Egypt, c. 1280 BC
(All Images Courtesy of The British Museum)
The Book of the Dead, or more accurately the papyrus scroll, was the ancient equivalent of that "Don't leave home without it," credit card. According to John H. Taylor, curator of the ancient Egyptian funerary collection at The British Museum, "It is a kind of a combination of a spell, a talisman and a passport, with some travel insurance thrown in too." The British Museum has one of the most comprehensive collections of Book of the Dead manuscripts on papyrus in the world, and is opening a major exhibit of the scrolls on November 4, 2010. The show, Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, will include the first ever public display of the Greenfield Papyrus in its entirety. This manuscript, acquired by the museum in 1910, is the longest known book of the dead in the world, measuring 37 meters in length or just over 40 yards.
Egypt, c.1070 BC
The papyri were made for well-to-do customers between 1500BC and 100BC. They were churned out by scribes, and were probably prefabricated as fill-in-the blank forms with the dearly departed's name written in at the point of purchase. A typical book cost half a year's wages, so the scroll was commissioned well in advance of the buyer's demise. Bargain basement scrolls were made with ink of any color, as long as it was black. Those with a bit more disposable income could spring for a scroll with red highlights, while the scrolls of ancient Egypt's high rollers were produced in glorious technicolor. Images decorating the text were de rigueur, and words took a backseat to art. The miniatures adorning the scrolls are flawless, while the accompanying text is filled with misspellings and omissions, and is sometimes even placed beneath the wrong image.
Besides the Greenfield papyrus, which is done in black and red ink, also on display will be images from two of the full color scrolls in the museum's collection, the Papyri of Ani and Hunefer. These include iconic images of the trials the ancient Egyptians faced on their journey through the underworld. Many of these works will look familiar, as they are frequently reproduced in contemporary books.
One of the most famous scenes is the weighing of the heart. Here the departed is led to scales watched over by Anubis, and his heart is weighed against a feather. A wicked heart will outweigh the feather, and be eaten by the monstrous devourer, Ammit. A pure heart balances the scales perfectly, and allows the deceased to continue his journey. The optimal outcome of the journey was to reunite with one's dead ancestors in paradise. "The family unit was crucial," explains Taylor. "You cared for your dead family because they were still there, on the other side. They could communicate with you and had power over you. So people wrote letters to the dead asking things like, 'Why are you still punishing me?'" (Some things never change...)
The exhibition, Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, will continue through March 6, 2011 at the British Museum in London.