World Archaeology: Ancient Egyptian Mortuary Rituals

Archaeological studies have focused on the role played by ritual practices and belief systems in ancient societies. Ancient societies depended on rituals and belief systems to communicate with the spiritual world and also to interpret their material world as well as their own being. Some aspects of ritual and belief systems practiced by ancient societies are clearly documented in archaeological records during this period when the first monuments were built. In ancient societies, ritual practices and belief systems were used to create social bonds and kinships that were essential for the survival of its people like in the Tsodilo Hills for example. In ancient societies, rituals and belief systems were characterized by six distinct attributes, which included, gesture and formalism of expression, compliance with earlier traditional practices, and physical control and repetition. Therefore, ancient societies engaged in ritual practices and observed belief systems.

Key words: ancient societies, sacrifices, belief systems, ritual practices

In the recent past, archaeological studies have focused on the role played by ritual practices and belief systems in ancient societies. It was a study that was avoided because these activities were regarded as non-dysfunctional. Most archaeological works have discovered that these activities had a significant role in ancient societies and are the originators of the spontaneous forces of modern civilized life, including commerce, law and order, science and wisdom, and art and poetry. Ritual practices and belief systems can be understood by evolutionarily understanding animal behavior, especially human behavior that was regarded as new around 12 000 years ago (Graeber, & Wengrow, 2021). Therefore, ancient societies depended on rituals and belief systems to communicate with the spiritual world and also to interpret their material world as well as their own being.

Ritual behavior is archeologically documented in the Upper Palaeolithic period, which is documented in the form of human burials which were fashioned conventionally like in the Ezyies-de-Tayac caves for example (Centre des Monuments Nationaux, 2018). At the site, there were decorated grottoes, which signified the people lived in the caves as their dwelling place. Moreover, there also exists such evidence in the theatres of Greece, where grand ceremonies and performances were held by ancient Greeks (Tourloukis, & Harvati, 2018). Additionally, there were also the plazas in pre-Colombian Peru used for ceremonies and processions, including the palaces found in Bronze Age Crete, which were used as central courts.

Such ceremonies and performances may be categorized as either plays or rituals, including many other civic ceremonies that are conducted all over the world, such as coronations, inaugurations, and investitures. Many monuments which are found in several places around the world have always been used as centers of public ceremonies and performances since inception (Johnson, 1965; Tourloukis, & Harvati, 2018). Most of these ceremonies were conducted in a religious context and included certain obligations’ fulfillment, such as the offering of sacrifices to the gods.

Belief systems and ritual practices formed a hierarchy and structure that helped define the place of a community in the world, which resulted in early forms of worship such as paganism, totemism, and animism. The oldest ritual practice can be dated back to 70,000 years in the “Mountains of the Gods,” found in a Botswanan cave in the Tsodilo Hills (Ndlovu, 2007). The findings from the Tsodilo Hills World Heritage Site showed there were discoveries of sacrificial offerings of spearheads, which according to the natives, is the home of the world’s highest concentration of rock arts (Ndlovu, 2007). The site consists of four hills; male, female, child, and grandchild, all named after the “bushman” San beliefs and mythology, and have been occupied by the natives since the Middle Stone Age (Hentato, 2012). From the site, the archeological artefacts that were found were paintings and carvings, which can tell the ritual or belief practices of the natives revolved around dance, which typically took place in a circular form.

Ritual and Belief Systems

In ancient societies, rituals and belief systems were characterized by six distinct attributes, which included, gesture and formalism of expression, compliance with earlier traditional practices, and physical control and repetition. Others included restriction of human interaction and governance, the use of sacred symbols, performance and activities are undertaken under the public glare (Ancient Mesopotamia, n.d.). The origins of ritual and religion can be attributed to animal behavior in the context of the play, including their collective behavior of migration.

Role of Ritual Practice in Early Dynastic Mesopotamia

In Early Dynastic Mesopotamia, there were many festivals throughout the year which represented various ritual practices celebrating a specific god, cause, or season. Every city had its own unique festivals, which varied in customs, celebrations, or order of the ritual (Frangipane, 2016). The most important rituals were associated with pastoral and agricultural activities, such as sheep shearing and milking, which had their special dates and were dedicated to the gods or goddesses. The king was the human representative of the hierarchy of the gods in these rituals (Mark, 2019). Most of them involved sacrifices and offerings in the temples to appease the gods.

Offerings and sacrifices involved the feeding of the gods in the temple and were regarded as a daily duty by ancient Mesopotamians. The act was thought of as one that sustained the gods and kept them comfortable and content. Misti was a purification ritual practiced in Mesopotamia conducted when an object or person had come into contact with one of the gods. Furthermore, it was also performed whenever a new statute or temple was erected. There was also another ritual that incorporated the use of amulets as protection against evil spirits or the wrath of the gods and demons (Morley et al., 2017). The burial customs of the ancient Mesopotamians involved the pacing of a dead body in a ceramic jar.

The Mesopotamians worship several gods, spirits, deities, and demons. They worshipped in unique temples that were central and considered the essential structures in the community. Most of these temples were assigned to specific deities and spirits, which were impressive depending on how much a city was worth. Temples in Mesopotamia had a central shrine with the statue of a deity at the altar visible to all. Worshipping was regarded as a daily activity that included making sacrifices and carrying out the duties given by the gods.

In ancient Mesopotamia, the sculptural images of kings and rulers were used as representations or reminders that were subjected to rituals of installation, consecration, and maintenance. They were considered living manifestations that had the power to speak and act on behalf of a ruler or king. They can be regarded as objects of the constitution. This ritual was a continuous practice of the Sumerians from the middle to the third millennium BCE to the second millennium. However, some records suggest that most rituals continued until circa 2000 BCE (Winter, 1992). Images were placed in temple sanctuaries where rulers were regarded as divine. The sculptures were used in worship in temples assigned to specific rulers.

Ritual practices and belief systems were an essential part of the ancient Mesopotamian culture and everyday life, even as its religion developed. Many of these rituals were based around rites of passage such as marriage and birth, which involved dancing, banquets, food, and music. The Akitu festival was a predominant ritual, which was performed during the new year and is recorded as one of the oldest rituals in Mesopotamia. This ritual dates back to the middle of the third millennium BCE. In the Babylonian calendar, the Akitu festival takes place in the first month of the year. The twelve days of the new year were regarded as the most important festival. The festival’s procession would move from the statute of Marduk to a temple located on the outskirt of the city. In the ritual, the high priest was required to slap the king across the face to show that the gods were more important than him and that his kingly powers were removed. The king was slapped again to signify that his kingship had been returned.

There were other rituals and festivals which were characterized by divine images being caressed as the procession moved around different locations. Some rituals involved prayers and hymns dedicated to certain gods and goddesses, which were complemented by dances on the streets which symbolized religious ways of recalling divine stories (Ancient Mesopotamian). However, there was a glaring issue within the rituals where the Mesopotamians learned to use festivals to worship materialistic things. It was a practice that created a possibility whereby the Mesopotamians risked losing the primary meaning of their rituals. The adherents of the rituals risked learning to worship statutes instead of deities or the transcendence force they represented. This type of ritual allowed people to engage in worldly worship and ignored the more conventional one on-one encounters with their gods and worship.

Old Kingdom Egypt

In the past, many archaeologists associated the ancient culture of Egypt with death. There were narratives of mummies, tombs, strange rituals by priests, and pyramid tombs. However, ancient Egyptian rituals and belief systems were full of life that involved the afterlife, which was an eternal continuation of mortal life (Wengrow, 2006). In ancient Egypt, when there was death, the funeral was a public event where the living members of the society mourned their passing, which helped the deceased to move on from the mortal to the immortal plane of the eternal. Even though there was deep mourning and outpouring of grief over the significant loss caused by death, they believed that the dead person was still alive in another world. The deceased had merely left this world and moved to another realm. To ensure that the deceased reached their destination safely, the Egyptians had an elaborate mortuary ritual to preserve the body, freeing its soul and dispatching it on its journey (Baines, & Yoffee, 1998). The rituals were used to express a rational expression of grief among those living and ended with a celebration of the deceased’s life, including their departure, signifying that the death was just a transition to another life (Wengrow, 2010). The guarantee of the continuation of life in another realm was essential to the Egyptians, provided by the mortuary rituals.

In ancient Egypt, the deceased were placed in simple graves together with grave goods they were expected to use during their journey to the netherworld. Records indicate that ancient Egyptians believed there was an afterlife before circa 3500 BCE when they began practicing mummification (Wengrow, 2018). However, there is no record as to what form this belief was constituted. In the pre-dynastic period of circa 6000-3150 BCE, simple graves transformed into mastaba tombs during the Early Dynastic Period (circa 3150-2613 BCE) (Mark, 2017). In the Old Kingdom (circa 2613-2181 BCE), the tombs also underwent significant changes to become grand pyramids. There was a belief in the afterlife in all three periods, which was signified by mortuary rituals.

The best records of these rituals are found in images on tombs that date back to the Old kingdom. During this period, the Egyptian culture had deeper insights into the workings of the universe and humanity’s place in the world (Baines, & Yoffee, 1998). They believed the gods had used magic (heka) to create the people and the world and sustained it using the same. Moreover, they also believed that the world was filled with mystical life provided by the gods who hosted the soul when it left the earth into the netherworld (Stevenson, 2016). They took significant exception to preserve the body left behind in preparation for the journey. It is why mummification became a vital part of the mortuary rituals practiced by ancient Egyptians.

Even though there is the feeling that all Egyptians were mummified when they died, the practice was not cheap and was only carried out by the nobility and upper class. The kings were buried in pyramid tombs during the Old Kingdom, a practice that changed in the First Intermediate Period of Egypt (circa 2181-2040 BCE (Teeter, 2011). Nobles and kings preferred tombs sculpted out of rock faces or into the earth. Rituals that led to burials and tombs had attained their highest state of development during the New Kingdom. They involved three ways in which bodies were embalmed, which included the most elaborate and expensive, a slightly less elaborate one, and a cheaper one which did not pay much attention to details (Regulski, 2016). The most expensive mortuary rituals were conducted for royalty, while the rest were for the wealthy and middle class, respectively.


In summary, there are many reasons why ancient societies engaged in ritual practices and observed belief systems. First, it is through rituals and belief systems that ancient societies forged meaningful kinship and social bonds that ensure cohesion in society. Secondly, rituals were used as a way of life in which man offered sacrifices to their gods to appease them. Thirdly, rituals and belief systems were used to communicate with the spiritual realm, where man derived meaning from complex situations in life, such as death. Finally, rituals and belief systems were used to purify the rites of passage such as birth, death, and marriage.

Two examples of ancient societies engaged in observing belief systems and practicing rituals include the Early Dynastic Mesopotamia and the Old Kingdom Egypt. These two societies based their rituals on death, rites of passage, sacrifices to gods, and purification and protection against evil spirits. A unique ritual among the Mesopotamians was those involved in pastoral and agricultural activities used to celebrate and appease the gods. On the other hand, the Egyptians mainly had mortuary rituals, which were used to preserve the dead body, free the souls, and send it into the afterlife. The burial rituals involved simple graves, tombs, pyramids, and mummification. The activities were geared towards preparing for the afterlife.


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