Shaft Tombs, an overview and recent advances

Shaft tombs are not a common burial practice, but they have been found around the world and were popular during a variety of time periods. Between 1650 and 1500 BC, shaft tombs were used in Mycenae, Greece. These tombs were entered through the roof at ground level, and extended underground about 4 meters. They were lined with timbers, clay or flat slabs of stone. The deceased were placed into the bottom of the shaft along with a variety of burial goods such as weaponry or personal ornaments, and often wrapped in a shroud. Multiple burials within one shaft tomb were common for this period and location. The shafts were filled with soil, and marked by a circle of stones (Rutter 2000)

In the New Kingdom and Late periods of Egypt, shaft tombs became an increasingly important way of hiding the burials from grave robbers. In 1998, one intact shaft tomb was discovered by Czech archaeologists. The tomb by lined by white limestone, and contained a single mummified burial of a 30 year old male. The tomb was found 80 feet below the desert floor and contained a large number of artifacts such as statuettes, canopic jars and some preserved pages of a book of the dead (Brock and Krejci 1998). Many other shaft tombs have been found in this period, but this remains the only one to be discovered in tact since the early 20th century. Examples of these shaft types of tombs are primarily found in the Valley of the Kings. The tombs were often rectangular and had highly decorated walls (Bard 1999)

Shaft tombs are found in Western Mexico, dating from 2 to 5th centuries CE. The tombs are primarily found clustered in groups, and located on hillsides to protect them from filling with water. In Western Mexico, they are often associated with ceramics, obsidian, personal ornaments, and other grave goods. The provenience of the grave goods and their meaning has been highly studied, however little analysis has been done on the tombs themselves.

In order to better analyze the layout and construction of shaft tombs, a Total Station was used in Western Mexico by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) in order to map the tombs with as little destruction or invasive activity. The hope is not only to gain a better understanding of this type of funerary space, but also to understand how the space changes from pre-excavation to post-excavation to gain a better understanding of how destructive the process will be for the tomb. The Total Station allows for a 3 dimensional line image to be created, showing the details of the terrain and overall shape of the space.

The underground tomb consists of a chamber in the shape of a dome, and in an oval shape measuring 3 meters long, 2.5 wide and 1.5 high. Of the six shaft tombs located in this area, 3 had been looted in the early 20th century, so recovery and an understanding of the damage done in those early excavations is of high importance to archaeologists on the project. Cortes from the INAH notes that “By using Total Station we are able to generate a meticulous data base of some Prehispanic sites, before and after archaeological intervention, which later helps to conduct analyses of the architectural layout of the buildings, and even of some specific pieces found”. The goal of the project is to continue mapping the tombs, conduct a full investigation of the artifacts, soil, and spatial layout in order to create more nuanced interpretations of this funerary practice (Archaeology News Network 2011).

What impresses me the most about the type of study is not the tomb, or the analysis of the tomb, or even the equipment being used- it is the focus on preserving the past and understanding the damage that archaeology does. Archaeology is a unique field in that as we excavate the remains of the past, we also destroy it. Therefore, it is extremely important that we glean as much as we can from the site with damaging as little as possible, and also understand the consequences of our actions. Many archaeological sites are hindered by the loss of provenience due to hasty excavation or grave robbing. In mortuary sites, acknowledgment of the consequences of archaeology is even more important due to the sensitivity of the context. It is refreshing to see the actual process of excavation under analysis and not just the archaeological material.

Works Cited

Rutter. 2000. The Prehistoric Archaeology of the Aegean. Darmouth University.

Brock and Krecji. 1998. Czech Egyptologists Open Shaft Tomb. Archaeology Magazine.

Bard. 1999. Encyclopedia of the archaeology of ancient Egypt.

Archaeology News Network. 2011. Archaeologists use Total Station to conduct 3d scan of Prehispanic shaft tomb.

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