefore, it was perfectly logical to express the community between the dead and the living within the same symbolic framework.

A consideration of events in a necropolis cannot overlook tomb robbery and the destruction of tombs. The liveliest relevant account is provided by a series of official documents from the twentieth dynasty which pertain to investigations into several cases of royal tombs reported to have been violated by thieves. It emerges clearly from these texts that tomb robbery was a common feature in the necropolis of western Thebes at this time. Archaeological data confirm that this was not at all unusual; in many cemeteries, most tombs had been violated, in particular the better equipped ones. It seems significant that in most cases the robbers were evidently well informed about the layout and content of the burials. Evidently most tomb robberies took place not long after the original burial. In a few cases, there is even clear evidence that a burial was partly robbed before it was complete. There are also many cases in which, after a few generations, later tombs intruded on earlier ones, obstructing their cult places and even damaging them severely.

From the available documentation, it emerges that tomb robbery, while clearly considered a criminal act, was in fact a regular phenomenon, and so it seems that religious fears did not trouble the minds of the ancient Egyptians as overwhelmingly as is sometimes supposed. On the other hand, it appears that the protection of the tombs depended mainly on the continuing interest of the living in their cults and on the continuity of the surviving group's claim to ownership. As soon as a tomb dropped out of the network of social processes within the community, it was bound to face rapid destruction.

The Necropolis in Egyptian Thought.

The principal Egyptian word for “necropolis” is ẖr.t-nṯr (“the property of the god”). The word “god” in this term probably referred originally to the king who bestowed the right of burial on members of the elite. Later, however, it was probably understood with reference to other gods who were regarded as “lords of the necropolis,” like Osiris. As synonyms, “the West,” “the Beautiful West,” and “the Western Desert” are particularly common. In addition, there exists a great wealth of expressions used for the necropolises of individual places or those bound to specific contexts, like t3-ḏsr (“the sacred [secluded] land”), the domain of the god Anubis, or r3-sṯʒ.w (“the beginning of the corridors”), associated in particular with the god Sokar and the Memphis necropolis.

The necropolis is the place in the real world where the tombs are. At the same time, however, the necropolis is the metaphysical realm where the destiny of the dead is carried out. Both aspects are inseparable in Egyptian thought. Necropolises as sites and as social institutions were the places at which the imaginary concepts of funerary religion were anchored to physical and social reality. The necropolis forms part of a tripartite model of a world that comprises heaven, earth, and necropolis; in its sense of “netherworld” and “hereafter,” it is contrasted to the realm of the living (t3-pn “this land”; tp-t3 “[being] upon earth”). The necropolis is the realm where the dead “live” (as a class of beings, along with gods and men). In that sense, the cemetery (as a site) is just the entrance to a netherworld realm of cosmic dimensions.

The dead do not pass the threshold to the netherworld once and for all. In some sense, they continue to dwell in the tomb as the living dwell in their houses. Therefore, the dead can be approached ritually at their tombs. Yet mobility is a prime concern to the spirits of the dead: they wish to move about freely in the netherworld, and they wish to be able to exit from it to see the light of the sun and to revisit the “places of yesterday.” The necropolis is thus a place of transition in both directions and of continuous contact between this world and the world beyond.

The living and the dead are engaged in a network of mutual relationships which were conceptualized in highly ambivalent, even contradictory terms. For the dead, death could be a state of ultimate weakness. The dead depended on being cared for by the surviving group, both through ritually correct burial and through regular offerings. Otherwise, they would not be able to face the many hazards of their netherworld existence. The dead therefore need to muster the solidarity of the living, and they need to be remembered. One important argument in this context is to recall the moral integrity and the achievements of the deceased person during life, which entitles her or him to claim the support of her or his group in return. The same idea is expressed in a mythological guise in the concept of a universal judgment of the dead by the divine court of Osiris. At the same time, however, the dead could be powerful beings. For the surviving group, the dead did not lose their identity nor their status as social persons. Having access to the world of gods and spirits, they could lend magical support to their families. If offended by impious behavior, the spirits of the dead could prove fearful enemies; in fact, they are cited as a frequent cause of illness. For the living, interaction with the dead therefore could be risky and highly ambivalent. The necropolis was a place to seek support from them, to conciliate them, and even to combat them with magical means.

Very much as a necropolis appears, to the archaeologist, as the counterpart to a settlement, the community of the dead appeared, in Egyptian thought, as a counterpart to the society of the living, mirroring both its structure and its norms, raised to a metaphysical level.

See also entries on the individual sites mentioned in this article; TOMB ROBBERY PAPYRI; and the composite article on TOMBS.

Bibliography

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Stephan J. Seidlmayer