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Burial Urns In Ancient Egypt: Symbolism and Theories

When most of us think of ancient Egypt, we often think of mummification and pyramids in tandem. While mummification and burial in coffins is the form of burial most of us closely associated with the upper class, the powerful, and nobility in ancient Egypt, did you know that new archaeological research that took place in 2017 has revealed that other common forms of burial during these times were in ceramic funerary urns and pots? 

Ceramic Vessels or Pot Burial

In ancient Egyptian funerary rituals, a canopic jar is a covered vessel made of wood, stone, pottery, or faience filled with embalmed viscera removed from a body during mummification. Researchers and scientists have long theorized that ancient Egyptians buried in burial pots or urns were for low-income people who could not afford mummification. They estimated that since these burials were for the impoverished, the pots used were perceived to be reused household vessels for the internment. 

Throughout Egypt, archaeologists have discovered hundreds of ancient ‘pot burials,’ with the bodies of infants, children, and adults folded inside ceramic vessels. They estimate that it was around 3,500 BCE that they began to practice this ritual in pots similar to the Greek amphorae. Sometimes, a body would be found that was placed beneath a pot in a grave. Archaeologists and researchers estimate this practice may have come to Egypt from the Levant region, where pot burials date back at least 2,000 years before the first discovered and known examples in Egypt. 

Because of this viewpoint that the use of burial urns in ancient Egypt were not ‘proper coffins’ and were thought to be a phase along the evolutionary trajectory toward the more modern idealized wooden rectangular type, scholars typically dismissed studying them further and deemed the containers and their human occupants to cultural refuse. 


In late 2016 and early 2017, an article was published for the Journal of Antiquity, where Ronika Power, Professor of Bioarchaeology, and Egyptologist Yann Tristant presented evidence that debunked the original guess that these pot burials for only for those who could not afford mummification. The study was created to explore the claims that these burials were not held in high esteem but were, and regarded, even by the wealthy, as not only acceptable but more than just the burial of fetuses, infants, and children, and more the domain of adults regardless of perceived status. 

Ronika Power and Yann Tristant wrote that pot burial most likely may have held a profoundly symbolic association with the ancient Egyptians. The round burial containers holding the buried bodies most often resemble a womb or even an egg, and they estimate that ancient Egyptians may have perceived these funerary urns and pots as a means to facilitate rebirth into the afterlife.

Power and Tristant consider pot burials from 46 separate sites, most of which are located by the Nike River, and cite previous archaeological studies and not that more than half of the 46 sites found the remains of adults. As for children’s funerary rites, pot burials were less common than expected. From a total of 746 fetuses, infants, and children that had been found buried in some variety of containers, 338 were buried in wooden coffins, even though wood was scarce and costly in ancient Egypt, while another 329 were buried in pots and urns and the remainder buried in baskets or containers constructed from materials including reeds or limestone. 

As for the previous theory about class and pot burials, the excavated tomb of a wealthy governor was revealed to have included a pot burial of an infant who may have been his son or relative. The infant’s burial pot contained beads covered with a sheet of gold, and other funerary pots associated with the upper class have been found to include gold, ivory, ostrich eggshell beads, and textiles. 

In the jointly published article, Tristant and Power ask: “Why did so many Egyptians choose to bury their deceased family or community members in pots, as it is clear that they had many different options at their disposal, including being wrapped in linen, animal skins, reed mating or placement in a receptacle constructed from basketry, mud, ceramics, wood or stone."

The two authors indicated that over time, these decisions could have been influenced by localized cultures, foreign influence, religious beliefs, and specific funerary rites, among other possibilities. 

However, what motivated ancient Egyptians to choose to be buried within funerary pots and urns continues to have divided opinions—yet it cannot be denied that burial in ancient Egypt is far more diverse than many of us initially thought.

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