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Ancient Egypt – Life and Death in the Valley of the Kings

The second part of Joann Fletcher’s series about Kha and Merit who were buried in Deir el-Medina 3500 years ago covered their deaths, burials and beliefs about the afterlife. She opened the programme by explaining that death was the major employer in Deir el-Medina, and that country-wide it was one of the primary industries of Egypt. The village at Deir el-Medina was inhabited by the craftsmen and their families who worked on the tombs and temples for the Pharaohs. But it wasn’t just Pharaohs who were believed to live on after death – it was anyone who’d made the right preparations, and who’d had the right rituals performed at their funerals. So even relatively ordinary Egyptians would spend as much as they could on getting the right things said & done.

If I have one criticism of this programme it’s that Fletcher kept referring to Kha as “an ordinary Egyptian” or “a working man”. And I don’t think that was the case, from the rest of what she said, and the things that she showed us, Kha was clearly a wealthy individual who had high status in the village. But he wasn’t part of the elite or the aristocracy. Upper middle class rather than the working class that “working man” implies to me.

One of the things Fletcher showed us this time answered a question I’d had after the last programme – did they know the ages of Kha & Merit at death? It turns out they’d had the mummies CAT scanned, and in this programme two experts talked a bit about what this had shown us. Merit was in her thirties or forties when she died. Her bones showed no indication of chronic illness, and a general lack of wear and tear suggesting she’d lived quite a charmed life by Ancient Egyptian standards (showing she was relatively high status). There was no indication of prolonged illness before she died and no signs of a cause of death, so it’s likely that she died suddenly after a short illness. I wondered about childbirth – that being a common cause of death for women – but they didn’t speculate about that in the programme. Kha was also in good health, with no indication of chronic illness or prolonged illness before death. He was a bit older, in his 50s or 60s, when he died – and they made some throw away remark about how there was a probably an age difference between the two of them so maybe he didn’t die that much after her. I’m not sure what the evidence was for this (or whether there was any). But he did die after her, because her body was in coffins that were originally intended for him and that just wouldn’t’ve happened if he’d died first.

The scans also showed the jewellery that Kha and Merit were wearing, and Fletcher took us through the significance of some of it. Merit had one of those big broad collar necklaces that are seen on many of the paintings of Egyptian people. Fletcher showed us an example that’s in the Petrie Museum and explained that the rows of lettuces & grapes weren’t just to be decorative, they were both fertility symbols. Lettuces were symbols of Min, and the grapes were symbols of Hathor. So the necklace was both about birth or re-birth (and so appropriate for being born again in the afterlife) and it was about how Merit would like to be in the next life – a young fertile woman. As well as the necklace Merit was also wearing large gold earrings and a belt of gold cowrie shells. All this jewellery is like the jewellery you see in paintings of dancers & musicians – again, young seductive, fertile women, just what Merit would like to be in the afterlife. Kha also had jewellery on, and the notable thing about his jewellery was that he had a small cobra amulet placed in his wrapping on his forehead. The only people supposed to wear protective snakes on their heads are royalty – so Fletcher was speculating that this was the people who mummified him paying him respect.

The mummies showed signs of still having their brains inside, and Fletcher said the other internal organs were too (I think), which is unusual. Normally these were removed before the drying process to avoid rotting, but Fletcher told us that these mummies were probably dried out in a bath of very salty water rather than packed with dry natron. This process would pickle the whole body before it could rot, and Fletcher was saying this was state of the art mummification technique – another indicator of Kha’s wealth and relatively high status in the village.

As well as well done mummification Kha and Merit had all the important ritual components of a burial to help them navigate the afterlife. They had shabtis to do the work that would be asked of them in the afterlife, small statuettes as spare bodies in case something happened to the mummified real one, food and drink, and Kha had a personalised and high quality Book of the Dead. Fletcher talked us through what the Book of the Dead was – it’s a book of spells and incantations, as well as a description of the hazards of the afterlife. This means that the deceased knows how to pass through the dangerous places, and knows what spells to use to travel safely. And so the deceased will arrive at the judgement hall where his or her heart is weighed – if it balances with the feather of Maat (the goddess of truth & order) then the deceased has lived a good life and will go on to the rest of the afterlife. If it is heavy with sin, then the heart is fed to the Devourer and the deceased dies a second, permanent death.

As well as looking at the various items found in Kha & Merit’s tomb & telling us what they meant and how they fit into Egyptian beliefs, Fletcher also told us about the discovery of the tomb. The tomb chapel had been known since the late 19th Century & a stela of Kha and Merit was in the Egyptian Museum in Turin. The director of the museum in 1906 went on an expedition to try and find the tomb that must be somewhere near the chapel. Standard practice for the Egyptians was to put the tomb under the tomb chapel, but this makes it easier for tomb robbers later on to find and plunder the tomb. So Kha & Merit’s tomb was a short distance away. Schiaparelli had a large workforce, and basically cleared away an area of rubble in the nearby cliff face until he found a tomb entrance. When he & his colleagues went down the vertical hole in the ground they discovered a sealed tomb – which must’ve been incredibly exciting. The photographs of the discovery show the neat arrangement of all the funerary equipment, and the two colossal sarcophagi under dust sheets. They could tell that the last thing done before sealing the tomb was the floors were swept removing all the footprints and there was a lamp still burning when they sealed the tomb.

Like the other programme in this series this was very information dense – I’ve missed out loads in this summary. Worth watching 🙂