Matters of Life and Death

Until very recently in human history, death was a constant for everyone. Wealthy or poor, life expectancy was low and child mortality was high across the Near East. Disease was common, and even relatively mild illnesses could be fatal.

Ancient people had complex ideas about what happened after death. They believed in an afterlife and tied people’s spirits closely to their physical bodies and the objects they used while alive. As a result, the care of the deceased’s body and possessions was extremely important.

Burial Recreation

Burial Reconstruction

Early Bronze Age

Learning about the Living from the Dead
Ancient burials, like this reconstructed one, tell archaeologists more about the living than the dead. Beliefs about death and the afterlife shaped how ancient people buried loved ones. Ancient Egyptians, for example, thought that the dead would need certain organs in the afterlife, like the heart, so they preserved them carefully in canopic jars.

This burial scene is based on a cemetery in Jordan from the Early Bronze Age (3300-2050 BCE). It is an example of a shaft grave, a common burial arrangement in the ancient Near East. In a shaft grave, the skeleton was placed in the center and the skull was lined up with the wall.

Grave Goods

Cup from Burial Site

Bab edh-Dhra

3150-2350 BCE

Food and Drink for the Afterlife
Ancient people often buried pottery containing grain or wine with the dead. These were intended to be used by the dead in the afterlife. However, pottery for burial differed from the pottery used in everyday life. Pottery from shaft graves in Bab edh-Dhra, like this cup, have distinct thin sides and decorative engraving.

Buried Jug

Buried Jug

Beitin, Palestine

2000 BCE

This jug from the Middle Bronze Age probably contained some variety of grain. It was discovered in Palestine.