Joshua J. Mark
published on 02 September 2009
A tomb is an enclosed space for the repository of the remains of the dead. The most elaborate tombs in ancient times were those built by the Egyptians for their kings, the pharaohs. Early on, the Egyptians built mastabas, tombs made of dried bricks which were then used to shore up shafts and chambers dug into the earth. In every mastaba there was a large room for ceremonies honoring the spirit of the deceased and an adjoining smaller room, the serdab, where a statue of the dead person would be placed so that the spirit could witness and enjoy the ceremonies.
The mastaba continued as a tomb for the common people but for royalty it was replaced by the structure known as the pyramid. Commencing with the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, the royal pyramids would reach their height in splendor in the construction of the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza (built 2551-2528 BCE). The royal pyramids were adorned with paintings depicting the life and accomplishments of the deceased king and filled with all those necessities the spirit would need in the afterlife in the Field of Reeds.
In ancient Mesopotamia tombs resembled the mastaba generally but, as in Egypt, the tombs of royalty were more ornate. Archaeological excavations carried out in the 1920s CE by C. Leonard Wooley uncovered the Royal Tombs of Ur in which were found many exquisite works composed of gold, lapis lazuli and carnelian (most notably the diadem of Queen Puabi). In one tomb dubbed 'the great death pit' by Wooley, the bodies of six guards and 68 ladies-of-the-court were found. It is thought these were the favored of the king and were chosen to accompany him to the afterlife.
In Greece, the tombs of the wealthy were closely linked, architecturally, to the mausoleum. As the Greeks believed that remembrance of the dead was necessary for the continued existence of the spirit in the afterlife, Greek tombs frequently pictured the deceased in ordinary settings from life (such as sitting down to dinner, enjoying the company of friends or family) in order to remind the living of who that person was in life. In Athens, below the Acropolis, the graves of common citizens depict the same sort of scenes as those of the more affluent. Soldiers who were killed in action were commonly buried on the field in mass graves and one single marker (usually a monument naming the battle and the date) served to honor the fallen.
Tombs in ancient Rome followed the same course of development as in Egypt and elsewhere, beginning with burial underground and evolving into more elaborate structures to house the dead. In Rome, however, the rise of Christianity and the new belief in the bodily resurrection of the dead, lead to a decrease in cremations and, simply lacking room for the bodies of the deceased, catacombs dug in the earth, with shelves in the walls, became the most common form of the tomb.
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- Edith Hamilton. The Roman Way. W. W. Norton & Company, 1993.
- Gwendolyn Leick. Mesopotamia. Penguin (Non-Classics), 2003.
- Margaret Bunson. Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. Gramercy, 1999.
- Will Durant. Our oriental heritage. Simon & Schuster, 1954.
- Will Durant. The Life of Greece. Simon & Schuster, 1935.
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