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The West-East-oriented cemeteries of Egypt: a contextual approach to religious identity

posted on 2017-02-09, 02:38 authored by Younger, Alice
From the late third to fourth century, a new type of burial practice evolved in Egypt that is currently attested at Kellis, el-Bagawat and North Saqqara. The key practices of this type include the interment of one wrapped individual in an unelaborate pit grave with a west-east orientation, the presence of infants and foetuses and the provision of few or no grave-goods. The deceased was in a supine position with the hands over the pelvis or beside the body. Body treatment, if present, was devoid of evisceration. It has been argued that this new type of burial practice reflects a change in religious identity, from pagan to Christian. These innovative burial practices are found not just in Egypt, but in Turkey, Jordan, Europe and Britain. In the Egyptian, British and European contexts, alternative interpretations of the change of burial practice have been advanced. It has been suggested that those buried in such cemeteries could have initially been pagans and Christians just adopted these practices later. Alternatively, these burials may have been those of the poor. In order to resolve this issue, these cemeteries require further study. Material from such cemeteries is now available from the above-mentioned sites. At Kellis, the excavation of the settlement has yielded considerable evidence, including papyri, concerning the local religious context of the cemeteries. This thesis also tests various theories and methods for their applicability to the establishment of religious identity from burial data. In order to establish whether the new practices represented a continuation of pagan practice, Chapter 1 examines the burial characteristics of earlier, Egyptian necropoleis. Chapter 2 presents a statistical analysis of the burial practices of the west-east-oriented cemeteries of Kellis 2 and el-Bagawat and incorporates a qualitative analysis of the North Saqqara burials. The analyses establish the key characteristics of this burial type. Chapter 3 investigates the identity of those interred in the west-east-oriented cemeteries by using the methods of a ranked comparison of pagan and west-east-oriented burial practices, a ranking of the cemeteries for effort expenditure and wealth and a ranked comparison of the early, putative Christian cemeteries of Britain and Egypt. The settlement evidence is also discussed. The results confirm that those who used the new type of burial practice were probably Christians, whose practices displayed their new religious identity in opposition to that of pagans. This is not to say that this was the only expression of Christian identity in burial practice at this time. A critical assessment of the theories and methods used concludes that they may be of relevance in further studies, which seek to determine religious identity from an analysis of the burial data, particularly where texts are unavailable.


Principal supervisor

Gillian Bowen

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School of Philosophical, Historical & International Studies

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Centre for Archaeology and Ancient History

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