Tomb Warmings in Ancient Egypt

Come Dine With Me!

Tomb Warmings in Ancient Egypt


Martin Bommas

During the formation of the Egyptian state, the necropolis of Tarkhan in the Northern Nile Valley, located between Lisht and Meidum became one of the most important cemeteries with over 2000 tombs.[1] Sir William M.F. Petrie assumed the site belonged to an early royal metropolis which was abandoned shortly after King Narmer when the capital was moved to Memphis. Royal burial assemblages indeed add credibility to this theory. One of these included the greenish gray shallow bowl ECM 1205 from the Eton Myers collection. Made of siltstone and measuring 5.9 cm in height and 25.22 cm in diameter, this type of bowl is a common feature of elite burials in the late Predynastic Egypt (ca. 3100-3000 BC). It has a flat base and its floor forms a gentle slope which at the rim of the vessel curves inwards. On the inside, a coring slot is visible which has not been smoothened. Similar vessels, however, made of Nile clay and less shallow were considerably widespread and not limited to a use in funerary contexts as contemporary examples from Naqada III settlements show[2].

© Eton Myers Collection, University of Birmingham

© Eton Myers Collection, University of Birmingham

Skilfully made by well-trained artisans, this bowl epitomises not only craftsmanship during this period, it also sheds light on the contemporary achievements in areas such as geography and the planning of work processes. Quarried in the Wadi Hammamat in the Eastern Dessert, siltstone was the preferred material to create not only stone vessels but also palettes for grinding paint. The most famous of these monuments include the so-called Narmer Palette which celebrates the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt.

Bowls such as ECM 1205 have their seat in life within the funerary context where they were used as food containers. A high number of these vessels from Tarkhan can be found in almost all collections that once supported Petrie’s work, such as an example from Bolton Museum ( BOLMG: 1912.41.1).[3] Just like the stone vessel owned by Eton College, this standing bowl made of siltstone shows inward curves at the rim, and its measurements are very similar, too (H.: 4.5 cm; ø: 21-12.2 cm). However, its coring slot has been smoothened and therefore is less prominent.

BOLMG: 1912.41.1 © Bolton Library and Museum Services, courtesy of Dr. Routledge

BOLMG: 1912.41.1 © Bolton Library and Museum Services, courtesy of Dr. Routledge

As with the bowl from Eton College, the Tarkhan bowl from Bolton comes with no precise indication of its provenance which makes it difficult to assess its archaeological context. This is different for very similar bowls that were found by W.B. Emery in the mastaba tomb 3507 at Saqqara, dating to the reign of King Den (c. 2900 BC)[4].

To judge by its outer appearance, the most striking feature of tomb 3507 were more than 300 skulls of aurochs mounted on platforms which must have made a lasting impression on those who visited the necropolis.[5] It was also the first to use architectural stone: images of recumbent lions adorned the entrance into the tomb and the wooden lintel supported stone slabs laid across the wooden roof beams at the inside of the tomb. Based on inscriptions found within the tomb, Emery suggested that it belonged to Her-Neith, mother of king Djer, however, this is far from clear. It might even be that Her-Neith is the name of a male individual.

Set around the wooden coffin which contained human remains, small dishes were placed in brick niches in the burial chamber’s wall. One of these is kept in Bolton Museum today, too: bowl inv. no. BOLMG:1969.87.A is made of siltstone, as well, and shares the convex sides with the other examples mentioned but possesses a straight rim.[6] These dishes still contained food when they were found, thus making it very likely that they made part of a sumptuous banquet and remains of ox bones were found. Obviously, full meals were served, but who were the invited guests? Tomb 3507 contained no other burials of courtiers which, was otherwise a common practice of burials of the time. The sole companion of Her-Neith was a Saluki dog, a breed originating from the Fertile Crescent and known to be gentle and affectionate to their owners. Lying across the threshold to the tomb, this pet protected the deceased after its death but was certainly not allowed to join the feasting, the Totenmahl.

BOLMG:1969.87.A © Bolton Library and Museum Services, courtesy of Dr. Routledge

BOLMG:1969.87.A © Bolton Library and Museum Services, courtesy of Dr. Routledge

Later funerary texts can reveal some clues about the persons who the deceased hoped to join for a meal. First put into writing around 2350 BC, the Pyramid Texts found in the pyramid of King Unas detail the deceased’s wish to socialise with others during a meal. One of many examples is PT 494 = Pyr. §1063a-g:

The one who sits is sitting down to eat bread,
(just as) Ra sits down to eat bread.
Water will be given by the Ennead
And the God of Inundation stands on the offering table.
The God of Inundation, he comes to you.
The steward of Ra, he comes to you,
And you shall make happy the face of Ra,
And you shall make happy for him the two Enneads.

There can be no doubt that bowls like the ones discussed here were laid to invite the gods for dinner. What appears to be a tomb warming party with Her-Neith’s dog playing the role of the door steward has, however, a deeper meeting: this feast serves to introduce the deceased into the divine world by means of a social gathering. At this point the deceased is alone with himself and his new neighbours. When the dinner takes places after the burial chamber has been sealed, the living are no longer of assistance. This is when life in the beyond starts.


[1] The site was completely excavated by W.M.F. Petrie between 1911 and 1913. Petrie 1913: 1-13, Pls. 1-76; Petrie 2014.

[2] See, for example, the bowl with incurved rim from Tell el-Farkha, Jucha 2005: 146, Pl. 55.5; Wodzińska 2010: 53 (Naqada III 70) from the Naqada IIIB period, ca. 3150 BC; Bommas 2012: 10 and 14-16.

[3] I am grateful to Dr Carolyn Routledge, Bolton Library and Museum Services for allowing me to use images of the two vessels from Bolton Museum, published here.

[4] Emery 1958: 73-97.

[5] Tomb 3507 is one of the last large tombs of the site, see Helck 1984: 391.

[6] Emery 1958: 91, pl.104c.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Bommas, M. 2012. Das Alte Ägypten, Darmstadt.

Emery, W.B. 1958. Great Tombs of the First Dynasty III. London.

Helck, W. 1984. “Saqqara”, in W. Helck and E. Otto (eds.), Lexikon der Ägyptologie Volume Five. Wiesbaden, 391.

Jucha, M. 2005. Tell el-Farkha II. The Pottery of the Predynastic Settlement (Phase 2 to 5). Krakow.

Petrie, W.M.F. 1913. Tarkhan I and Memphis V. London.

Petrie, W.M.F. 1914. Tarkhan II. London.

Wodzińska, A. 2009. A Manual of Egyptian Pottery. Volume Two: Naqada III-Middle Kingdom. Boston.

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