Insight into Egyptian/Greek/Roman funerary rites

My visit to the Art Museum in Seattle has been an illuminating experience.  I felt privileged to be able to look at art objects of ancient civilizations and learn about the richness and sensibilities of cultures long lost.  I was able to look and learn about a broad assortment of artifacts.  For this report, I’ve chosen an Egyptian work that is related to death/funerary rites, namely, The Relief of Montuemhet and his wife Shepenmut, ca. 665 B.C.  This pigment on limestone exhibit was originally excavated from tomb 34 and its dimension is 13 9/16 x 10 7/16 inches.  The work is on display in the fourth floor of Seattle Art Museum, in the Ancient Mediterranean and Islamic Art galleries.  There is a lot that could be read from the selected exhibit, especially pertaining to death and funerary rites of Ancient Egyptian civilization.

The artwork in question belonged to the tomb of Montuemhet – referred to by Egyptologists as TT34.  This tomb is located on the West Bank of the Nile facing the ancient Thebes (Luxor presently) near a place called Asasif.  This artifact is of historical significance because Montuemhet was a very powerful administrator during his reign.  Not only did he succeed Taharqa at the culmination of the Kushite twenty-fifth Dynasty, but he also oversaw the “sack of Thebes by the Assyrians and the reign of Psammetichus I of the Saite Twenty-sixth Dynasty”. (SarahB, 2012)  Some of the statues of him were built during his own lifetime.  Yet, it is the contents of his tomb, including the artwork in discussion, that represent the height of the legacy.

In the tomb of Montuemhet (where the relief was found), excavators found the mummified body of the great administrator in a well-preserved state.  The ancient Egyptians believed that to be reborn in the afterlife, one’s body too needed to be preserved, which they mastered through the process of mummification. As is the procedure during mummification, the body of Montuemhet was found devoid of many internal organs (as these tend to decal quickly) and fully embalmed.  The body was found wrapped in linen with beads and amulets woven into the layers for better binding.  The face “was covered with a mummy portrait, and the body placed in a sarcophagus, or coffin, within the tomb.  Only in this state, and surrounded by objects and food, was the deceased prepared for a successful journey to the afterlife”. (Shaw, 2003)

It is a well known fact that Ancient Egyptians believed in life after death.  Indeed they believed that the afterlife is more rich and colorful that what the earthly existence could possibly offer.  This is the reason why they made elaborate funerary preparations for the mortal body and made it ready to dwell comfortably in the eternal residence.  All the necessities for daily living, including food, water, vessels, clothes, ornaments, pet animals, etc, were packed into the tombs alongside the mummified body. (Billard, 1978)  The bodies were mummified so as to keep them fresh for life thereon, however unrealistic that possibility might look to the modern observer.  The explanatory text accompanying The Relief of Montuemhet and his wife Shepenmut notes: “Most surviving Egyptian art was created to furnish tombs, and many of the symbols that were used over and over (the sun, lotuses) represent regeneration.”

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