The clay pot theory of history

It was hard work being dead in ancient Egypt. You had to put the hours in. Upon death, ancient Egyptians believed that your basoul is the closest word we have – was kicked loose from your body and freed to roam the lands. This freedom came with limitations, however. Every day your ba left the tomb where your mummy rested and wandered in the heavens. Every night, it had to work its way back home, descending with the sun god to the world of the dead and undergoing great trials, before it finally rejoined the body in an act of supreme spiritual renewal. As above, so below: the Egyptians believed that the sun was born every morning and died every evening. The ba mimicked its journey through the sky.

In truth, being dead was pretty hard going even before you got to all of that. Take Nesperennub, Beloved of the God, Opener of the Doors of Heaven. Nesperennub was a priest and advisor to a pharaoh – possibly Osorkon 2 – and when he died in Thebes somewhere around 800 BC, the people tasked with embalming him stuck a small clay pot to the back of his head. We know this because the pot is still there, and it shows up very clearly in CT scans that Nesperennub’s mummy was subjected to in the early 2000s as part of a “virtual unwrapping” conducted by the British Museum, where the priest, and his ba, now count out their days.

For a while after the pot was rediscovered, however, I vaguely remember reading that nobody knew exactly what it meant. The assumption, I think, was that it could be important, because Nesperennub was important. He was Opener of the Doors of Heaven. The appearance of the pot was therefore quietly troubling, I guess. No other mummy had even turned up with a pot on their head, and there was no mention of anything like it in the literature. Also, it was barely a pot if we’re all being honest: a rough-hewn object made of unfired clay, still bearing the fingerprints of its ancient manufacturer.

Since this was Egypt, however, the smart money was on some hidden aspect of the ancients’ famously elaborate death rituals. In one article I read at the time, a symbolic placenta was mooted. But why? A soul catcher? Unlikely. The ancient Egyptians located the home of a person’s consciousness in the heart – a bad guess that has left lingering traces in many cultures to this day. They dismissed the brain entirely, calling it “the marrow of the skull” (and they weren’t alone in their confusion by any means; Aristotle thought it was a radiator). Egyptian embalmers scooped the brain out and binned it. No special treatment needed. Besides, the ba was supposed to travel. Why trap it beneath a pot?

The truth is both more illuminating and more human than you might suspect. Let’s imagine the scene. An embalming tent in Thebes, tasked with a high-prestige job: to prepare a renowned priest for the afterlife. The mummification process would take 70 days, and was performed by experts, most of whom were priests themselves. After the internal organs were removed and the body was dried with natron (a kind of salt), aromatic resin would be applied to preserve the deceased for the aeons that lay ahead. This resin was expensive, and in Nesperennub’s case, the embalmers appear to have applied a little too much. It started to run down the back of the dead priest’s skull. And so, in order to salvage as much of the pricey stuff as possible, one of the embalmers grabbed a lump of clay and made a crude receptacle to place under Nesperennub’s head to catch it.


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