Journey through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead at the British Museum

Journey through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead at the British Museum

Review by Robert J. Wallis & Tiffany Jow

Dr Robert J. Wallis is Professor of Visual Culture and Director of the MA in Art History, and Tiffany Jow is a candidate for the MA in Art History; both are at Richmond the American International University in London.

In a lecture given in 1949, the British Museum director Sir John Forsdyke advocated against the sensational exhibitions he saw the institution beginning to embrace:

“The important consideration is this: do these sensational exhibits induce people to take an interest in something better? I think not, but that on the contrary, they encourage them to hope for something worse. In the Mummy Room of the British Museum that hope is gratified by the body of a predynastic man, who crouches naked in his grave among his pots and pans. I do not think that many of the people who look at him give any thought to his historical significance.” (1)

Over 60 years later, the museum’s (free entry) “Mummy Room” remains one of its sensations for many visitors, yet the enduring theme is of voyeuristic consumption over education. The blockbuster Journey through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead exhibition, while still sensational (including a £12 entrance fee), is a rather more reverential and studious exhibition, the first of three BP-sponsored (whose controversial mark is conspicuous at the entrance) exhibitions on “life, death and the divine as both a real and spiritual journey.”

The term “Book of the Dead” was coined when many of the first of thousands of specimens to reach Renaissance Europe, centuries before Jean-Francois Champollion deciphered the hieroglyphs in 1824, were found alongside mummies in burial. This tradition gave rise to the misinterpretation that the Book of the Dead was a definitive text equivalent to the Bible. Its translation as “The Chapters of Going Forth by Day” is more accurate if more cryptic (and the British Museum exhibition does not unpack this meaning). The Western world was introduced to the Book of the Dead by Sir E. A. Wallis Budge, (Keeper of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities, 1893-1924) who purchased the iconic Papyrus of Ani (19th Dynasty, c1275 BCE) for the collection and published his translation, which did much to bring the Book of the Dead to public attention and sparked sensational, enduring interest in ancient Egyptian religion. Because of their sensitivity to light, the Book of the Dead papyri are rarely displayed. The British Museum is home to one of the most comprehensive collections of these papyri in the world, and unveils its treasures here for the first time.

One achievement of the exhibition is to clarify that the Book of the Dead is in fact not a single “book” or ancient Egyptian “Bible”, but a diverse range of papyri and the “culmination of a long tradition…of providing religious texts for the dead” (exhibition panel text). Viewers are presented, Jonathan Jones notes, with “individualized books of the dead, each one making a different choice from the corpus of spells, movingly personalized with portraits of the dead person.”(2)For the wealthy, such as Hunefer (scribe, steward and overseer of cattle in the reign of Seti I, c1294-1279 BCE), whose Book of the Dead is the best surviving of those from the period of the most elaborate papyri, the manuscript is highly illuminated and personalised to the individual with whom it was entombed. For the less affluent, the mass-production Book of the Dead of its day was available, with space to insert the particulars of the deceased towards its close.

A general perception might be that the ancient Egyptians had a finely-tuned understanding of the afterlife and coherent map of the “Duat” (netherworld), culminating in the Judgement Scene and weighing of the heart against Maat’s Feather of Truth. But the Book of the Dead in fact offers only the basic signposts, landmarks and “spells” (this term, and ‘magic’ are never explained satisfactorily in the exhibition) required to placate the denizens charged with foiling safe passage – something of a “passport to the afterlife.” (3) There were “several possible paths” including to the perfect vision of Egypt called the “Field of Reeds”, a destination hinted at perhaps by the exhibition’s rather annoying ethereal synth soundtrack and bird song (though less intrusive than the forbidding winds at the Moctezuma exhibition).

Certain passages of the Book of the Dead were left open to interpretation, with some papyri containing red text, perhaps by priests or scribes, inserted to offer interpretation. The lack of interpretative text in the exhibition, in the form of direct translations in particular, is an issue, as Jones notes: “Although Budge’s translation is now considered dated, there are clear, modern English translations of many of these spells, and surely there should be more of them on the walls.” (4) Instead, the papyri are accompanied by text explaining what is happening in the illustrations, albeit in a simple, straightforward manner. Ultimately, the British Museum offers a formal, aesthetic, didactic assessment of the Book of the Dead, overlooking the problems Egyptologists face when attempting to translate and understand the papyri. The nuances of Egyptian religion are also brushed over. The sophisticated, flexibility of polytheism is difficult to appreciate in a world dominated by monotheism and/or atheism. Such an exhibition could work harder to transform the stereotypes of cursed mummies, animal-headed (and therefore “primitive”) gods and “Stargate” portals to alien worlds.

Alongside the book of Ani, highlights include Nesitanebisheru’s Book of the Dead (better known as the Greenfield Papyrus) with which the exhibition closes, at 37 metres the longest Book of the Dead on record (displayed in a crescent shape, punctuated with occasional commentary), and never before exhibited to the public in its entirety. Also, the book of Hunefer, famed for its generous illustrations and recently conserved so that its vibrancy and freshness is remarkable. Nesitanebisheru, daughter of the High Priest of Amun at Thebes died c930 BCE, and was clearly a wealthy and powerful woman. Many of the best exhibits are associated with such high-ranking women, demonstrating the agency of women, alongside their men, in Dynastic Egypt. The object confronting viewers as they enter the exhibition (in a room themed “Crossing Boundaries”) is not a papyrus but a stunning painted cartonnage “Mummy Mask of Satdjehuty” (Thebes, 18th Dynasty, c1550-1295 BCE). She is coloured so as to be made god-like, with gilded flesh and blue hair of lapis lazuli. Nearby is the limestone “Ipay of Sah [the body transformed by mummification]”, the “chantress of Amun” (Saqqara, 18th Dynasty, c1390-1352 BCE) and these two female objects are balanced by the steatite “Shabti of Sunero”, an affecting image of a high-ranking man (indicated by his rich dress of a pleated gown, sandals, bead collar and elaborately curled wig) embraced by his ba (“spirit”) in the form of a human-headed bird, its wings enfolding him as he clutches the form to his chest.

In subsequent rooms, taking viewers on a labyrinthine journey simulating that of the dead through the netherworld, artefacts ranging from painted coffins and masks to amulets, jewellery, mummy trappings and tomb figurines, accompany the papyri. Wonderful as all of this visual and material culture is, the exhibition is dominated by the papyri. Some of these are illuminated with wonderful images of animal-headed deities, monsters and the walking dead, but the black hieroglyphs are overwhelming, and one really needs to be into hieroglyphs and papyri to get the most out of this exhibition.

One aim of the exhibition may be to “re-humanise the Egyptians.” (5) Yet still these icons and images are far-removed from Western understandings, a distance which is not crossed by the interpretative text. And the focus on the Book of the Dead inevitably reinforces the stereotype of a death-obsessed culture. The exhibition is both sensational (subdued lighting, deep shadows, ethereal music, deathly black and tomb-like ochre-coloured displays) and serious (the focus, necessarily, is on the minutiae of the papyri themselves) – a tension which should keep most visitors interested. The ambience is one of hushed reverence, despite the crowds, and this is the first time that the cathedral-like mid-nineteenth century dome of the reading room, inspired by Rome’s Pantheon, has been in some harmony the gilded splendour of the objects on display. (The match may be all the more complementary with the next exhibition, Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe, Summer 2011).

Journey through the Afterlife is educational in revising stereotypes of the Book of the Dead by offering the papyri themselves to scrutiny alongside some stunning objects, and as such offers an engaging insight into ancient Egyptian understandings of life-after-death, gender dynamics in life, and how “ritual is central to the development of language and writing.” (6) But problems of translation are brushed over and rather than rehumanising these ancient Egyptians, they are reified as alien and peculiarly death-obsessed.

(1)Sir John Forsdyke, “The Functions of a National Museum” in Museums in Modern Life (London, Royal Society of Arts: 1949): 3.
(2)Jonathan Jones, “Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead — review,” The Guardian (2 Nov)
(3)Chris Waywell, “Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead’, Time Out (11-17 Nov): 48.
(4)Jones, Ibid.
(5)Alastair Smart, “Egyptian Book of the Dead” — review, The Telegraph (8 Nov)
(6)Waywell, Ibid.

Gilded mummy mask of a person of high rank. A spell from the Book of the Dead is inscribed on the headband, 1st century BC. Copyright the Trustees of the British Museum

Journey through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead continues until 6 March.