British Museum blog

A bit of afterlife admin?

John Taylor, British Museum

It’s now just over one month since the Book of the Dead exhibition opened to the public – the culmination of a number of years work. So it’s greatly satisfying to see it full of people at last.

We’ve always been aware that here at the British Museum we have one of the best collections of books of the dead in the world, but usually we can only display a small proportion of them. So we’ve always wanted to find an opportunity to display a larger selection of them and also explain what they are. If you look at the Egyptian galleries here you will see references to Books of the Dead, you’ll see parts of them, but we have never been able to focus so closely on them and really explain how they work.

Seeing the objects in place is really exciting. You think you can get a sense of what it will look like but when you see the installation in the space for the first time it can be a real revelation, especially as plans change so much over the course of the development.

One of the problems we faced was that there are so many stories you can tell about the books of the dead, but you can’t explain them all. Originally I had a plan that there would be two main threads to the exhibition: a narrative that would follow an Egyptian on his way from death to afterlife, and then another thread all about the history of the Book of the Dead – how it evolved over time, how it was made, and the scribes who wrote the manuscripts.

In the end we focussed on the narrative of the journey to the afterlife because we thought that would be the most accessible way of presenting the Book of the Dead. This way visitors can identify with one Egyptian and find out which spells he needed on the way as different situations arose.

One of the things we’d love to know more about is how the ancient Egyptians imagined the Book of the Dead would be used. Did they think the dead would unroll this document and read it? Or was it more just the fact of having it there in the tomb that magically conveyed the spells to you?

It’s probably more likely to be the second option because some of the spells couldn’t be read as they’re so full of nonsense! (either the scribe couldn’t read them or he was copying from a defective original).

Perhaps there was a box-ticking mentality going on here: you should have one of these in your tomb so you get it and it doesn’t really matter if it’s completely accurate or not. You’ve got it, it’s there, it’s in the tomb, and it has got the right spells on it. It’s a part of the burial kit you must have.

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Filed under: Exhibitions, Journey through the afterlife: ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead

What is a Book of the Dead?

John Taylor, British Museum

I’m the curator of the exhibition Journey through the afterlife: ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, which opens at the British Museum on 4 November 2010. The exhibition is the result of years of work behind the scenes in planning, preparation and research. It’s exciting to be able to focus on these special documents and to have the rare opportunity to display such a variety of them.

‘Book of the Dead’ is a modern term for a collection of magical spells that the Egyptians used to help them get into the afterlife. They imagined the afterlife as a kind of journey you had to make to get to paradise – but it was quite a hazardous journey so you’d need magical help along the way.

The Book of the Dead isn’t a finite text – it’s not like the Bible, it’s not a collection of doctrine or a statement of faith or anything like that – it’s a practical guide to the next world, with spells that would help you on your journey.

The ‘book’ is usually a roll of papyrus with lots and lots of spells written on it in hieroglyphic script. They usually have beautiful coloured illustrations as well. They would have been quite expensive so only wealthy, high-status people would have had them. Depending on how rich you were, you could either go along and buy a ready-made papyrus which would have blank spaces for your name to be written in, or you could spend a bit more and probably choose which spells you wanted.

Some of the spells are to make sure you can control your own body after death. The ancient Egyptians believed that a person was made up of different elements: body, spirit, name, heart, they’re all embodiments of a person, and they were afraid that these elements would disperse when you died. So there are a lot of spells to make sure you don’t lose your head or your heart, that your body doesn’t decay, as well as other spells about keeping alive by breathing air, having water to drink, having food to eat.

There are also spells about protecting yourself because the ancient Egyptians expected to be attacked on the journey to the afterlife by snakes, crocodiles, insects – an idea very much based on the threats they knew in real life only much more frightening and much more dangerous.

As well as the animals, you could be attacked by gods or demons who served the gods. In the next world there are a lot of gods who are guarding gateways that you have to get through, and if you don’t give the right answers to their questions at the gates, they can attack you because they have knives and snakes in their hands.

Without the correct spells to protect you, you could be punished in a variety of ways: you could be put on to the slaughter block, you could be decapitated, or you could be turned upside down (which meant your digestive process worked in reverse so you had to eat faeces and drink urine forever!).

The worst thing that can happen is what is called the second death. This meant you were killed and your spirit couldn’t come back and so you would have no afterlife at all.

It was a world of great fear that they believed they were going into, and the Book of the Dead provided guidance and protection on this journey.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing regularly about the aspects of the exhibition that I’m most excited about – and there’ll also be updates from some of the many people working on the exhibition behind the scenes here at the British Museum.

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