Archaeology is essential to our attempts to understand ancient temples and the religion that once animated them. Because temples were often built with beautiful stone and fine columns of red granite from Aswan, most have been dismantled and the building materials recycled. Mud-bricks which formed enclosure walls, or were used to finish a building quickly are still being reused as fertilizer for fields. The remaining decorative elements, the reliefs and statues, have usually been removed to Museums.
Skillful archaeological work is required to trace the remains of ancient walls and to recreate the floor plans of these buildings. Careful reading of clues about the placement of statues and basins and offering tables, combined with expertise on computers now allows virtual reconstructions of temples where very little remains on the ground.
Very few images of the gods have survived from the oldest temples, but remains of the artifacts used by the ritual practitioners are sometimes found in specific rooms of the temples by archaeologists. These artifacts can help us to understand the kinds of activities performed in various parts of the temples.
Ancient Egyptian temples were not places of worship, nor places of instruction for the faithful. A temple was the house of a god or goddess. Admittance was restricted. Ordinary people had no direct access to the great gods. Those who could enter were people who knew how to perform the cult of the deity.
Some would actually wash and dress the sacred statue; others might read or recite prayers. Still others performed tasks more like watchmen, walking around the building, checking to see that everything was in good order, doors sealed, and storehouses full.
Though there are specialized titles for each job, the general ancient Egyptian term for such people was hem netjer. One translation for this would be 'servant of god.' Though these people are often called priests or priestesses, the phrase ritual practitioner is more accurate.
A ritual practitioner does not need to be particularly holy, wise or learned; he or she needs only to know certain actions or prayers. The major requirement was ritual purity, which meant complete physical cleanliness, and abstention from certain foods and actions.