Friday, November 11, 2011


Steven Snape, Ancient Egyptian Tombs: the Culture of Life and Death. Blackwell ancient religions. Malden, MA; Oxford; Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. Pp. xvi, 289. ISBN 9781405120890. $119.95.

Reviewed by William H. Peck, The University of Michigan-Dearborn (

Version at BMCR home site

This work is a rather ambitious attempt to summarize not only the development of the burial place in ancient Egypt and its architecture, but also the complex religious significance of the tomb, the attendant rituals and ritual objects as well as funerary texts. Admittedly, there is a great deal to be said about each of these aspects of the burial rite in ancient Egypt and the author has essayed a survey that includes a good deal of significant information as well as observation.

The time span of the investigation of over three thousand years begins in the late Predynastic Period and continues through the entire history of pharaonic Egypt. The emphasis is on private rather than royal burials (although these are not completely ignored). Among the topics discussed is an examination of the meaning and function of the tomb as a "machine" or a "vehicle", in the words of the author, to enable the spirit of the deceased to enter the afterlife. Admittedly this work is an exposition in less than three hundred pages of a complex series of concepts that include discussions of the ka, the ka statue, the meaning of scenes in mastaba tombs, the "eruption" of the Osirian afterlife, the use of tomb models, changes in coffin styles and the development of religious texts such as the Book of the Dead.

Occasionally the interest of the author leads him into byways that may not seem to many readers germane to the subject. A digression in Chapter Eight, "Osiris, Lord of Abydos" is a lengthy examination of the ancient site of Abydos as a place of pilgrimage, the resulting chapels with dedicatory stelae left by the pious, as well as the form and purposes of such stelae. However interesting, strictly speaking, this is not about the development of tombs. In somewhat the same way Chapter 16, "Sennedjem" contains sub-headings such as "A Tomb Inspection at Deir el Medina" (the site of Sennedjem's tomb), "Buying a Coffin", and "Ancestors in the Home", a comment on the tradition of the Ancestor Bust. While these topics are related to the basic theme of the book they suggest an attempt to live up to the subtitle "The Culture of Life and Death".

In general this work contains a great deal of information on burial and other customs. In one instance (page 108) I would question his information where he describes a cemetery at Mendes in the Delta as composed of only small mud brick mastaba tombs, some with stone elements. At least two tombs of limestone construction were found there; the remains of one suggested that it was a massive production. However, in as far ranging an account as this one, that is a relatively small detail.

The illustrations are comprised of line drawings, plans, maps and photographs. Many of the latter are from the excavations of John Garstang and credited to the Garstang Museum of Archaeology, University of Liverpool. One of the illustrations referred to in the text is of an important ostracon only found on the paper dust jacket, a practice to be discouraged because it is easily lost or damaged. The book is completed with references, further reading and index. The references occupy fifteen pages and the further reading an additional four. I was not clear what difference was intended between the two sections.

Table of Contents

List of Figures
1. Nameless Lives at Tarkhan and Saqqara: Early Tombs and the Ka
2. Pits, Palaces and Pyramids: Royal Cemeteries of the Early Dynastic Period and Old Kingdom
3. Non-Royal Cemeteries of Dynasty 4
4. Unas, Teti and Their Courts: The Late Old Kingdom at Saqqara
5. The Tombs of Qar and Idu: Families and Funerals in the Late Old Kingdom
6. A Growing Independence: Court and Regional Cemeteries in the Late Old Kingdom
7. Ankhtify: A Time of Change
8. Osiris, Lord of Abydos
9. 'Lords of Life': Coffins
10. Strangers and Brothers: The Middle Kingdom in Middle Egypt
11. North and South: Middle Kingdom Tombs at the Royal Residence
12. Ineni, Senenmut and User-Amun: New Tombs for Old
13. Rekhmire and the Tomb of the Well-Known Soldier: Foreigners and Funerals in the Age of Empire
14. Huya and Horemheb: Amarna and After
15. Samut and the Ramesside Private Tomb
16. Sennedjem: Building and Buying at Deir el-Medina
17. Petosiris: A Dying Tradition
Further Reading

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