Our contribution to the Girton Parish News...
A Trip through History
During the Christmas holidays I took the boys to the British Museum, partly to answer a promise and partly because I enjoy walking around there myself. We decided to go and see ‘Ancient Egypt’ as one of the boys had been doing a project on the Ancient Egyptians at school. It was terrifically crowded, but we managed to shunt past the human mummies, the mummies of cats, a number of beautifully painted coffins, funerary ornaments and other grave goods.
I noticed another room which was named ‘Death and the Afterlife’, but we had seen enough of the Ancient Egyptians and were headed towards Europe Iron and Bronze Age Cultures. Browsing in this general direction we came across the Mildenhall Treasure (of the Late Roman period) and the Sutton Hoo Burial Hoard (Medieval Germanic-style).
What do these Ancient Egyptian, Romano-Briton and Anglo-Saxon artefacts have in common? Well, not much at a glance. But they do all demonstrate the ingenuity, artistry and creativity that has been a persistent feature of human nature. The craft skills apparent in the manufacture of these objects would be hard to rival today. The objects also share a desire to express beliefs held in particular cultures at particular times.
The Ancient Egyptians obviously believed in an afterlife. One of the exhibits that caught my attention were a set of tiny pottery figures which were meant to accompany the deceased on their journey through the afterlife. It was supposed that the figures magically became the servants to do the manual work for their master and maintain his / her status.
The Mildenhall Treasure (c. 4th century AD) is fashioned to reflect late-Roman dining habits and many pieces are engraved or embossed with figures from Roman mythology – the triumph of the god Bacchus over Hercules; satyrs and maenads, merry-making of the god Pan, etc. However, in some pieces there are apparent hints of the emerging faith, Christianity. It was common to keep old motifs and give them a Christian spin. Of particular interest are two silver spoons engraved with ‘Paul’ and ‘Saul’ – unmistakeably Christian.
The Sutton Hoo Burial Hoard (6th -early 7th century) is fascinating. As many of you will know, the Warrior Lord was buried in an entire ship with everything he needed for a similarly successful afterlife; the famous helmet, buckets for supplies, elaborate belt buckles, weaponry etc. The artefacts are beautiful in themselves, but have the ultimate purpose of proclaiming the belief that death is not the end. I have often reflected that because life was shorter and harder without the advantages of modern medical science, a belief in the afterlife was perhaps more readily adopted.
When Christianity arrived, it too offered the concept of an ‘afterlife’, but differed significantly from the pagan alternatives.
Christianity proclaims eternal life which embraces life lived with God in the here and now, as well as existence in the presence of God after death.
Moreover, Christianity was not concerned to appease ‘the gods’, nor were individuals thought to retain earthly status in death, as all are equal in the sight of God.
And unlike the Ancient Egyptians, the heart was not destined to be weighed on the scales of justice with the threat of eternal punishment or eternal reward. Christian believers may stand stripped of all earthly accretions before God, but do so with the full assurance of Christ’s saving work.
It is a sad fact that later Christian iconography and artistic expression depicted harrowing scenes of heaven and hell, which could be seen more as a means of social control than of conveying the truth about God.
It is fascinating that throughout human history people have reached outside of themselves to find answers to life’s Big Questions. Life after death does sound like a fairy story to some, but to others it is Good News indeed. Not many people go for full burials these days, and the practice of filling the grave with ornaments has disappeared from our culture. I wonder, what do our end-of -life rituals say of us?
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