Mortuary practices

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The Christian Nubian dead were always buried in cemeteries, located wherever possible adjoining the east, north and south sides of a church - never the west. The body before interment was shrouded from head to foot and tied with tapes. Prosperous individuals had a specially made shrouding cloth, while the poor might be wrapped in everyday garments or even in fragments of cloth and leather bundled together. The body was always buried fully extended with the head to the west, most commonly on the back but occasionally on the left or the right side. Bricks or stones were sometimes placed at the sides or above the head, to prevent its being crushed when the grave was filled.

The usual grave shaft was a simple rectangular pit. However, an occasional practice surviving from pagan times was the excavation of an undercut chamber along one side, in which the body could be inserted and then protected by stones. Graves of ordinary citizens were devoid of offerings other than small items of personal jewelry - especially pendant iron crosses - which might be left on the body. Burials of bishops however were sometimes accompanied by pottery water jars, placed beside the head. Neonates and stillbirths were often interred in pottery jars, occasionally buried under house floors.

Most though not all graves were covered by superstructures, as were Nubian graves of nearly all previous periods. Christian superstructures were quite distinct from those of any earlier or later period, but at the same time highly variable both locally and in time. Often a number of different superstructure types were found side by side in the same cemetery. The cemetery at Meinarti - so far the most fully reported - had superstructures of more than a dozen types, all dating from the Classic Christian period (Adams 2003, 43-8). The most common superstructure type was a small mastaba of either stone or mud brick, measuring about 200 x 100 cm and roughly 60 cm high, and sometimes whitewashed. The top might be formed in a variety of ways; often it was adorned with a cross formed in bricks. A few superstructures were mastabas in the form of a cross, or small domed chambers. Very often there was a small box-like structure projecting at the west end of the superstructure, to contain a votive lamp. Poorer folk might have only a flat paving of bricks or stones placed over their graves, and a good many graves seem to have had no surface marking.

Prominent individuals might have a funerary stela attached to the west side of their tomb superstructures. This was typically a sandstone slab, measuring about 35 x 25 cm, bearing a length inscription which might be in either Greek or Coptic. The inscriptions might follow any of several well known formulas, most commonly the euchologion mega. Tombstones and superstructures have been found commemorating both male and female dead.

Sources: The most exhaustively detailed typology and discussion of Christian Nubian grave types is still that of Junker 1925, 129-65. However, it is based on a limited corpus of material from the far north of Nubia. The best overall discussion, covering all of Nubia, is that of Adams 1998.

(Contributed by William Y. Adams.)