Sunday, 7 November 2010

Visiting the "Journey Though the Afterlife: The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead" Exhibition

During a day trip to London this week I managed to find the time to visit the new Book of the Dead exhibition at the British Museum, on the opening day. The tickets to the exhibition are timed to allow for the efficient flow of visitors, and I booked a ticket for 5.40pm. Entering the exhibition area, within the circular Reading Room in the centre of the Great Court, was rather atmospheric in itself as the shadowy moonlight flooded through the ceiling of the Great Court.

The Book of the Dead of Hunefer, illustrating the 'Opening of the Mouth' ritual. New Kingdom.
The Book of the Dead was the culmination of the ancient Egyptian tradition of creating religious texts for the deceased. These texts, made up of a series of spells, were necessary to enable the deceased to enter their afterlife, while also avoiding potential dangers along the journey. The exhibition promises that, "The Book of the Dead will help you to be in full command of your special powers so that you can avoid disaster along the way".

The earliest example of this were the Pyramid Texts; a series of religious inscriptions carved onto the walls of the royal pyramids during the Old Kingdom. This idea was transferred to the walls of coffins during the Middle Kingdom, known as the Coffin Texts. It was during the New Kingdom that the Book of the Dead, funerary texts inscribed on papyrus, mummy bandages and coffins, developed from the Coffin Texts.The papyri were sometimes placed within the coffin alongside the deceased. The majority of the Books on display date to the New Kingdom, though there are also several papyri dating to the Late Period.

The "Pyramid Texts" from the 6th Dynasty Pyramid of Teti at Saqqara
The choice of the Reading Room for the exhibition was an excellent one; the visitor ascends a flight of stairs before making their way through a cluster of rooms, 11 in total, each dedicated to a particular aspect of the burial. The visitor literally follows the ancient Egyptian journey from death to the afterlife through the maze of rooms; a journey which is made all the more real with the use of atmospheric lighting and hushed silence. The dimmed lighting is also necessary to protect the fragile photosensitive papyri from permanent damage, which is also why photography is not allowed. 

The exhibition utilises a variety of different digital media in several of the rooms, including interactive video slideshows and projected images, and relevant objects are displayed alongside the selection of Book of the Dead papyri, including shabti-figures, jewellery and amulets, which enhance the viewer's understanding of the particular concepts illustrated by the papyri, and help to place the papyri in their historical context. Many of the objects chosen for the exhibition have never been seen before by the general public, and although a small number of the objects are on loan from overseas institutions, the vast majority of the objects are from the British Museum collection.

The Book of the Dead of Ani, illustrating the 'Weighing of the Heart' ritual. New Kingdom.
Some personal highlights include the famous New Kingdom Books of the Dead of Hunefer, an overseer of the palace of Seti I, and Ani, a royal scribe. Unfortunately, we do not have a provenance for these papyri as they entered the collection via antiquities dealers during the latter half of the 19th Century, but their illustrations are still as vivid as they must have been in ancient times. At the end of the exhibition, once the visitor has completed their journey to the afterlife, they must walk along a curved pathway, which has been used very effectively to display the Greenfield Papyrus. This is the longest Book of the Dead in existence, measuring 121feet/37metres.

The exhibition catalogue has been written by Dr. John Taylor, Assistant Keeper of Ancient Egypt and the Sudan at the British Museum, who also featured in a BBC news story about the exhibition. The only advice that I would add is to make sure you have at least three available hours for your visit - it took me at least that long to complete the visit and I was forced to rush towards the end to catch my train! It was a fantastic experience to visit the exhibition on its opening day, and judging from the volume of visitors on that day alone it is clear that the exhibition will be a resounding success.

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