Skip to main content

From refuse to rebirth: repositioning the pot burial in the Egyptian archaeological record

  • Ronika K. Power (a1) (a2) and Yann Tristant (a2)

The interment of bodies in ceramic vessels, or ‘pot burial’, was a widespread practice across the ancient world. Commonly associated with poverty, and with child and infant burials, the reuse of domestic vessels for burial has been taken to indicate that low value was assigned to the containers and their contents. New analysis urges a more holistic and culturally situated understanding. Contradictory evidence reveals that this burial practice was also used for adults and is represented in high-status tombs. Far from being recycled ‘rubbish’, the ceramic containers may have reflected symbolic associations between pots, wombs and eggs, facilitating rebirth and transition into the afterlife.

Corresponding author
*Author for correspondence (Email:
Hide All
Allchin B. & Allchin R.. 1982. The rise of civilisation in India and Pakistan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Allsworth-Jones P. 2012. Kariya Wuro, a Late Stone Age rock shelter in northern Nigeria. Paper presented at the African Archaeology Research Days Conference 2012, University of Southampton, 3–4 November 2012.
Appadurai A. 1986. Introduction: commodities and the politics of value, in Appadurai A. (ed.) The social life of things: commodities in cultural perspective: 363. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Aschwanden H. 1982. Symbols of life: an analysis of the consciousness of the Karanga. Gweru: Mambo.
Assmann J. 1972. Neith spricht als Mutter und Sarg. Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo 28: 115–39.
Assmann J. 1989. Death and initiation in the funerary religion of ancient Egypt, in Allen J.P. (ed.) Religion and philosophy in ancient Egypt: 135–59. New Haven: Yale Egyptological Seminar, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Yale University.
Assmann J. 2001. The search for God in ancient Egypt (trans. D. Lorton). Ithaca (NY): Cornell University Press.
Bacvarov K. 2008. A long way to the West: earliest jar burials in southeast Europe and the Near East, in Bacvarov K. (ed.) Babies reborn: infant/child burials in pre- and protohistory: 6170. Oxford: Archaeopress.
Baines J. & Lacovara P.. 2002. Burial and the dead in ancient Egyptian society. Journal of Social Archaeology 2: 536.
Barley N. 1994. Smashing pots: works of clay from Africa. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Bedford S. & Spriggs M.. 2007. Birds on the rim: a unique Lapita carinated vessel in its wider context. Archaeology in Oceania 42: 1221.
Blackman W.S. 1968. The Fellāhīn of Upper Egypt: their religious, social and industrial life with special reference to survivals from ancient times. London: G.G. Harrap & Co.
Bloch M. & Parry J.. 1982. Death and the regeneration of life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Boeyens J., Van der Ryst M., Coetzee F., Steyn M. & Loots M.. 2009. From uterus to jar: the significance of an infant pot burial from Melora Saddle, an early nineteenth-century African farmer site on the Waterberg Plateau. Southern African Humanities 21: 213–38.
Brunton G. 1927. Qau and Badari I. London: British School of Archaeology in Egypt.
Brunton G. 1928. Qau and Badari II. London: British School of Archaeology in Egypt.
Brunton G. 1937. Mostagedda and the Tasian Culture. London: B. Quaritch.
Brunton G. 1948. Matmar. London: B. Quaritch.
Brunton G. & Caton-Thompson G.. 1928. The Badarian civilisation and predynastic remains near Badari. London: B. Quaritch.
Brunton G. & Engelbach R.. 1927. Gurob. London: British School of Archaeology in Egypt.
Castillos J.J. 1982. A reappraisal of the published evidence on Egyptian Predynastic and Early Dynastic cemeteries. Toronto: Benben.
Collier M. & Quirke S. (ed.). 2004. The UCL Lahun Papyri: religious, literary, legal, mathematical and medical. Oxford: Archaeopress.
Conkey M.W. 1997. Beyond art and between the caves: thinking about context in the interpretative process, in Conkey M.W., Soffer O., Stratmann D. & Jablonski N.G. (ed.) Beyond art. Pleistocene image and symbol: 343–67. San Francisco: California Academy of Sciences.
Crubézy É., Janin T. & Midant-Reynes B.. 2002. Adaïma 2. la nécropole prédynastique. Cairo: Institut français d'archéologie orientale.
David N. 1995. Mortuary practices, ideology and society in the central Mandara highlands, north Cameroon, in Baroin C., Barreteau D. & Graffenreid C. (ed.) Mort et rites funéraires dans le Bassin du Lac Tchad: 75101. Paris: ORSTOM.
DeMarrais E. 2004. The materialization of culture, in DeMarrais E., Gosden C. & Renfrew C. (ed.) Rethinking materiality: the engagement of mind with the material world: 1122. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.
de Morgan J. 1897. Recherches sur les origins de l’Égypte II: ethnographie préhistorique et tombeau royal de Negadah. Paris: Ernest Leroux.
Donadoni Roveri A.-M. 1969. I sarcofagi Egizi dalle Origini alla fine dell'Antico Regno. Roma: Università di Roma, Istituto di studi del Vicino Oriente.
El-Shohoumi N. 2004. Der Tod im Leben—Eine vergleichende Analyse altägyptischer und rezenter ägyptischer Totenbräuche. Wien: Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.
Engelbach R. 1915. Riqqeh and Memphis. London: British School of Archaeology in Egypt.
Engelbach R. 1923. Harageh. London: British School of Archaeology in Egypt.
Erman A. & Grapow H.. 1926–1931. Wörterbuch der aegyptischen Sprache (6 volumes). Berlin: Akademie-Verlag.
Forrer R. 1901. Über Steinzeit-Hockergräber zu Achmim, Naqada etc, in Ober-Ägypten und über europäische Parallelfunde. Strassburg: Trübner.
Frankfort H. 1930. The cemeteries of Abydos: work of the season 1925–1926. II. Description of tombs. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 16: 213–19.
Frankfort H. 1975. Ancient Egyptian religion: an interpretation. New York: Harper.
Gardiner A.H. 1994. Egyptian grammar. Being an introduction to the study of hieroglyphs. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Garstang J. 1902. Excavations at Reqaqnah in Upper Egypt. Man 2: 6566.
Garstang J. 1904. Tombs of the Third Egyptian Dynasty at Reqâqnah and Bêt Khallâf. Westminster: Constable.
Garstang J. 1907. The burial customs of ancient Egypt: as illustrated by tombs of the Middle Kingdom, being a report of excavations made in the necropolis of Beni Hassan during 1902–3–4. London: Kegan Paul.
Gosden C. & Marshall Y.. 1999. The cultural biography of objects. World Archaeology 31: 169–78.
Habachi L. 1939. A First Dynasty cemetery at Abydos. Annales du Service des Antiquités de l’Égypte 39: 767–81.
Hamada A. & Farid S.. 1948. Excavations at Kôm el-Ḥisn, third season 1946. Annales du Service des Antiquités de l’Égypte 48: 299308.
Hamada A. & Farid S.. 1950. Excavations at Kôm el-Ḥisn, fourth season 1947. Annales du Service des Antiquités de l’Égypte 50: 367–79.
Harris N.J. & Tayles N.. 2012. Burial containers—a hidden aspect of mortuary practice: archaeothanatology at Ban Non Wat, Thailand. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 31: 227–39.
Hendrickx S. 1998. La nécropole de l'est à Adaïma. Position chronologique et parallèls. Archéo-Nil 8: 105–28.
Hertz R. 1960. Death and the right hand (trans. R. & C. Needham). Aberdeen: Cohen & West.
Holl A. 1995. Apprivoiser la mort, s'approprier l'espace: les cimetières comme enjeu, in Baroin C., Barreteau D. & Graffenreid C. (ed.) Mort et rites funéraires dans le Bassin du Lac Tchad: 3146. Paris: ORSTOM.
Hope C.A., Jones D., Falvey L., Petkov J., Whitehouse H. & Worp K.. 2010. Report on the 2010 season of excavations at Ismant el-Kharab, Dakhleh Oasis. Bulletin of the Australian Centre for Egyptology 21: 2154.
Ikram S. & Dodson A.. 1998. The mummy in ancient Egypt. Equipping the dead for eternity. London: Thames & Hudson.
Insoll T. 2015. Material explorations in African archaeology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Junker H. 1919. Bericht über die Grabungen der Akademie der Wissenschaften in Wien auf den Friedhöfen von El-Kubanieh-Süd, Winter 1910–1911. Wien: A. Hölder.
Källén A. & Vinterhav C.. 2003. Embodied pots: a wider concept of jar burial applied to the Lao Pako site, central Laos, in Karlstrom A. & Källén A. (ed.) Fishbones and glittering emblems: Southeast Asian archaeology 2002: 167–80. Stockholm: Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities.
Kanawati N. 2008. Mereruka and his family. Part II: the tomb of Waatetkhethor. Oxford: Aris & Phillips.
Kilroe L. 2015. Precious deposits: new interpretations of infant jar burials in ancient Egypt and Sudan, in Pinarello M.S., Yoo J., Lundock J. & Walsh C. (ed.) Current research in Egyptology 2014. Proceedings of the Fifteenth Annual Symposium. University College London and Kings College London, April 9–12, 2014: 217–28. Oxford: Oxbow.
Klass D. & Walter T.. 2001. Processes of grieving: how bonds are continued, in Stroebe M., Hansson R., Stroebe W. & Schut H. (ed.) Handbook of bereavement research: consequences, coping and care: 431–48.Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Kopytoff I. 1986. The cultural biography of things: commoditization as a process, in Appadurai A. (ed.) The social life of things: commodities in cultural perspective: 6491. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kroeper K. 1994. Minshat Abu Omar. Pot burials occurring in the Dynastic cemetery. Bulletin de la céramique égyptienne 18: 1932.
Lichtheim M. 1975. Ancient Egyptian literature. Volume I: the Old and Middle Kingdoms. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Littleton J. 2011. Moving from the canary in the coalmine. Modeling childhood in Bahrain, in Agarwal S.C. & Glencross B.A. (ed.) Social bioarchaeology: 361–89. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.
Lloyd-Smith L. & Cole F.. 2010. The jar-burial tradition in the West Mouth of Niah Cave, Sarawak: burial histories, social identities, and changing perceptions of pottery and death, in Bellina B., Bacus E., Pryce T.O. & Wisseman Christie J. (ed.) 50 years of archaeology in Southeast Asia: essays in honour of Ian Glover: 114–27. Bangkok: River.
Loat L. & Murray M.A.. 1905. Saqqara Mastabas and Gurob. London: B. Quaritch.
Lortet L.C. & Gaillard C.. 1909. La faune momifiée de l'ancienne Égypte et recherches anthropologiques. Volume 2. Lyon: Henri Georg.
Lucas G. 2002. Disposability and dispossession in the twentieth century. Journal of Material Culture 7 (1): 522.
Lucy S. 2000. The Anglo-Saxon way of death. Stroud: Sutton.
Mace A.C. 1909. The Early Dynastic cemeteries of Naga-ed-Dêr. Part II. Leipzig: J.C. Hinrichs.
Manley B. & Dodson A.. 2010. Life everlasting. National Museums Scotland collection of ancient Egyptian coffins. Edinburgh: National Museums Scotland.
Masali M. & Chiarelli B.. 1972. Demographic data on the remains of ancient Egyptians. Journal of Human Evolution 1: 161–69.
Menghin O. & Amer M.. 1936. Excavations of the Egyptian University in the Neolithic site at Maadi. Second preliminary report (season of 1932). Cairo: Government Press.
Meskell L. 1999. Archaeologies of social life: age, class, et cetera in ancient Egypt. Oxford & Malden (MA): Blackwell.
Meskell L. 2001. The Egyptian ways of death, in Chesson M.S. (ed.) Social memory, identity and death: anthropological perspectives on mortuary rituals: 2740. Arlington (VA): American Anthropological Association.
Meskell L. 2002. Private life in New Kingdom Egypt. Princeton (NJ) & Oxford: Princeton University Press.
Meskell L. 2004. Object worlds in ancient Egypt. Material biographies past and present. Oxford: Berg.
Midant-Reynes B. 2000. The prehistory of Egypt. From the first Egyptians to the first pharaohs (trans. I. Shaw). Malden (MA): Blackwell.
Minault-Gout A. 1992. Le Mastaba d'Ima-Pepi (Mastaba II). Fin de l'ancien empire. Caire: Institut français d'archéologie orientale.
Mishina T. 2008. A social aspect of intramural infant burials’ analysis: the case of EBA Tell Yunatsite, Bulgaria, in Bacvarov K. (ed.) Babies reborn: infant/child burials in pre- and protohistory: 137–46. Oxford: Archaeopress.
Mizoguchi K. 2005. Genealogy in the ground: observations of jar burials of the Yayoi period, northern Kyushu, Japan. Antiquity 79: 316–26.
Mond R. & Myers O.H.. 1937. Cemeteries of Armant I. London: Egypt Exploration Society.
Myers O.H. & Fairman H.W.. 1931. Excavations at Armant, 1929–31. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 17: 223–32.
Ockinga B. 2007. Use, reuse, and abuse of ‘sacred space’: observations from Dra Abu al-Naga, in Dorman P.F. & Bryan B.M. (ed.) Sacred space and sacred function in ancient Thebes: 139–63. Chicago (IL): Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.
Orel S.E. 2000. A re-examination of the 1943–1952 excavations at Kôm el-Ḥisn, Egypt. Göttinger Miszellen 179: 3949.
Orrelle E. 2008. Infant jar burials—a ritual associated with early agriculture?, in Bacvarov K. (ed.) Babies reborn: infant/child burials in pre- and protohistory: 7178. Oxford: Archaeopress.
Patch D.C. 2007. Third Intermediate period burials of young children at Abydos, in Hawass Z.A. & Richards J. (ed.) The archaeology and art of ancient Egypt. Essays in honour of David B. O'Connor. Volume II: 237–55. Cairo: Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt.
Peet T.E. 1914. The year's work at Abydos. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 1: 3739.
Peet T.E. & Loat W.L.S.. 1913. The cemeteries of Abydos, part III—1912–1913. London: Egypt Exploration Fund.
Petrie W.M.F. 1896. Naqada and Ballas. Warminster: B. Quaritch.
Petrie W.M.F. 1902. Abydos, Part I, 1902. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner.
Petrie W.M.F. 1905. Ehnasya. London: Egypt Exploration Fund.
Petrie W.M.F. 2000. The Petrie Museum archives: Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie; notebooks, tomb cards, distribution list, distribution list index, ancient Egyptian glazing, ancient Egyptian glass. CD-ROM. London: University College, London.
Petrie W.M.F., Wainwright G.A. & Mackay E.. 1912. The Labyrinth, Gerzeh and Mazghuneh. London: School of Archaeology in Egypt.
Power R.K. 2012. From the cradle to the grave: child, infant and foetal burials in the Egyptian archaeological record from the Early Dynastic Period to the Middle Kingdom (ca. 3300–1650 BC). Unpublished PhD dissertation, Macquarie University.
Quibell J.E. 1896. Ballas. London: B. Quaritch.
Randall-MacIver D. & Mace A.C.. 1902. El Amrah and Abydos 1899–1901. London: Egypt Exploration Fund.
Rathje W. & Murphy C. (ed.). 2001. Rubbish! The archaeology of garbage. Tucson (AZ): HarperPerennial.
Reisner G.A. 1908. The Early Dynastic cemeteries of Naga-ed-Dêr, Part I. Leipzig: J.C. Hinrichs.
Reisner G.A. 1932. A provincial cemetery of the pyramid age. Naga-ed-Dêr, Part III. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Renfrew C. 2004. Towards a theory of material engagement, in DeMarrais E., Gosden C. & Renfrew C. (ed.) Rethinking materiality: the engagement of mind with the material world: 2331. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.
Roth A.M. 1992. The psš-kf and the ‘Opening of the Mouth’ ceremony: a ritual of birth and rebirth. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 78: 113–47.
Sadig A.M. 2014. Child-burials; a funerary practice in the Middle Nile region. Evidence from the late Neolithic site of es-Sour: Sudan, in Anderson J. & Welsby D. (ed.) The Fourth Cataract and beyond. Proceedings of the 12th International Conference for Nubian Studies: 285–92. Leuven: Peeters.
Savage S.H. 1997. Descent group competition and economic strategies in predynastic Egypt. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 16: 226–68.
Shaw I. 2000. The Oxford history of ancient Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Shepherd G. 2007. Poor little rich kids? Status and selection in archaic western Greece, in Crawford S. & Shepherd G. (ed.) Children, childhood and society: 93106. Oxford: Archaeopress.
Silverman H. & Isbell W.H. (ed.). 2008. The handbook of South American archaeology. New York: Springer.
Spieser C. 2008. Cercueils d'enfants dans l’Égypte ancienne et tardive, in Jener F.G., Muriel S. & Olària C. (ed.) Nasciturus, infans, puerulus vobis mater terra: la muerte en la infancia: 501–38. Castelló: Servei d'Investigacions Arqueològiques i Prehistòriques.
Stevenson A. 2006. Gerzeh, an Egyptian cemetery shortly before history. London: Golden House.
Stevenson A. 2009. Social relationships in predynastic burials. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 95: 175–92.
Tarlow S. 1999. Bereavement and commemoration: an archaeology of mortality. Oxford: Blackwell.
Tristant Y. 2012. Les enterrements d'enfants dans l’Égypte prédynastique et pharaonique, in Nenna M.-D. (ed.) L'Enfant et la mort dans l'Antiquité II. Types de tombes et traitement du corps des enfants dans l'antiquité gréco-romaine (Études Alexandrines 26): 1559. Alexandria: Centre d'etudes alexandrines.
Weinstein J.M. 1973. Foundation deposits in ancient Egypt. Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Pennsylvania.
Wildung D. 2003. Looking back into the future: the Middle Kingdom as a bridge to the past (trans. F. Handley), in Tait J. (ed.) ‘Never had the like occurred’. Egypt's view of its past: 6178. London: UCL Press.
Willems H. 1988. Chests of life: a study of the typology and conceptual development of Middle Kingdom standard class coffins. Leiden: Ex Oriente Lux.
Zillhardt R. 2009. Kinderbestattungen und die soziale Stellung des Kindes im Alten Ägypten—unter besonderer Berücksichtigung des Ostfriedhofes von Deir el-Medine (Göttinger Miszellen: Beihefte 6). Göttingen: Seminar für Ägyptologie und Koptologie.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

  • ISSN: 0003-598X
  • EISSN: 1745-1744
  • URL: /core/journals/antiquity
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 1325
Total number of PDF views: 1188 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 3055 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 21st November 2016 - 17th January 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.