Objects from the Kharga Oasis

August 14, 2012–August 4, 2013

Burial in the Great Oasis

In Egypt, procedures for embalming and interring the dead, commemorating them through art, and promoting their well-being in the afterlife evolved over the centuries. During the Roman period (late first century B.C.–early fourth century A.D.), burial remained the preferred method of disposal. Mummification was practiced, but the thoroughness of the process varied. The quantity of skeletonized remains in cemeteries suggests that many people were buried with minimal, if any, evisceration and desiccation. Burial in small graves, pits, or reused tombs was more common than the construction of personal tombs. Mummies placed in coffins or adorned with masks and other decorations constitute a small percentage of those found. The preparation of the body was determined by the wealth of the deceased and by local practice.

With the spread of Christianity in Egypt, Christian beliefs about death and the appropriate care of the dead were integrated with existing traditions. Burials in the Great Oasis illustrate a variety of funerary preparations. Cemeteries in the towns of Kellis (modern Ismant al-Kharab) in Dakhla Oasis and Kysis (modern Dush) in Kharga Oasis preserve single- and multichambered subterranean structures, pit graves, and mud-brick mausolea. Examinations of the remains have revealed seven treatments, ranging from full mummification to natural desiccation. In several instances, mummies were covered with cartonnage (plastered layers of fiber or papyrus). Most burials contained traditional grave goods such as biers, ba (human-headed) birds, statues of deities, and items of personal adornment. Christian burials at Kellis and Bagawat include pit graves, mud-brick mausolea, and church interments (the latter only attested at Kellis). In general, bodies were not mummified but wrapped in linen shrouds secured with woven ties wound in a crisscross or lateral pattern. They were placed in the pit in a supine position, hands to the sides or over the pelvic region, head pointed westward. The inclusion of grave goods was minimal. A small number of bodies show some attempt at mummification and were accompanied by greater numbers of grave goods.