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Don't forget your Book of the Dead

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Will Gompertz | 08:56 UK time, Tuesday, 2 November 2010

I spent yesterday morning at the British Museum filming its latest exhibition for last night's BBC news.

It's called Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead; it's the most comprehensive show of its kind ever mounted and it contains a huge range of fragile papyrus manuscripts and assorted objects.

Book of the Dead

And do you know what? Those ancient Egyptians sure knew how to die.

Well, they did if they were rich. For a small fortune a flush Pharaoh could commission the scribes in the Temple to knock him up his own personal Book of the Dead (except it wasn't called that then - the name was provided by a German scholar who came up with it in the mid-19th Century).

This was a manuscript typically inscribed on papyrus that acted as a sort of passport-cum-afterlife-insurance-policy for when the Pharaoh died.

Once his brains had been drained though his nose and his body duly mummified, the recently-deceased royal was then ready for the trip of his deadtime.


The Devourer

This was a perilous journey through a netherworld infested with nasties wanting to thwart him at every turn, the Becher's Brook being a monster known as the "Devourer", a hybrid beast that smacks of a pantomime horse. It has the head of a crocodile, the forelegs of a lion and the bottom of a hippopotamus.

It was at this point that his trusty Book of the Dead came in handy. It contained a series of choice spells to help negotiate safe passage through this treacherous terrain and deliver him safely into the realm of the gods.

Most manuscripts contained around 20 spells, although there is one epic Book of the Dead in the show: a scroll that when unfurled measures 37 metres and contains over 80 separate spells making it the longest known copy of a Book of the Dead.

It's a good show with plenty of text panels and technology to bring the story alive. My only small gripe is that £12 seems a lot to charge for an exhibition that, for all but a handful of objects, is made up from the British Museum's own collection.


  • Comment number 1.

    Enjoyed your piece on the news, Will. I liked your point that the Egyptians' apparent obsession with death was really a way of expressing their love of life ... so good that they couldn't bear to let it go. All that and Margaret off the Apprentice too! Keep up the good work.


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