Christian burial practices

Gillian Bowen

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Examination of the cemetery at ‘Ain Tirghi in eastern Dakhleh from 1982/3 was undertaken in an effort to understand the demographic profile of the oasis; 58 tombs with multiple burials were excavated and around 870 human remains collected for study by a team of bioarchaeologists (Hope 2019a, 277). It was realised, however, that the tombs had not only been plundered, but had been used over a considerable time frame, and consequently the sample was unsuitable for the proposed study (Hope 2019a, 277). The survey and subsequent excavations at Ismant al-Kharab, which revealed an occupancy of around 400 years, indicated that its cemeteries might be fit for the purpose, and in 1991 a tentative exploration of both the Kellis 1 and Kellis 2 cemeteries was undertaken. An examination of Kellis 2 (K2) showed that it was densely filled with pit graves, and some mud-brick structures were also noted (Birrell 1999, 38; Sheldrick 2008, 137); the study of the human remains from this cemetery by the bioarchaeological team has proved to be extremely fruitful and has fulfilled all expectations (Chapter 15). The pit graves are uniformly oriented east–west, and all bodies excavated were placed in the graves with their heads to the west. This is typical of Christian burial practice.

The adoption of Christianity by the villagers must have brought major changes to the social practices at Kellis. As we have seen, the temples were abandoned for worship that revolved around the churches. Priests were eventually replaced by Christian clergy who were responsible for instructing their congregations in the new doctrine. Burial practices were part of that change. Gone was the rich traditional funerary cult that entailed multiple burials with an array of objects to serve the dead in the afterlife (Chapter 13); the new religion took a different approach in keeping with the promise of eternal life. The major tenet of Christianity was the resurrection of Jesus and salvation in the world to come for its followers. Deceased Christians were thought to be ‘sleeping’, awaiting the Second Coming of Jesus when they would be resurrected. The deceased were regarded as part of the community, and it was now possible for cemeteries to be developed around churches within settlements instead of on the outskirts.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationKellis
Subtitle of host publicationA Roman-Period Village in Egypt's Dakhleh Oasis
EditorsColin A. Hope, Gillian E. Bowen
Place of PublicationCambridge UK
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages24
ISBN (Print)9780521190329
Publication statusPublished - 2022

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