British Museum embarks on journeys to the Afterlife with Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead

By Kathleen McIlvenna | 09 November 2010
a photo of an ancinet Egyptian papyrus
Depiction of the Opening of the Mouth ritual. Papyrus of Hunefer, c. 1280 BC.© Trustees of the British Museum
Exhibition: Journey Through the Afterlife, The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, British Museum, London, until March 6 2011

As we know from the vast collections of funerary artefacts which fill museums across the Globe, the Ancient Egyptians were preoccupied with death. For an Ancient Egyptian, the preparation for the journey to the Afterlife or the Western Lands was as important as life itself, and they spent huge amounts of money getting themselves ready for it.

At the British Museum the Ancient Egyptian collection of these objects is one the finest in the world. Its new exhibition, The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, explores these remarkable artefacts and reveals some of the belief systems that tell us more about them.

Opening just days after Halloween and the Mexican Day of the Dead, it felt fitting to visit an exhibition telling the story of an ancient book filled with spells and magic. For more than 1,500 years the Ancient Egyptians used variations of the Book of the Dead and its compilation of spells to guide and protect the recently deceased and ensure eternal life.

Visitors can see surviving examples of the Book of the Dead and the translations of some of the spells it contains. Along the way the fascinating relationship between the living and the dead and the journey they believed a person took from death to eternal life is revealed.

a statuette of a green Egyptian Goddess on a stand
Anhai's wooden statuette of the god Osiris, c. 1500 BC. Courtesy Trustees of the British Museum
As you might expect, there are some stunning objects from the British Museum’s unrivalled collection; Mummies, coffins, amulets, striking statues of gods and protective entities, as well as exquisite extracts from different versions of the Book. 

The detailed illustrations on these delicate papyrus scrolls are beautiful, and the differences in style and presentation for different people and times is enthralling. Some are in hieroglyphics; some are in the hieratic script, which was used for everyday writing revealing how some of these texts were probably for the less wealthy classes.

Interestingly, in some of the texts the name of the deceased was obviously added in later. Evidently books would have been produced and then sold on, and not always specifically commissioned for an individual’s burial. Death was a profitable business in Ancient Egypt.

The range of books also reveals how texts were changed and adapted over time. Different spells to protect against the various Gods and Monsters of the Afterlife were chosen for each departed person’s journey through a magical land populated with gods, monsters and the dead.

The exhibition finishes with a section examining how the Book of the Dead was made and how establishments like the British Museum preserve them.  It also highlights the importance of these scripts in giving insight and meaning into life and death in Ancient Egypt.

This exhibition is a must for any Ancient Egypt enthusiast, with more Mummy related artefacts than you could shake a serpent staff at. It explores a lot more than the title suggests and offers a detailed yet broad overview of Ancient Egyptian ritual and belief. Gods really do come alive and the stunning objects and imagery manages to translate the hope and optimism they had for life after death. 

The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead is the first in a three-part series of temporary exhibitions exploring beliefs about life and death. I look forward to the next one focusing on Medieval Europe.
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