Monday, June 11, 2012

Putting a face on death

Welcome to the archaeology wing of the newly re-done Israel Museum.
Behind the glass wall and reflected in the floor are six anthropoid clay coffins standing at the entrance to greet you.
(Enjoy the big version by clicking on the photo and then once again on the photo that opens. )

A 2005 Israel Museum publication explains these tall sarcophagi:

Late Canaanite period, 14th-13th century BCE

South of Gaza city, at Deir el-Balah, some fifty pottery sarcophagi were unearthed from a large, ancient cemetery.
Located near the sea, the site had been protected from plunder by massive sand dunes.
The sarcophagi were fashioned by hand, using the coil technique, the method employed for creating large vessels.
They were then fired with their lids in an open fire.
The lids were later refired in kilns located nearby, which accounts for their darker color.
Similar cemeteries have been discovered near the Nile Delta.

Several features of the Gaza sarcophagi shows clear signs of Egyptian influence.
At times the lids bear depictions of mummy-like figures, indicating the face, wig, arms, and hands of the deceased.
Many of the faces have small beards, perhaps symbolizing the beard of Osiris, the Egyptian god of death, into whose realm the deceased was about to enter.
The bodies of the dead, usually more than one, were laid unembalmed in the coffin, along with funerary gifts such as pottery food bowls.
If the deceased was wealthy, elaborate jewelry and vessels made of stone and bronze were also added.

You can see some of the jewelry masterpieces here.

Be sure to check this link to see the amazing faces of the sarcophagi.

The partial excavation at Deir el-Balah in the Gaza Strip was done in 1972 by Trude Dotan.
This review of her recent book, Deir el-Balah: Uncovering an Egyptian Outpost in Canaan from the Time of the Exodus, has some interesting gossip about the dig.

To discover Hershel Shanks' idea about Joseph being buried in such a coffin, see this blog.



  1. Fascinating, Dina. The sarcophogi made me think of babies no doubt they were swaddled in strips of cloth, in death they were swaddled in clay. Those ancient jewelry pieces always amaze me; I loved the little pomegranates especially.

  2. what a gorgeous contribution to Weekend Reflections!

  3. What an adventure ! Thank you for this interesting entry. Please have a good start into the new week.

  4. hello beautiful Dina,thanks for another beautiful post. that is a haunting rendition to exhibit them in light.a reminder that we travel light.thanks for the link also=wonderful work although to me they look a bit "mignon".
    shalom love and light.

  5. Ooh, you know how much I love this. What a wonderful post, and thank you for the links. Those faces! That jewelry! I would love to visit this museum.

  6. How interesting! They're like a combination of the two cultures, with the sarcophagus but not the embalming. The jewelry is neat too. I once bought my mom some museum-replica earrings :)

  7. An interesting article indeed, Dina, and beautiful this reflection image.

  8. I keep meaning to get up there but it hasn't happened yet. I think I've had my fill though of "faces of death" after stumbling across an unwrapped mummy in the Vatican museum, face, hair and all! Somehow when she had herself prepared for eternity I doubt that being removed from her sarcophagus, unwrapped, and placed on display in front of millions of people was not what she had in mind...

    On a completely unrelated note, am I the only one who automatically hears "dir balak" every time I see Deir el-Balah written out LOL?

  9. Friends, thanks for your really interesting comments.

    Mirae, I'm glad you explained (elsewhere) that by "mignon" you mean cute. I know that French only in filet mignon. hehe

    Robin, oi, I'm glad we don't have such bodies on display.
    Yes, me too. I had to remind myself to put the el- in every time I wrote Deir el-Balah here so that I wouldn't be saying dir balak.

    Note to non-Israelis:
    "Dir balak!" has entered Israeli slang from Arabic.
    It means something like this:
    I pity you, oy vavoy to you; "Dir balak im tagid la" (Woe is to you if you tell her).

    The wonderful Balashon, Hebrew Language Detective blog has a full post explaining all about it:

    And I remember my Arab co-workers in archaeological excavations saying it to one another, in its normal Arabic meaning, e.g. "Dir balak! Don't back up and fall into that pit!" or "Dir balak! Slow down and excavate carefully before you break that ancient glass bottle in the dirt."

  10. Dir balak me, but I don't get the allure of any kind of coffin, recent or quite vintage...

  11. VP, well, yes, when you say "allure," it DOES sound strange.
    Would you prefer our modern Israeli way of burial--just a shroud and no coffin?

  12. That is a very old gravesite that they found. What a wonderful piece of history unearthed. I wonder if the coffins have been opened?

  13. Thanks for the interesting post! It's amazing that almost all nations on earth believe in afterlife. The Vikings buried their chiefs, kings or queens in ships full of jewelry, and furniture.
    Displaying dead people is a sacrilege for many indigenous people like Indians, Maori in N.Z. and Aborigines. I have seen some mummified pharaos in
    Egypt and in
    Rome some mummies of popes in the distance. But I don' like the idea to become an artefact in a museum. Let's pay respect to the death.

  14. Diane, much of the ancient cemetery had been looted already in antiquity. And many coffins were broken into by modern-day grave robbers (residents of the Gaza Strip).
    The sarcophagi unearthed by Israeli archaeologists were open, sure!
    And the skeletal remains were examined in the lab.
    As I quoted in the post, the bones of several people would be together in one sarcophagus.

  15. I think I might prefer the modern Israeli way - burial in a shroud. I was reading today about a new local cemetery that opened this weekend that is 'green' and does not allow for any coffins or headstones. The lack of headstone would make posting for this meme difficult.

  16. No wonder you work with archaeology - that stuff is interesting!

  17. The tall sarcophagi as an entrance feature are fascinating! The Egyptian influence intrigues me! I wonder if there was just a respect and acceptance of the Egyptian style or was there a more "intimate" connection! Great post!

  18. VioletSky, but surely there is some small marker to mark the place of burial? No? I hope so.

    Gemma, Wiki explains:

    Deir al-Balah's history dates back to the mid-14th-century BCE.[1] At that time it served as an outpost in the New Kingdom of Egypt.[12] During the reign of Ramesses II (1303-1213 BCE) Deir al-Balah became the furthest east of six garrisoned fortresses in the Eastern Mediterranean,[13] beginning with the Sinai fort in the west.[14] The square-shaped building had four towers at each corner and included a reservoir.[13] Archaeological findings in Deir al-Balah revealed a large Ancient Egyptian cemetery with graves containing jewelry and other personal belongings. The inhabitants of the fortress employed traditional Egyptian techniques and artistic designs in their architectural works.[14] Deir al-Balah remained in Egyptian hands until around 1150 BCE when the Philistines conquered the southern coastal area of Canaan.

  19. Cemeteries aren't that interesting anymore, everything neat and mundane. Imagine having a sarcophagus to greet your ancestors...

  20. An interesting visit, I bet. Cool information too.

  21. That looks really interesting. I love museums.

  22. How fascinating. Wouldn't it be interesting if one of the ancient Egyptians from this era could materialize? What would the say about theses sarcophagi standing to attention under flood lights?

  23. Great sarcophagi . I agree with Joe. They are stark influenced by the egyptian ones so by the look of it. Thanks for showing this to us.

  24. Amazing post! So fascinating.

    Herding Cats

  25. Funny... my thought was along the same lines as Joe's and sc's... what are these sarcophagi doing standing straight up? Surely that is not how they were found? Dina, as a regular on TT you must admit to some allure... but yes, not everyone shares it. My father, for one, was totally repelled. :-) Although I like the jewelry shown, I was a bit surprised at the primitiveness; I've seen more sophisticated jewelry from this period. And I can't help but agree with Mirae that the sarcophagi faces are have a certain mignon (cutesyness) - cartoony - look about them, but that is nicer than being morose-looking. I bet it's a gorgeous museum.

  26. Francisca, I dunno, maybe they take less museum space standing upright? ;)
    Those flat feet at the bottom just kind of invite standing them up.
    As far as I could understand, they were found in the cemetery horizontal.
    However, there have been various civilizations that buried people, especially warriors, in a standing position or even upside down!

    Yes, I do not deny my attraction to cemeteries. VP's use of "allure" just made it sound a bit perverse. hehe

  27. The place looks fantastic! Great shot, Dina.


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