Death on the Nile

Journey through the afterlife: The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead
British Museum, London

Most Egyptians were dead by 35 and their need to control life after death and to see the sunrise and sunset as evidence of continual rebirth and eternal life must be understood in the context of the shortness of that temporal lifespan. These were people who needed to know that there was substantially more than half of three score years and ten on their side. Words had power to sustain them beyond the tomb and the Book of the Dead with its ‘spells’ (like so much else an at-best approximate translation) were there to give the deceased and cleansed the strength, skill, cunning and support to enable them to journey and overcome tests to reach paradise. A paradise that, incidentally, looked a lot like Egypt – just one that happened to have gods for company and eternally bounteous harvests.

The longest Book of the Dead here runs to 37 metres and was specifically made for the person it gives strength to. Others were done in advance with only the name to be added. One on display even has the name removed – we presume now that the unfortunate fellow didn’t pay and so was entombed without spell support. What much of it means, even how the spells were meant to be used, we can now only guess. Were they to be recited by the devoted living or was their presence, wrapped and encased with the mummified corpse, enough? Some spells – there are 200 of them now collected from the thousands of surviving Books of the Dead – have explanations of how they are to be cast, the majority do not. But this is a world in which the foreleg of a living calf helps to open the mouth of a corpse whose vital organs have been removed – how can we possibly understand? We must, simply. consider what we can.

This is the latest exhibition housed in the Reading Room of the Great Court at the British Museum. It is an excellent space for this kind of narrative – combining the historical knowledge that can be presented with artefacts that touch on the unknown. The hieroglyphics of Egypt in of themselves would be enough to bemuse without presenting us with papryri that have not been opened and wrapped mummies still in their coffins (lid removed). An x-ray shows us the bones of one who is otherwise held fast by bonds first tied 3,000 years ago.

Perhaps lacking a little in focus as it covers a form of after-life support that lasted for 1,500+ years the exhibition always intrigues even if it never inspires. As said above this was not reverence for god or gods as we might understand it but basic utility in sustaining life beyond its brief appearance in this world. It was necessary. There is art on the margins of the works but the words are the important focus — and even the decorated mummies were giving a perfect form for the dead. They were not being ornate to impress for the sake of it but out of desperate need to keep going.

There’s also nothing about people without rank. I’d be interested in knowing what, if anything, was expected to happen to the nameless grunts who were presumably buried unmummified and allowed to decay. That is, if we know anything at all about them.

This is the first of three exhibitions exploring this theme that the British Museum will be hosting. It is a brave and interesting subject and this first exhibition will take some beating for its ability to both reveal and explain a strange and bizarre world but also its courage in not trying to fill in the gaps with what we can’t know.

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