Past Perfect: Into the Afterlife
Egyptologist George Reisner solves a Nubian mystery
It’s not surprising that George Reisner (1867–1942) loved detective stories, eventually bequeathing his collection of 1,300 whodunits to Harvard University. Passionately painstaking, he devoted himself to documenting his excavations with detailed site maps, complicated cross-sections and the latest photographic techniques. Born in Indianapolis, Reisner earned his Ph.D. from Harvard by 1893. The following year he left for Germany, where he served as an assistant in the Egyptian department of the Berlin Museum. In 1899 Phoebe Apperson Hearst (mother of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst) funded a Reisner-led excavation of the early dynastic cemeteries at Naga ed-Deir, about 300 miles south of Cairo. When Hearst withdrew her financial backing in 1905, Reisner returned to Harvard and was appointed professor of Egyptology. He later headed an expedition sponsored by Harvard and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, that excavated an Old Kingdom (2575–2134 B.C.) necropolis near the Giza pyramids. In 1925 his team discovered the burial chamber of queen Hetepheres, the mother of Pharaoh Khufu (2551–2528 B.C.), who built the Great Pyramid. The tomb contained a golden bed and silver jewelry inlaid with malachite and lapis lazuli, but the queen’s alabaster sarcophagus was mysteriously empty. Later in his career, Reisner turned his attention to the ancient Nubian site of Kerma, which he had first excavated in 1913. Located 435 miles south of Aswan on the Nile, in modern Sudan, Kerma had grown rich in ancient times trading ivory, ebony, ostrich feathers, leopard skins, copper, gold and slaves from central Africa. Kerma’s dead kings and nobles (including the 20th-century B.C. prince Hepzefa, whom Reisner mistakenly assumed was an Egyptian) were laid to rest on cowhides or wooden beds surrounded by precious goods and dozens of concubines, children and attendants, who were buried alive under mounds of sand. In the following extract from a 1923 report to Harvard’s Peabody Museum, Reisner vividly describes “the frantic confusion and haste” with which the doomed entourage was dispatched. When he died at his Giza encampment in 1942, Reisner’s colleagues mourned not only the loss of a meticulous and insightful archaeologist, but the pipe-smoking “Papa George” who welcomed them to tea in the shadow of the pyramids.—Ed.
In all the range of present knowledge, there is only one custom known which sends the family or a part of it into the other world along with the chief member. That is the custom, widely practiced but best known from the Hindoo form called
The attitudes of the bodies in the grave and their positions answer at once a part of these questions. If the victims had been killed before entering the grave, they would have been placed all in the same position neatly arranged on the right side, head east, with the right hand under the cheek and the left hand on or near the right elbow. The location and various attitudes of the bodies show that they must have entered the grave alive on their own feet and taken their positions as they could find place … Many of these bodies are in attitudes which could only be the result of fear, resolution under pain or its anticipation, or of other movements which would naturally arise in the body of perfectly well persons suffering a conscious death by suffocation … If a person had the fortitude to withstand the emotion of being covered with earth, subsequently little movement was possible and death came quickly. That there were such persons is clearly shown by a small number of bodies, usually of mature age, which lie approximately in the attitude of those who were buried as corpses … The most unfortunate persons were those, usually younger females, who crept under the bed and being thus enclosed in an air-space of about (6.18 cubic feet) died much more gradually by the exhaustion of air …
Self-sacrifice as practiced in the
Under such circumstances, the mind attempts to reconstruct the funeral of Prince Hepzefa, probably the first of the Egyptian governors to be buried in Ethiopia. Many of the preliminaries are quite beyond our ken—whether the chapel … and the skeleton of the tumulus had been built before the actual death; to what extent the body was mummified or prepared for burial, whether it lay in state in the thick-walled chapel for some days with the funeral equipment gathered about it; and many similar details. It was entirely in accordance with Egyptian custom to slaughter cattle for a great funeral feast, and the skulls of over 100 oxen laid on the surface and buried by drift sand around the southern circumference of the tumulus form ocular evidence of such a feast at the funeral of Hepzefa. The disposal of these skulls without rather than within the tumulus seems to indicate that the actual eating took place after the burial. A meat-feast was and remains among primitive people a rare occasion of which advantage was taken by every person within reach and such a ceremonial feast as was provided at the funeral of Hepzefa must have called together almost the whole population of the district for more than fifty miles around, if the delay between death and burial was greater than a few days.
I imagine the procession filing out of the chapel … and taking the short path to the western entrance of the long corridor of [the grandest of the Kerma tombs]; the blue-glazed quartzite bed, on which the dead Hepzefa probably already lay covered with linen garments, his sword between his thighs, his pillow, his fan, his sandals in their places; the servants bearing alabaster jars of ointments, boxes of toilet articles and games, the great blue faience sailing boats with all their crews in place, the beautifully decorated faience vessels and the fine pottery of the prince’s daily life; perhaps the porters straining at the ropes which drew the two great statues set on sledges, although these may have been taken to the tomb before this day; the bearers who had the easier burden of the statuettes; the crowd of women and attendants of the hareem [sic] decked in their most cherished finery, many carrying some necessary utensil or vessel. They proceed, not in the ceremonial silence of our funerals, but with all the “ululations” and wailings of the 033people of the Nile. The bed with the body is placed in Chamber C, the finer objects in that chamber and in the anteroom, the pottery among the statues and statuettes in the corridor. The doors of the chambers are closed and sealed. The priests and officials withdraw. The women and attendants take their place jostling in the narrow corridor, perhaps still with shrill cries or speaking only such words as the selection of their places required. The cries and all movements cease. The signal is given. The crowd of people assembled for the feast, now waiting ready, cast the earth from their baskets upon the still, but living victims on the floor and rush away for more. The frantic confusion and haste of the assisting multitude is easy to imagine. The emotions of the victims may perhaps be exaggerated by ourselves; they were fortified and sustained by their religious beliefs, and had taken their places willingly, without doubt, but at that last moment, we know from their attitudes in death that a rustle of fear passed through them and that in some cases there was a spasm of physical agony.
The corridor was quickly filled. With earth conveniently placed, a few hundred men could do that work in a quarter of an hour; a few thousands with filled baskets could have accomplished the task in a few minutes. The assembled crowd turned then probably to the great feast. The oxen had been slaughtered ceremonially to send their spirits with the spirit of the prince. The meat must be eaten, as was ever the case … No doubt the wailing and the feasting lasted for days, accompanied by games and dances.
—From Brian Fagan, ed., Eyewitness to Discovery, Oxford University Press, 1996.
It’s not surprising that George Reisner (1867–1942) loved detective stories, eventually bequeathing his collection of 1,300 whodunits to Harvard University. Passionately painstaking, he devoted himself to documenting his excavations with detailed site maps, complicated cross-sections and the latest photographic techniques. Born in Indianapolis, Reisner earned his Ph.D. from Harvard by 1893. The following year he left for Germany, where he served as an assistant in the Egyptian department of the Berlin Museum. In 1899 Phoebe Apperson Hearst (mother of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst) funded a Reisner-led excavation of the early dynastic cemeteries at Naga ed-Deir, about 300 miles […]