Despite prevailing stereotypes of women, Greek and Egyptian funerary practices and artwork did not fail to represent women in a way that demonstrated the function of women in society. By looking at examples from both Greek and Egyptian burials as well scholarship on these societies, the varying role that women played in these two societies will become clear.
Traditional scholarship of Ancient Egypt describes women’s burials as contingent upon the status and burial of the man in her life. Because of the Ancient Egyptian’s strong belief in the afterlife the type of burial he garnered established what kind of life he would enjoy in the afterlife[i]. However, “the nature of a woman’s burial depended on the social standing of her husband or father, for an ancient Egyptian woman of the tomb-owning classes shared her husband’s tomb or, if she were unmarried, was buried in the family tomb which belonged to her father. Normally, only queens could expect independent burials”[ii]. Although this may be true, it does not reflect the true role of a woman in the Egyptian society. This idea of a woman’s burial leaves the reader with the impression that women’s status was completely reliant on men, which carries its own set of assumptions based on traditional gender roles.
However, in the actual art depicted upon tomb walls the role of women in society takes on far more complexity. In the Book of the Dead of Lady Cheritwebeshet from the 21st Dynasty, there is a depiction of “a man and his wife shar[ing] the tasks of ploughing the field, sowing the seed and harvesting the crop”[iii]. In this depiction both man and woman, and even more importantly man and wife, share in the fieldwork. By sharing in the work a much broader claim to female equality is being communicated. Being in the field with her husband gives the woman whose burial this picture accompanies a much more equitable role in society. Despite being buried with her husband, by depicting the woman doing her part in the labor, the role of women in Egyptian society becomes more than just being contingent upon her husband or father. This is not to say that the role of women was equal. Even in this depiction of fieldwork the man’s flesh is a dark red while the woman is shown in a yellow or white. This disparity in flesh tone is signifying “among other things less exposure to the sun than the male red, and therefore a more enclosed existence”[iv]. Even though there are aspects of equality this detail in the differences in flesh tone does indicate the ideal role of women, which was a domestic one.
As scholars conclude “In day-to-day matters she was in numerous respects an equal partner, subject of course to her social background”[v]. However in many depictions in grave goods and in tomb artwork she is depicted in the domestic sphere, such as “sit[ing] at leisure with her husband at a table of offerings, in a statue group or on a false door. She sometimes accompanies her husband when he watches scenes of work, but is more often shown when offerings are presented to the couple; this distinction may show that she is normally expected to stay at home”[vi]. Other objects and scenes show women performing more domestic tasks such as cooking, brewing and textile making. All of these activities would also have taken place in the home[vii].
The depiction of the woman working the field with her husband actually takes into account this complex ideal of the role of women in Egyptian society. She had rights under the law and was supposed to work alongside her husband in the field, yet through her pale flesh tone the ideal woman’s role is also domestic and contained within the home.
This image of a woman working in the field contrasts with the kinds of images and texts that accompanied Greek elite women’s burials. In objects like grave stele such as the “Greek grave stele of Glykylla” an elite woman is seated while a servant girl presents her with some kind of box. This is a repeated iconography that is referred to as the “‘mistress and maid’ motif[viii]. This motif is characterized by the offering of what is usually a jewelry box by the servant to a woman who wears luxurious textiles[ix]. This kind of demonstration of material goods prominently displays the deceased woman’s high status in life. Along with stela of this kind was usually an epitaph or at least the name of the deceased. As historians of Ancient Greece tell us it was “not considered proper for women in classical Athens to be spoken of in public, for good or evil, in death they were commemorated with their names prominently inscribed. Whatever the circumstances of a woman’s earthly life, she was portrayed in an idealized manner for all eternity”[x]. What was important to the developing city states of Greece were strong nuclear families, where the woman’s prime role was in the domestic sphere as wife and mother. As evidenced by the quote above women were expected to stay out of public life except in these representations through burial. In epitaphs this domestic role was often emphasized. With examples such as:
“The immortal soul of Claudia Arescuse; her incomparable love for her husband, unsurpassable love for her children, matchless beauty, indescribable discretion”[xi].
“She was fair, good, gentle, and divinely beautiful, faithful to one husband, and to be counted among the heroines of old; therefore for wisdom, discretion, and wit she is far above all women”[xii].
These kind of epitaphs highlight women’s beauty and virtue as wives and mothers. There is very little about the social persona or how she fit into a wider cultural or social world except as mother and wife. As scholars have pointed out. What is emphasized is the ideal family “devoted husbands and wives, affectionate parents and obedient children, even kind masters and grateful slaves and freemen. The virtues, especially those which go to make up a family, are magnified; we have, not precise reminiscence, but the elaboration and adaptation of an ideal”[xiii]. As the Greek state progressed from city-states into empire the idea of the ideal nuclear family became more important and became more emphasized on burials, which were public monuments to everyday women. Some of the great ancient Greek historians and philosophers have “characterized [women] as weak, unable to control their emotions, lacking a soul, and destined to be ruled rather than to rule. As a result they were legally defined as minors and denied any participation in civic life, although they held important religious offices”[xiv]. In the Greek depictions of women through the grave stele and the epitaphs this weak woman is not presented. Rather the ideas of wife, mother, and wealth are presented to the public, which demonstrates what the Greek population valued.
From what we know through grave archaeology the Egyptian and Greek societies idealized different social personas from their women. As this gallery suggests, the kinds of burials and the artwork included with said burials gives the modern archaeologist a lot of insight into how these societies viewed the idealized role of women. However, this information is also highly skewed in both data and interpretation. For men as well as for women, burial archaeology favors the elite. In these ancient societies, most of the burials that have survived are those from the upper classes of societies. The tomb of Lady Cheritwebeshet and the grave stele of Glykylla are both elite graves. The people with little money were not investing what little money they possessed into stelae and Coffin texts for burials. So already the data set that archaeologists posses is partial towards the elite socioeconomic classes. However, another longstanding prejudice that has recently been critiqued is that of bias toward gender. As stated by Margaret W. Conkey and Janet D. Spector, two prominent voices in the scholarship of gender archaeology, “The phenomenon of gender bias in scholarship is by no means unique to archaeology or anthropology but rather is a feature of our entire intellectual tradition”[xv]. It is all too easy to fall into the traps of traditional stereotyping. However, as these objects presented above suggest, there are other ways of interpretation. The Greek and Egyptian societies evolved a lot from the times of the early days into the Classical times. In such evolving societies there was no way the role of women was going to stay the same, however often whether because of traditions in burial or traditions in archaeological interpretation the role of women is often stagnated and stereotyped. However, by being mindful of the questions posed and the research conducted a more complex view of gender relations. A major goal of gender archaeology would be to “move away from the idea of universals in women’s experience—shared oppression, resistance, and negotiation, for example—toward an interest in difference, a recognition that a diversity of human experiences of sex, ethnicity, race, class, and kinship structures exists”[xvi]. By doing so we could gain a much more complex and probably more realistic view of how these past societies functioned.
[i] Watterson, Barbara. Women in Ancient Egypt. New York City, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. 24.
[iii] Strouhal, Eugen. Life of the Ancient Egyptians. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992. 58.
[iv] Baines, John, and Jaromir Malek. Atlas of Ancient Egypt. New York City, NY: Facts on File, 1980. 205.
[v] Strouhal, Life of the Ancient, 58.
[vi] Baines and Malek, Atlas of Ancient Egypt, 204.
[viii] Jenifer Neils, Women in the Ancient World (Los Angeles, CA: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011), 15.
[xi] Lattimore, Richmond. Themes in Greek and Latin Epitaphs. Urbana, IL: University
of Illinois Press, 1942. 292.
[xii] Ibid. 291.
[xiii] Ibid. 299.
[xiv] Neils, Women in the Ancient, 31.
[xv] Conkey, Margaret W., and Janet D. Spector. “Archaeology and the Study of
Gender.” Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory 7 (1984): 1-38.
Jstor. Web. 28 Apr. 2013. http://www.jstor.org/stable/
[xvi] Hill, Erica. “Gender-Informed Archaeology: The Priority of Definition, the Use
of Analogy, and the Multivariate Approach.” Journal of Archaeological
Method and Theory 5.1 (1998): 99-128. JSTOR. Web. 28 Apr. 2013.
Baines, John, and Jaromir Malek. Atlas of Ancient Egypt. New York City: Facts on File, 1980. Print.
Conkey, Margaret W., and Janet D. Spector. “Archaeology and the Study of Gender.” Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory 7 (1984): 1-38. Jstor. Web. 28 Apr. 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/20170176>.
Hill, Erica. “Gender-Informed Archaeology: The Priority of Definition, the Use of Analogy, and the Multivariate Approach.” Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 5.1 (1998): 99-128. JSTOR. Web. 28 Apr. 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/20177379>.
Lattimore, Richmond. Themes in Greek and Latin Epitaphs. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1942. Print.
Neils, Jenifer. Women in the Ancient World. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011. Print.
Strouhal, Eugen. Life of the Ancient Egyptians. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992. Print.
Watterson, Barbara. Women in Ancient Egypt. New York City: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. Print.