Death, Burial and Rebirth in the Religions of Antiquity (Religion in the First Christian Centuries)

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The Christian community that buried their deceased in the necropolises probably made use of chapels adjoining the cemeteries. Although no remains of cultic structures, Christian or otherwise, were found at either site, vestiges of three chapels adjoining cemeteries at the neighboring sites of Qaw and Badari suggest that chapels may have existed at Matmar and Mostagedda as well [42] ; the fact that no temple was found is hardly surprising, given that the settlements themselves are missing.

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Drawing on all of these points, it is likely that a Christian population was present at Matmar and Mostagedda by the end of the fourth century, and that its numbers may have grown steadily later on. Whether and how affiliation to Christianity was expressed in a burial context, and what other concerns may have played a role in the practice of interring the dead, is the focus of the following section. The graves contain surprisingly scant explicit evidence of religious affiliation.

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Only ten of the dead at Mostagedda and seven at Matmar were provided with items with overtly Christian symbols: cross pendants, decorations in the shape of crosses, or images of saints see table 2. Additionally, tomb at Matmar had the Christian stela mentioned above yet contained no other item of Christian symbolism. Such jewelry was worn, especially in the case of earrings, or was placed on the chest and body.

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A metal plaque incised with a cross was strung together with other rings and crosses on an iron torque worn by the child in tomb at Mostagedda. A second metal plaque, embossed with a figure interpreted as a saint, was placed on the body of another child, in tomb at the same site. Small crosses are embedded in the vegetal decoration carved on a wooden casket found next to the body of the female in tomb at Matmar fig. What precise role crosses played in tombs, and whether they marked the religious identity of the dead, acknowledged their devotion, or were apotropaic devices, is yet another problematic issue.

The fact that crosses were believed to hold protective powers is apparent from their burial association with other items traditionally used for their apotropaic value. A lead pendant in the shape of a cross was placed on the body of the deceased in tomb at Mostagedda, together with other items, including two bells, commonly believed to have protective value and used especially for children fig. Such was the case for the child in tomb and the female buried in tomb at Matmar. A body in tomb at Matmar was found with a wooden mirror covered with plaster and fitted with a central glass piece.

This central glass piece may have functioned in a manner similar to mirrors, which, apart from being objects of personal grooming, were also believed to offer protection. Generally, items of toiletry and personal adornment, including mirrors, are encountered in tombs at many other Egyptian sites, [51] and may be connected with providing the deceased with all personal items needed in the afterlife. The custom dates to dynastic times and seems to have regained its popularity from early Roman times onward. The presence of traditional talismans is by no means restricted to the graves containing Christian symbols.


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Reused dynastic scarabs, one phallic pendant, and a glass cylinder are only a few examples of pendants worn or placed on the bodies of the deceased fig. A sprang cap was placed next to the shoulder of a female in tomb at Mostagedda. In addition to items of dress and personal grooming, the vessels, broken or whole, placed in several tombs at both sites may have had a symbolic meaning.

Similarly, male mummies in tombs and at the same site had whole ceramic vessels placed near the head and over the pelvic area, respectively. This situation, far from unique, is paralleled by similar customs at sites both in the vicinity and farther away, as the parallels above indicate. The section above concentrated on the material evidence that demonstrates religious affiliation as well as the particular beliefs that may have prompted the use of artifacts with Christian or traditional symbolism.

Generally, many Christian tombs in other necropolises have other orientations, to such extent that cemeteries are thought to have lacked rules on orientation. The head orientation of the five bodies buried after the end of the fourth century is not westward see table 1.

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Earlier anthropoid sarcophagi had enlarged head and feet sections, [64] which suggests that, far from being innovative, the augmentation of these areas in late antique burials may have continued this tradition. Similarly, plain, uncolored crisscross bandages were used in earlier Egyptian times.

Much academic effort has been devoted to the identification of pagan versus Christian cemeteries, to the extent that switching to a new place for burying the deceased is assumed to have been the result of Christianization. Moreover, it also kept silent with regards to mixed burials of pagans and Christians. At Mostagedda, areas , , , , and were used for burial during Ptolemaic and early Roman times. The graves from the end of the fourth century and later were found especially in areas , , , , , and The situation is similar at Matmar.

Although it is possible that new burial grounds were used by Christians at Matmar and Mostagedda, several areas were clearly in use from as early as the Ptolemaic period until well after the Arab conquest of Egypt. It seems more reasonable to link the absence of grave goods to the lower financial means of the deceased than to an expressed desire for piety and modesty.

The previous discussion analyzed burial practices that archaeological scholarship commonly associates with Christianity, and suggested that such associations find limited support at Matmar and Mostagedda, where the main motivation for a number of practices seems to have been the continuation of older burial traditions.

The burials are spread over approximately four centuries at Matmar, and over more than five centuries at Mostagedda, ranging from the end of the fourth to the beginning of the ninth century. Although the earliest burials date to a period of the rapid expansion of Christianity, while the latest may have been contemporary to the first conversions to Islam, [70] the burial practices are relatively uniform with regards to orientation, wrapping process, and the types and position of grave goods.

Not only do they echo local burial features from Ptolemaic and early Roman times, they share similarities with burials from other contemporary sites mentioned above. The use of items corresponding to traditional religious practices is a recurring feature, to which tombs with Christian symbols present no exception.

How can the religious background of the Matmar and Mostagedda communities be better characterized? In order to respond to such questions, the situation at Matmar and Mostagedda must be placed in the larger context of religious change in late antique Egypt. Christian priests took over the charismatic role of their pagan counterparts, manufacturing amulets and other devices meant for the day to day comfort and protection of their flock.

A differentiation between traditional apotropaic items and Christian items is a useful analytic tool, yet its application can foster distinctions that may have not existed. According to the logic of efficacy and piety, items that appealed to tradition provided security and favor, benefitting their users much in the way that Christian symbols did. Put differently, case studies such as Matmar and Mostagedda can be fruitfully explored by focusing on the process of religious bricolage, its transformation through time, and its expressions at the level of the individual.

See, for example, Philip A. As, for example, Jitse H.

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Brunton appears to have donated artifacts from Mostagedda later on. See a letter from Guy Brunton to A. Brunton, Mostagedda and the Tasian Culture , Twenty samples from burial textiles preserved in the Bolton Museum, seven from Matmar and thirteen from Mostagedda, were sent for radiocarbon dating at the laboratory of the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage in Brussels. The results are not yet published. Only one textile Bolton Museum, Textiles were often in use long before burial, so it is probable that the tombs in which they were placed date to later times.

For a comprehensive summary, see Christina T. Examples of this type are the tunic of a child buried in tomb Bolton Museum, Examples are four textiles stored in the Bolton Museum, including a fragment tentatively identified as a cushion cover The fourth example The flying needle technique was used in the decoration of textiles from the third to the seventh century.

All Matmar pieces are similar in technique and quality to the earlier group. Ballet showed that the Coptic settlement of Matmar existed until the end of the seventh century AD. Nathalie Bosson Paris, Leuven: Peeters, , Orfinskaya et al.

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Kristin H. South and Kerry M. Reed stalks and palm leaves are mentioned in the descriptions of tombs at Matmar and , , and at Mostagedda. Tomb at Matmar. For a mummy wrapped in matting, see tomb at Matmar.


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  • The child in tomb at Mostagedda, however, was placed on a mat with one edge folded to serve as pillow. According to the register of Coptic graves in Brunton, Matmar , plate 67, and the corpus of body attitudes in Brunton, Qau and Badari I , plate See, for example, the attire of the male in tomb at Mostagedda. The neck slit of the tunic was sewn. However one tracks Christianity, from its ancient antecedents to the story of its precarious early existence to its political triumph under Constantine, one has to consider a variety of religious views of death and burial—death and burial in scripture and in art, in theology, ritual, architecture, pilgrimage and martyrology, in cosmogony—which represent the summation of the moral meaning of both collective and individual life.

    This is true of any religion worthy of the name, and certainly of the religions and cults of the Ancient Near East and the Roman Empire that constitute the major part of this book. While, clearly, there is more to religion Christian or otherwise than death, a religion which ignored it or down-played it would be no religion at all.

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