Archaeologists have long known that ancient Egyptians planted funeral gardens to honor their dead. Illustrations of these gardens are etched onto tomb walls, amidst scenes that show how the deceased wanted their funerals to be carried out. But experts have been unable to find physical evidence of the botanical burial rite until recently, when an excavation team working in Luxor unearthed a 4,000-year-old grid of plant beds.
As Laura Geggel reports for Live Science, archaeologists from the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) discovered the garden on hill in what was once the ancient city of Thebes. The find dates to about 2,000 B.C., the Period of Reunification in Egypt. It was a key turning point in ancient history; during this time, the regions of Upper and Lower Egypt were united, and Egyptian culture began to flourish. Thebes rose to prominence as the new capital of the kingdom.
The garden was located in a courtyard at the entrance of a rock-cut tomb, according to a CSIC press release. It measures about 10 feet by six-and-a-half feet, and is divided into a neat grid of smaller beds. Two beds in the center of the grid are set higher than the others, suggesting that they once held small trees.
In one corner of the garden, the team came across a remarkable sight: a tamarisk shrub that stood upright, its roots and trunk still attached. In a little bowl next to the shrub, they found the remains of dates and other fruit, which may have been placed there as a religious offering.
Researchers will need to analyze seeds found in the area before they can definitively say what other plants grew in the garden. But José Manuel Galán, a research professor at CSIC, ventured a few guesses.
"The plants grown there would have had a symbolic meaning and may have played a role in funerary rituals,” he says, according to the press release. “We know that palm, sycamore and Persea trees were associated with the deceased's power of resurrection. Similarly, plants such as the lettuce had connotations with fertility and therefore a return to life.”
The area surrounding the garden seems to have been used for burials over the course of several centuries. Archaeologists found a mud-brick chapel attached to the side of the tomb, and inside were three stelae, or tombstones. The tombstones date to about 1800 B.C., indicating that they were placed there after the construction of the tomb and garden. Two of the stelae identified the deceased; one belonged to “Renef-seneb,” another to "the soldier ('citizen') Khememi, the son of the lady of the house, Satidenu,” according to the press release.
By studying the garden, researchers may be able to gain a better understanding of the physical environment in Egypt thousands of years ago. The garden —and the symbolic significance of the greenery inside it—can also “provide information about religious beliefs and practices as well as the culture and society at the time of the Twelfth Dynasty,” Galán says. “The necropolis thus becomes, as the ancient Egyptians themselves believed, the best way to understand and embrace life.”