Tombs—Windows to Ancient Beliefs
IMAGINE yourself thousands of years back in time. You are in Ur, a thriving royal city in Sumer, Babylonia. A large procession of Sumerians has left the city, entered the cemetery, and is now heading down a ramp into the tomb of a recently deceased ruler. The tomb’s walls and floor are lined with mats, and the chamber is adorned with magnificent Sumerian art. Musicians accompany the procession of soldiers, menservants, and women into the tomb. All are radiant in their finery. Officers proudly bear the insignia of their rank. In this colorful throng are manned chariots drawn by oxen or asses, the grooms at the heads of the animals. All take their station, and a religious service is held along with musical accompaniment.
As the religious proceedings conclude, each person—from musician to servant—takes the small clay, stone, or metal cup he or she has brought along for the occasion, dips it into a copper pot, and drinks a specially prepared potion. Then all lie down in an orderly arrangement, compose themselves quietly, go to sleep, and die. Someone quickly slaughters the animals. Workers fill in the shaft and seal the tomb. Their god-king, the Sumerians believe, is now riding off gloriously into the next world in his interred chariot, his loyal retainers and soldier guard resplendent in his train.
While working in southern Iraq, archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley uncovered 16 royal tombs in the cemetery of ancient Ur, just like the one described. They were a grisly but remarkable find. “The wealth in these tombs, which remains unparallelled in Mesopotamian archaeology, included some of the most celebrated pieces of Sumerian art that now grace the halls of the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania Museum,” says Paul Bahn in his book Tombs, Graves and Mummies.
The tombs of ancient Ur, however, were far from unique, even in the macabre aspect of human and animal sacrifice. In many ancient civilizations, the nobility and royalty invested prodigiously—and, at times, cruelly—in their death and afterlife. Awash in artistic splendor and packed with treasures, their tombs often rivaled the palaces of the living. Nowadays, however, those tombs, as well as many other more modest graves, serve as a window to the past, allowing us to examine the beliefs, the culture, and the artistic and technological skills of ancient peoples and vanished civilizations.
Decaying in Splendor—With Company
In 1974, peasants near the city of Xi’an, in China, were sinking a well. But instead of finding water, they found fragments of clay figures, bronze crossbow mechanisms, and arrowheads. Unknowingly, they had chanced upon the 2,100-year-old Ch’in terra-cotta army, comprising over 7,000 larger-than-life clay soldiers and horses—all in military rank and file! A part of the largest imperial tomb in China, the Ch’in terra-cotta army is named after Ch’in Shih Huang Ti, the emperor who unified China’s warring states in 221 B.C.E.
Ch’in’s mausoleum is essentially an underground palace. But why the terra-cotta army? In his book The Qin Terracotta Army, Zhang Wenli explains that Ch’in’s “mausoleum is a representation of the Qin empire [and was] intended to provide Qin Shi Huangdi [Ch’in Shih Huang Ti] after death with all the splendour and might he enjoyed during life.” The tomb is now part of a vast museum comprising 400 satellite tombs and pits.
To build the tomb, “over 700,000 men from all parts of the empire were conscripted,” says Zhang. Work continued after Ch’in’s death in 210 B.C.E. and lasted a total of 38 years. Not all of Ch’in’s interred entourage, however, was terra-cotta. His successor decreed that Ch’in’s childless concubines be buried with him, resulting in the death of a “very great” number of people, say historians. Such practices were far from unique.
Northeast of Mexico City lie the ruins of the ancient city of Teotihuacán. This city had a street called the Street of the Dead. “Along this street,” writes Bahn, quoted earlier, “are some of the greatest architectural monuments in the world.” These include the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon, both built during the first century C.E., and the remains of the Temple of Quetzalcoatl.
The interior of the Pyramid of the Sun seems to have been a burial chamber for high-ranking individuals, perhaps including priests. Human remains found in mass graves nearby suggest that warriors may have been sacrificed to protect those in the interior. The distinct pattern of burials has led archaeologists to believe that the site contains the remains of about 200 people, including children who may have been sacrificed as part of the dedication program for the monuments.
Sailing or Riding Into the Afterlife
The Vikings, seafaring warriors of Scandinavia who terrorized Europe about 1,000 years ago, also hoped to enjoy the best trappings of a good earthly life after death. Their dead, they believed, rode their horses or sailed their longboats into the next world. Thus, Viking burial sites may contain anything from the skeletons of slain horses to the rotting timbers of longboats. In A History of the Vikings, Gwyn Jones writes: “The dead man or woman was given everything that could make the after-life as comfortable and honourable as that they knew on earth . . . The ship [buried] at Ladby in Denmark . . . had its anchor on board, ready to be dropped at the end of its lord’s voyage.”
A warlike race, the Vikings believed that if they died fighting, they would go to the home of the gods—a place called Asgard. “There, they could fight all day and dine all night,” says World Book Encyclopedia. Viking burial also involved human sacrifice. “When a chieftain dies, slaves and servants are asked who will die with him,” says the book The Vikings.
The ancient Celts of northern Europe even believed that a debt could be carried over into the next world—perhaps a cagey excuse for putting off payment! In Mesopotamia children were interred with toys. In parts of ancient Britain, food items such as legs of lamb were buried with soldiers so that they would not embark on their next life hungry. In Central America, Maya royalty were entombed with articles of jade—a green gemstone representing condensed moisture and breath. The intent may have been to ensure a continuation of life after death.
Sometime after 1,000 B.C.E., the Thracians—a feared race, but one that was also known for its exquisite works of gold—lived in a region that today lies in Bulgaria, northern Greece, and Turkey. Thracian tombs reveal that their chiefs were interred in magnificence along with chariots, horses, fine weaponry and, yes, their wives too. In fact, a Thracian wife saw it as an honor to be sacrificed and buried alongside her husband!
A little later and not far away—just north of the Black Sea—lived the Scythians. These warmongers drank out of cups made from the skulls of their victims and dressed in cloaks made from their scalps. In one Scythian tomb was found the skeleton of a woman with a cache of cannabis by her side. Her skull had three small holes drilled into it, perhaps to relieve swelling and the resulting pain. The cannabis was probably placed by her side so that she would have something with which to ease her headache in the next world.
The Egyptian Afterlife
Egypt’s pyramids near Cairo and burial chambers in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor are among the most famous of all ancient tombs. To the early Egyptians, the word for “tomb” was the same as for “house”—per. “So there was a house during life and a house after death,” says Christine El Mahdy in her book Mummies, Myth and Magic in Ancient Egypt. She also states that “according to [the Egyptians’] beliefs, the survival of the body was necessary for the survival of the other aspects of their being: the ka, the ba and the akh.”
The ka was a spiritual copy of the physical body and included its expectations, desires, and needs. After death the ka left the body and inhabited the tomb. Because the ka needed everything that the person had needed during life, “the goods placed in the tomb were primarily to satisfy its needs,” writes El Mahdy. The ba could be likened to a person’s character or personality and was pictured by a bird with a human head. The ba entered the body at birth and left the body at death. The third entity, the Akh, “germinated” from the mummy as magic spells were said over it.* The Akh inhabited the world of the gods.
In dividing a person into three entities, the Egyptians went one step further than the ancient Greek philosophers who divided humans into two entities—the body and a conscious “soul.” Still a popular teaching, this concept finds no support in the Bible, which states: “The living are conscious that they will die; but as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all.”—Ecclesiastes 9:5.
Why the Obsession With Death?
In his book Prehistoric Religion, E. O. James writes: “Of all the . . . situations with which man has been confronted death has been the most disturbing and devastating . . . It is not surprising, therefore, that the cult of the dead has occupied such a prominent position, and played an essential role in human society from its first emergence.”
The oldest book of genuine wisdom, the Bible, calls death an enemy of humans. (1 Corinthians 15:26) How fitting! Every tribe and civilization has vigorously resisted the idea that death is an absolute finality. On the other hand, at Genesis 3:19, the Bible accurately states the reality that all graves reveal: “Dust you are and to dust you will return.” However, the Bible also uses the expression “memorial tomb” in connection with many dead humans. Why so? Because many of those in the grave, even those who have fully decomposed, are in God’s memory, awaiting the happy time when God will resurrect them and give them the opportunity to enjoy everlasting life on a paradise earth.—Luke 23:43; John 5:28, 29.
In the meantime, the dead are unconscious. Jesus likened their state to sleep. (John 11:11-14) In such a state, a person has no need of burial goods or attendants. In fact, all too often the beneficiaries of interred treasures have been, not the dead, but the living—tomb robbers! In harmony with its teaching about the state of the dead, the Bible says: “We have brought nothing into the world, and neither can we carry anything out.” (1 Timothy 6:7) How grateful Christians are for this truth that ‘sets them free’ from the cruel and barbaric practices of ancient—and sometimes even modern—death cults!—John 8:32.
That said, the grandiose tombs of the ancients have not been an entire waste. Without the many artifacts and even the remains of the dead within the tombs, our knowledge of the distant past and some of its vanished civilizations would be murky indeed.
The term “mummy” comes from the Arabic mummiya, which means “bitumen” or “pitch.” The term was originally given to resin-soaked cadavers because of their blackened appearance. It now applies to any preserved body—human or animal—regardless of whether the preservation is accidental or deliberate.
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How Healthy Were the Ancients?
By examining the remains—especially the mummified remains of bodies found in tombs and those naturally mummified in peat bogs, hot desert sands, and ice and snow—scientists have learned much about the health of our distant ancestors. Advances in genetics in particular have given scientists powerful new tools to determine anything from the family relationships of the Pharaohs and their queens to the blood types of Inca maidens. These studies have revealed that the ancients suffered many of the health problems we have today, including arthritis and warts.
The ancient Egyptians in particular seemed to suffer more than their share of ills, largely because of the multitude of parasites—from blood flukes to guinea worms and tapeworms—that they picked up from the Nile River and irrigation canals. This calls to mind God’s words to Israel just after the nation’s deliverance from Egypt in 1513 B.C.E.: “As for all the evil diseases of Egypt that you have known, he [Jehovah] will not place them upon you.”—Deuteronomy 7:15.
© R Sheridan/ANCIENT ART & ARCHITECTURE COLLECTION LTD
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Sumerian headdress and jewelry of a female attendant buried in a royal tomb at Ur
© The British Museum
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Ch’in terra-cotta army—each soldier was sculptured with unique facial features
Inset: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY; © Joe Carini/Index Stock Imagery
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The Pyramid of the Sun and the Street of the Dead in Teotihuacán, Mexico
Top: © Philip Baird www.anthroarcheart.org; painting: Pictorial Archive (Near Eastern History) Est.
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Left: Solid gold funerary mask of Egyptian King Tutankhamen; below: Tomb painting depicting the ba as a human-headed bird