Life, Death, and the Afterlife in Ancient China and Egypt

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Archaeology | Mummies, both Egyptian and Chinese, made a scholarly appearance. So did sex—as it was enjoyed in this world and in the afterlife. Then there were oracles and other methods of divination; burial methods and the architecture of tombs; and a plea to pay more attention to the scholarship of the soul …

Those and other topics were examined in “Life and Death in Ancient China and Ancient Egypt,” a two-day symposium hosted in March by the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The symposium was the brainchild of Dr. Nancy Steinhardt, professor of East Asian art and curator of Chinese art at the Museum, and Dr. David Silverman, the Eckley Brinton Coxe, Jr., professor of Egyptology and curator-in-charge of the Museum’s Egyptian section. It evolved out of a Pilot Curriculum [“This is Only a Test,” January/February 2001] course the two co-taught during this past semester, and the course’s undergraduate students were sprinkled throughout the audience.

Sidebar | Mummies of the Working Class

Before the symposium, Silverman explained that he and Steinhardt had “found 80 commonalities between the two cultures, some of which we chose to use for topics.”

While many of those commonalities concerned the afterlife—such as funerary painting and texts, architecture, and mummies—“some deal with both life and death, such as sex, kingship, and oracles.”

Paradoxically, much of our information about ancient China and Egypt comes from tombs and funerary texts—which, while focusing on death, reveal a great deal about life. As Dr. Richard Leventhal, the Williams Director of the museum, put it: “The burial ceremony is not entirely for the dead—it is for the entire community.” And rituals that helped the deceased transit into the afterlife also tell us a lot about the mortal society left behind.

“Even though both China and Egypt have a tradition of elaborate preparation for the afterlife, the relative importance of the conception of the afterlife in each tradition may not be the same,” noted Dr. Mu-chou Poo, a scholar of both ancient China and Egypt from the Institute of History and Philology at Academia Sinica in Taipei. “In Egyptian religion, the idea occupied a key position in the belief system,” he added, whereas in ancient China, up until the second century C.E. (Common Era = A.D.), “the idea of the afterlife circulating in society cannot be said as having an intimate and vital relation with any ‘religious system.’”

“Sex in the Afterlife” kicked off the Saturday morning session on the second day of the symposium, guaranteeing full attendance despite the early hour. Dr. Paul Goldin, associate professor of East Asian languages and civilizations, first enlightened the audience on the ancient methods that men of means—and women, if they procured the jealously guarded Secret Instructions of the Bedchamber—could use in their lovemaking, thus vitalizing their life force (qi) and attaining immortality while still in this world. Dr. David O’Connor, the Lila Acheson Wallace Professor in Ancient Egyptian Art at New York University, followed Goldin with some equally graphic insights into afterlife sexual activity of ancient Egyptians. (The depictions of that activity in tomb inscriptions and other imagery was symbolically coded.) Though Goldin’s talk focused on “This-Worldly Immortality” and O’Connor discussed after-worldly immortality, both suggested that a good sex life was part of the formula.

“Both of these talks present sex in several different ways,” said Dr. Jennifer Wegner, a research scientist in the museum’s Egyptian section and an adjunct associate professor in Asian and Middle Eastern studies. “First and foremost [showing] sex as a way to achieve immortality, as in ancient China, or sex as something to be enjoyed in the afterlife [as in ancient Egypt]. We also see sexuality, or eroticism, as a form of power.”

Another source of power was oracles, which in China were mostly for communicating with and appealing to ancestors for help, whereas in Egypt they were used for speaking directly with the gods. In both places, oracles and divining methods were viewed as a way to gain some semblance of control and order over life. Both cultures looked to similar items for omens and foretellings: dreams, the behavior of animals, and natural phenomena. Dr. Richard Jasnow, professor of Egyptology at Johns Hopkins University, offered an intimate view of Egyptian practice. “People could complain to their gods,” he explained, and despite their sense of vulnerability they felt comfortable enough with the omniscient forces to be frank and demanding.

The common thread that wove the panels together came from the cultures’ rich pictorial and textual traditions—books, papyrus, or painted tomb walls—which preserved for the future whole universes of how people lived and how they prepared for the next world. That included what people ate and wanted to have on hand in the next world (good food and wine was certainly enjoyed in both cultures) and who people married and took to the other world, as well as items that were popular at the time. Steinhardt showed that the interior paintings of Chinese tombs depicted polo when a form of that game was popular, while in another era, a fondness for camels caused them to be represented in tomb paintings.

There was a palpable awareness among the scholars that these issues of life and death are no less relevant today. How a society views death speaks much of how they live. And its concept of an afterlife shapes its behavior in the world of the living.

Dr. Victor Mair, professor of Chinese language and literature, called for more attention to be given to the soul: how it is conceived in different cultures, where it is believed to go upon death, and what is its nature. Dr. Holly Pittman, the professor of art history who serves as curator of the Museum’s Near East section, pointed out that tombs serve many purposes: as memorials, as places of burial and ancestral rites, and as places for the eternal rest and protection of the body. While both civilizations possess elaborate, ornate tombs—and in both, individuals are memorialized—those of Egypt seem more directed toward preparing for the journey in the afterlife, whereas those in China appear to be communicating more about the entombed person’s status in life. One looks forward, one looks back.

—Beebe Bahrami Gr’95

“I wanted to discover tombs of the lower class,” said Dr. Zahi Hawass G’83 Gr’87, Egypt’s Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities and a renowned archaeologist and Egyptologist. Hawass, whose evening lecture at the Penn Museum’s March symposium [see main story] was titled “Recent Discoveries in Egypt: The Secrets of the Pyramids,” was referring to his return to Bahariya Oasis, the Valley of the Golden Mummies, in western Egypt, a site where he had stopped excavations three years ago.

“The 234 mummies that I found [earlier] were really mummies of the upper and the middle class,” he said. “We found about 16 mummies this time, dated to the Roman period. We did x-rays for the first time to about 15 mummies and we found evidence of cancer, of early death. We found out that the early death of the people at Bahariya was because of the water. The well, it was full of iron, and that affected the people.”

Hawass spoke on a broad range of themes, ranging from King Tut to the Valley of the Kings to the three recently discovered complete mummies at Saqqara and the pyramids at Giza.

While Hawass’ many activities include planning and implementing preservation, security, and excavation programs throughout Egypt, one of his greatest passions is the pyramids at Giza. With the encroachment of the city of Cairo, protecting the pyramids from the thousands of visitors and urban onslaught has become imperative. Hawass has been implementing site-management strategies toward this end, while also designating sections around the Giza pyramids that will be excavated in the future. Many of these sections promise to add to our knowledge about those who built the pyramids, not just their long-term residents.

“The tombs of the pyramid-builders is a very important discovery that will reveal information about 80 percent of [ancient] Egyptians,” Hawass noted, “because the people who built the pyramids were the people. The kings and the queens and the nobles were really only representing 20 percent.” —B.B.

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