Blue Faience Bowls and Social Practice: New light on their use and function

By Dr Martin Bommas

Despite often being displayed prominently in exhibitions on ancient Egyptian minor art, blue faience bowls are among the most famed but also least studied.1 The attention paid to these outstanding artefacts, often inspired by the modern viewers' taste for beauty has unfortunately not translated into an equally intensive scholarly interest in the use, form and function of blue faience bowls in Egypt.2 Apart from later developments in Greco-Roman times, blue faience bowls are of hemispherical shape and show shiny greenish-blue surfaces. Often they have black figurative paintings and in some rare cases inscriptions (fig. 1 © IAA University of Birmingham) while the oldest blue faience bowls often come with rims painted in black (fig. 2). Although for these vessels a number of terms circulate, in most cases based on creativity rather than facts,3 until today the various functions of these bowls both in private and royal contexts (fig. 1) is hardly fully understood. Nevertheless, there seems to be a general agreement on two rather different uses of blue faience bowls at least: first, blue faience bowls were widely used in the cult of Hathor4, secondly they made up part of tomb equipments of wealthy dead individuals from the Middle Kingdom onwards.5 This article aims at broadening the debate and offers some hints on two more uses of blue faience bowls within funerary culture. As will be seen, for both these new categories research into the communication with an addressee who remains passive plays a vital role. With the help of  ancient Egyptian texts, the use of blue faience bowls can be assessed in a new way.


Interaction through offering rituals

Funerary rites in ancient Egypt have been the subject of intensive research, especially over the last 20 years with a rediscovery ofthe role of accompanying recitation literature being among the major achievements.6 In addition to rituals within fixed locations in bounded sacred space – such as the Ritual of Opening the Mouth which took place in the open forecourts of tombs - other less stationary rituals underline the more dynamic aspects of ritualistic actions, thus pointing at what can be referred to as rite de passage - such as the so-called Voyage to Sais. In addition to that, a third category includes a series of ritualistic actions that were performed at various stages of the funerary rite – such as the offering ritual which was not limited to one location. Offering rites in front of the dead body lying on its bier included the most developed recitations which aimed at addressing the deceased as Osiris and preparing him to accept offerings for his well being in the netherworld. Here, communication with a mostly passive deceased played a crucial role in enforcing his change of status. There can be no doubt that addressing the dead individual as Osiris NN had to be both formalised and individualised in order to achieve the recipient‘s attention. Thousands of these glorifications (or Verklärungen in German) are attested in both the mummification ritual and offering rites. Their aim is to negotiate the deceased‘s netherworldy status in relation to his mythical antecedant Osiris in whose footsteps every dead individual was supposed to follow. Although the majority of the ritualistic actions that led to a successful burial have been investigated in detail, the concluding rites which include the actual interment have not been fully understood.7 Although the evidence is rather patchy for a number of reasons, it seems obvious that the final burial was accompanied by further rituals. Which rituals were performed in detail had in fact to do with the type of architecture chosen to embrace an individual’s final resting place: a very elaborate tomb architecture which mushroomed in Thebes for a very short time during the Ramesside Period favoured a sloping passage decending into the burial chamber8 which would not only allow for comfortably pulling down the deceased’s coffin to its final destination: also the closest relatives would be in the position to see the dead individual to his burial chamber before its door would close forever. In the tomb of Djehutimes (TT 32), the sloping passage turns 360 degrees through a single turn before descending 30 metres and arriving at the burial chamber, allowing Djehutimes' relatives to say farewell exactly where he was buried.

3-OstraconThe other variant which is more commonly attested since the Old Kingdom included a tomb shaft through which the sarcophagi slid into the tomb chamber only secured by long ropes. Steps hewn out at two sides of the shaft allowed those involved to easily climb up or down, as illustrated by an ostracon today kept in the Manchester University Museum (fig. 3). Texts with standard protection songs that accompanied the lowering of the sarcophagus where recited by lector priests from papyrus rolls; one of the books known has the title ‚‘The protection of the gods sorrounds (me)‘.9 Where shaft tombs were involved, only a small number of relatives were invited to attend the final ceremonies as is clearly narrated by the ostracon from Manchester. Regardless of which tomb architecture was preferred, the contents of the final burial rites must have been the same, due to  the agreed set of ritualist actions. What is certain, however, is that during these final rites objects were laid out before the entrance into the burial chamber and recitations took place, thus marking the tomb as an interface for the dead between this world and the beyond. This procedure was probably the quitest part of the funeral with no wailing women and villagers around to produce the noise that was needed during the procession to ward off Seth, the dead individual’s mythical enemy. Because the actual interment of the deceased did not form part of the funeral processions, the intimacy of this ritual was hardly ever focussed on: tomb depictions never display these actions because they were considered private.

Lamentations as farewell address

In-depth research has recently shown that the final rites at the entrance of shaft tombs must have been accompanied by a number of rituals carried out in the open. These rites included the deposit of vessels10 that contained food offerings11 as a token of a final farewell before the tomb shaft was closed forever. It is here that the so-called lamentations of Isis and Nephthys have their Sitz im Leben (place in life). Lamentations form a group of texts in their own right and are only peripherally linked with glorifications. They have mainly been studied without taking the archaeological evidence into account, or in other words: scholars who studied the archaeological remains have not made the link with the accompanying texts and those studying the texts did not show an interest in manual rites. That the two belong together, and both physical enactment and recital are in fact intrinsically tied together is made clear by the closing passage from Papyrus Berlin 3008 from the Ptolemaic Period. Here, a manual gives detailed instructions how the lamentations were to be performed:

Now when reciting this, the place should be totally secluded, without it being witnessed or heard by any eyes except for the chief lector priest and the sem–priest.

Then one should bring two women with comely forms. Cause them to sit upon the ground in the first portal of the hall of appearance. Inscribe their arms with the names of Isis and Nephthys. Place vessels of faience filled with water in their right hands, and cakes made in White Walls (i.e. Memphis, author’s note) in their left hands. Cause their faces to be lowered. To be done at the third hour in the day, likewise at the eighth hour of the day. You should not weary of reciting this book at the hour of festival.

It has come to an end.12

This passage is one of the few occasions where manual rites are mentioned within lamentations. Moreover it presents its modern readers with the context in which the lamentations were recited. Nevertheless, these instructions were never studied with regard to the actual context of performance13 which – as the text itself points out – is the receipt of offerings.

The use of faience bowls during the final offering ritual

4-ECM586As it further appears from this passage, faience bowls – and one should probably assume that blue faience bowls are meant here14 – play an important role in the final stages of the burial rite, presented by two women playing the divine roles of Isis and Nephthys as illustrated on the ostracon from Manchester (fig. 3). How exactly these faience bowls had to look is impossible to determine today: various different forms are attested in Ptolemaic times15, among them drinking cups16 but also flat bowls which became wide spread in Roman Times (fig. 4)17. It is important to note that this scene does not include the wailing with which Isis and Nephthys are often linked (fig. 5)18. While wailing involves one hand being raised19, Papyrus Berlin 3008 leaves no doubt that here, both goddesses are shown offering bread and water and are, therefore, not mourning. With the beginning of the final offering rite employing blue faience bowls, mourning has come to an end.

5-ECM658Blue faience bowls were obviously not mere containers for food or water that were offered silently. Recitations that made part of deposit rites are well attested from within the cult of Hathor where faience bowls were the most common type of vessels found, usually carrying a simple lotus pattern20: Stelae erected by turquoise mining expeditions at Serabit el-Khadim during the MK preserve prayers to the goddess Hathor to protect the group.21 Although no reference seems to be made to the use of blue faience bowls, water presented in drinking cups often fulfilled the function of an intermediary between the living and the world beyond.22 Contact with the sacred was usually made through the use of water, the drinking of which would allow a text or a spoken prayer to be consumed by a god or a dead individual in his capacity of a glorified spirit. The greenish-blue colour as well as nilotic motifs often depicted on the insides of these bowls suggests ideas of rejuvenation and the abundance of funerary provisions.23

It becomes evident from Papyrus Berlin 3008 that in addition to the use of blue faience bowls within the cult of Hathor and as part of funerary equipments, a communicative use of bowls is attested in a context where immediate and also intimate connection was made with a dead loved one at the end of the burial rite. Which songs were sung is laid out in detail by the lamentations of Isis and Nephthys, but the contents of drinking cups were presented non-verbally: verbal communication rested exclusively on the texts as mythical interpretation of the manual offering rite and needed no further recitations.

Faience bowls used on Rememberance Day

From here, it is only a short leap to a fourth category of use for blue faience bowls: during the funerary festivals when the living met with the dead in their tomb forecourts for festive eating and drinking24, drinking cups and lotus chalices25 were widely used in a context where re-enforcing the dead individual‘s rejuvenation was on the agenda. This approach, attested since the Old Kingdom,26 focused on the re-establishment of close links between the worlds of the living and the dead within sacred space. Shaping identity with the help of religious festivals is one of the key aspects in creating communitas, to use a term coined by Victor Turner27: festivals are, among others functions, platforms for remembering the dead and therefore to be regarded as the locus classicus in forming cultural memory.28

In Egypt, cultural identity was shaped by remembering the dead. Although fragmented, shrine 11 at Gebel es-Silsilah has a depiction of such a festival scene: in front of the deceased and his wife an offering table is mounted. One man and two scantily clad girls are playing music and dance while three other men are sat on the ground and clap their hands. The text they perform is in fact a sacred song, deeply rooted in Personal Religion:29 ‘Your lord is Amun/ good father/ lord of the entire land/ You are a protector and we are afraid of no-one/ Sweet father, lord of the entire land (...).‘ The scene is observed by four men sitting on stools, holding lotus flowers in their right hands. Without any doubt, this is the context in which the wishes for a dead individual’s rejuvenation are renewed. It is here where good times are celebrated, the living communicate with the dead and rejuvenating water is drunk from blue faience bowls that are covered with lotus flowers. But it is also the context in which personal religious beliefs were practised, since the wider context in which contact with dead relatives was made possible was the ‘Beautiful Festival of the Valley‘. Here, the Theban god Amun visited the tombs and temples of deceased gods, kings and private people to reinforce relations with all those who inhabited the tripartite world consisting of sky, earth and necropolis.30 It seems that in such festive practices blue faience bowls served the needs of all those who fell into one (or two) of these categories, enabling the communication between the living and the dead.


  1. E.g. Dunn Friedman 1998; Cubet and Pierret-Bonnefois 2005.
  2. One of the early publications is Krönig 1934. To date, the only monographic approach to this topic is Strauss 1974. Prompted from a master’s thesis, it is probably fair to say that this publication hampered the research on blue faience bowls rather than furthering it.
  3. Strauss 1974 calls these bowls “Nunschalen” (linking the vessels with Nun, the Egyptian term for primeval waters); Pinch 1994: 312-313 uses the term “marsh bowls” referring to the ‘life-giving properties of the inundation’.
  4. See Pinch 1993.
  5. During the Middle Kingdom, blue faience bowls increasingly formed part of funerary equipments such as in Beni Hassan (Garstang 1907: 142, fig. 140) or Hu (Nicholson 1993: 25 and 27, fig. 17). A shallow bowl, probably coming from el-Matariya and dating to Dyn. 12-13, contained model fruits and vegetables, see Dunn Friedman 1998:151 and 239.
  6. Assmann 2002-2008.
  7. The most recent article on this topic does not discuss the rites following on from the Ritual of Opening the Mouth, i.e. the offering ritual, interment of the body and concluding rituals (Hayes 2010: 8).
  8. Assmann 2003: 50-51.
  9. Altenmüller 1975: 762.
  10. Seiler 2005: 40-52 differentiates between ‘Beigabenkeramik’ as deposited as part of the funerary equipment and ‘Kultkeramik’ which was used in publicly accessible spaces at the entrances of tombs.
  11. Winlock 1923: 38. 
  12. Trans. Smith 2009: 133-134.
  13. Recent studies include Lichtheim 1980: 120; Smith 2009: 133-134; Kucharek 2010: 94-96.
  14. On individual colours of faience see Kaczmarczyk and Hedges 1983: 140-184.
  15. See for an overview of shapes the catalogue of faience vessels in the Greco-Roman Museum in Alexandria, Nenna and Seif-el Din 2000.
  16. Nenna and Seif-el Din 2000: Pl. 1-5.
  17. Nenna and Seif-el Din 2000: 311-318.
  18. See Millward’s article in this collection.
  19. See ECM148 in the contribution by E. Millward to this project.
  20. Pinch 1993: 308.
  21. Pinch 1992: 349.
  22. Clear evidence is presented by drinking cups that were inscribed with letters to the dead and deposited in tombs, see Bommas 1993.
  23. A blue faience bowl with a greenish colour and a black rim from the Louvre (Ae E 10909, Cubet and Pierret-Bonnefois 2005: 40) dating to the Late Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period shows among floral patterns fish and birds flapping in the marshes.
  24. Bommas 2010: 170-172. For the reference to the cult of Hathor see Schott 1952: 77-78.
  25. See Schott 1952: 77 for a similar cup depicted in Tomb TT 181.
  26. Seiler 2005: 180.
  27. Turner 2008: 94-130.
  28. Assmann 1991: 15; Beck and Wiemer 2009.
  29. For a song attested in shrine 11 at Gebel es-Silsileh see recently Luiselli 2011: 327-328 (with older literature).
  30. Bommas 2005.


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