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The Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology

Death in antiquity

Greeks and Egyptians were very concerned with death. War, disease, and drought were some of the many causes of early death. Acts of heroism in warfare, elaborate tombs, and mummification were ways of ensuring that one would live on. Greek myths suggest that each man wanted his memory live on, but important Egyptians went to great lengths to make their bodies last.


Bodies decay. When nothing was done to prevent this we have no direct evidence of the individual body but how people were buried can tell us a lot about them. In some cultures, especially Greece, dead bodies were burned (through cremation) and the ashes buried in pots. Otherwise bodies were buried in the ground (inhumation) or in chambers. Cosmetics and perfumes were used to make the body beautiful in death, as in life. But the Egyptians preserved bodies for use in the afterlife through mummification: they removed most of the organs, treated the body with lotions, and wrapped it up.


Tombs provide excellent evidence of how people were buried. On the outskirts of each city was a necropolis ('city of the dead') that housed a variety of tombs. Wealthy people might have large built tombs like those shown on these Panathenaic amphorae. All tombs were filled with precious items, useful things, and personal effects. People thought that these grave goods would be needed by the dead; they also gave an impression of wealth to the living.


Throughout history people have seen death as a journey. The passage from one state (life) to the other (death) was often symbolized by a door or a boat (see e.g. [ E.23.3 ]). This explains why doors and gateways represent tombs in ancient images. Sphinxes, sirens, and servants were placed outside these entrances as protectors of the dead. To reach the afterlife Greeks and Egyptians had to cross a river, sea, or  an ocean (on [ 33.4.3 ] see the Greek ferry man, Charon, who had to be bribed with coins). Gifts in the form of food, animals, and coins were provided as payment to the gods who showed the way to land of the dead.

Appearances the ancient world

In both Greek and Egyptian cultures (as in ours) a great emphasis was placed on appearances during life as well as death, and this is reflected in archaeological material, especially that gleaned from tombs. Objects used in daily life would be buried with the dead, to help them in the afterlife. Many of these objects were the substances, tools, and jewels that would have served to preserve health and beauty in life as in death. Egyptians prepared bodies for the tomb (through mummification: see, e.g. our mummified cat's head, [ 2004.7.1] ) in a manner that would preserve the body as well as possible, and Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians would place images on or in the tombs that would memorialize the deceased individuals. In Greece and Egypt, at least, these would be generalized or idealized images that would show people at their best. See also our section on the Body Beautiful.

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File last modified: 20 Sep 2017