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The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead at the British Museum

3rd March 2011

A sombre-sounding subject for a visit may be the first impression of what was a fascinating day enjoyed by 47 members of Cranleigh DFAS last Thursday, March 3rd.

This exhibition looked at the experience that the Egyptians believed the dead would undergo in order to reach Paradise in safety. The group were, effectively, taken on their journey, accompanied by an excellent tour guide, Dr John Taylor, the Curator of the exhibition, who gave a most informative lecture beforehand. Without this we should have been travelling without our map and travel documents.

The Book of the Dead was a magical text put together for the wealthy individuals in Egypt to help them on their way after death. The earliest were carved on the walls of pyramids, followed by ones written on the surfaces of coffins. They were also found on shrouds and mummy bandages, but most were written on papyrus rolls, the Egyptian form of paper made from papyrus reeds split open, the fibres then being laid side by side and put under pressure. These were first used between 1600 and 1500 BC and continued in use until the first century BC.

The exhibition was really divided into four sections: the preparations for the journey, getting the body ready for burial and the funeral itself; the actual journey on which the dead person would encounter many pitfalls; the process of making the book; one particularly fine example, Nesitanebisheru's Book of the Dead. Nesitanebisheru was the daughter of the high priest of Amun at Thebes and this book is an amazing 37 metres long.

A scene from the Book of the Dead of Hunefer c. 1280BC.

The Book of the Dead was copied out by scribes in the temples and would vary in length from one consisting of only two or three spells to the longest at 37 metres. It could be ready-made, where the name only had to be filled in, or personal, with the spells specially selected. It could be text, text and illustrations, or sometimes just illustrations. It was a team effort and the separate sections were then joined together to make a papyrus roll. Sometimes mistakes were made in the copying and so the spells may not have worked! What is astonishing, however, is how well the text and illustrations have survived for between three and four thousand years. The clarity of the writing and the colours of the illustrations, in particular red, white, green and yellow, look as fresh as they must have done all those centuries ago.

The Ancient Egyptians had a very strong belief in magic and thought that the spoken word was especially powerful, hence a spell was, first and foremost, something to be said. The written word was also powerful, and the illustrations are part of the magic. John Taylor gave an overview of the challenges and dangers that the dead person would meet and examples of spells that would help and provide protection: for not permitting a man's heart to be taken from him, for driving off a crocodile that came to steal his magic, for helping with the most difficult test of all, speaking to 42 gods in the Judgement Hall.

A successful journey for the deceased would have one of three desired ends: joining the gods in the sky, worshipping Osiris in the netherworld, or being reunited with loved ones in the Field of Reeds, a pastoral paradise resembling the Elysian fields of Greek mythology with which we are all more familiar.

This was an excellent visit and we learnt a great deal from John Taylor and the exhibits. Most memorable among them? It's difficult to choose: the gilded coffin, the texts and illustrations in such an excellent state of preservation, the fine hieratic hand and line drawings of Nesitanebisheru's Book of the Dead.

The sun shone for us as we drove back to Cranleigh as we hope it shone for these Egyptians at the end of their journey so long ago. Our thanks must go to Gwen Wright for her work in organising this trip.

Jane Cross