British Museum blog

Communicating with the dead?

Neal Spencer, British Museum

Sandstone bust (front)

Excavating ancient houses in the Nile Valley typically yields masses of pottery, simple stone tools and other modest objects.

Though unspectacular, these provide an important insight into the technologies, dietary customs and even religious beliefs of the ancient inhabitants, and sometimes help tell us how different spaces were used.

Project team member René Kertesz revealing the sandstone bust

Occasionally, however, a more spectacular find appears. Last season, digging the back room of a narrow three-roomed house dating to the time of Ramesses III or shortly after (around 1150 BC), the windblown sand parted to reveal a small sandstone bust of a male figure, still perched atop the pedestal constructed to support it.

Only 29.2cm high, the bust shows a male figure with a short wig. Remnants of blue and red paint on the chest and upper back suggest he was shown wearing a collar of beads and pendants.

Around 150 similar ancestor busts have been found – some are on display in the British Museum but this one is unusual in being found where the ancient inhabitants had placed it.

The back of the sandstone bust

Not all were placed in houses: some come from near temples, chapels and even tombs. Inscribed stelae show individuals offering to similar busts, and it has been suggested that these allowed the living to communicate and request the intervention of the deceased in earthly matters (disease, disputes and so on).

Narrow three-roomed house – the bust was found in the near room

Four examples are inscribed with the names of individuals, but the majority do not bear a name – like the Amara West example – and could perhaps have fulfilled different meanings for different people. Intriguingly, the rear room of the house was blocked up with the ancestor bust still inside, while people continued to live in the other two rooms.

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  1. [...] In fact, the inhabitants may have slept in the central room, warmed by the hearth. The back of one house clearly functioned as a space for ritual activity – an ancestor bust was found there. [...]

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