The exhibition is full of surprising facts and fascinating stories. I hope these snippets of information will encourage you to visit in person – it really is an amazing experience! There’s also a video to whet your appetite.
The first surprise is that there is not one book, but many. Egyptians believed that death was just the first step on a protracted and perilous journey through the underworld to the ultimate destination of eternal life. On the way each individual would have to ward off a series of terrifying creatures, including vigilant baboons, an Ibis god called Thoth and the fearsome Devourer, with the jaws of a crocodile, the chest of a lion and the hind legs of a hippo, who waited to eat the hearts of sinners in the afterlife’s Hall of Judgment. Knowing what awaited them rich Egyptians paid for scribes to assemble a collections of hymns, spells and instructions to protect and guide them through safely. So, there were many different versions of “The Book of the Dead”, of which a fair few survive.
The Book of the Dead was most commonly written on a papyrus scroll and placed in the coffin or burial chamber of the deceased. Books were often prefabricated in funerary workshops, with spaces being left for the name of the deceased to be written in later. They are often the work of several different scribes and artists whose work was literally pasted together. The cost of a typical book might be equivalent to half a year’s salary of a laborer, so the purchase would be planned well in advance of the person’s death.
The British Museum has an unrivalled collection of the Book of the Dead papyri, but many of the documents have never been on public display because they are so fragile and light sensitive – seeing them now is truly a once in a lifetime experience.
The “books” were used for something like 1,500 years between around 1600BC and 100AD. In addition to the unique works on papyrus and linen, the exhibition features superbly crafted funerary figurines (shabtis), amulets, jewellery, statues and coffins, all of which illustrate the many stages of the journey from death to the afterlife, including the day of burial, protection in the tomb, judgement, and entering the hereafter.
One of the biggest wow moments in the exhibition is the display of the world’s longest Book of the Dead, the Greenfield Papyrus, which until now has never been displayed in its entirety. Until March 2011 all 37 metres are on show for the first time. It was created for the ancient Egyptian Nesitanebisheru. In the early 1900s it was cut into 96 separate sheets to make it easier to study, store and display. It is sometimes known as the Greenfield Papyrus after Edith Mary Greenfield who donated the roll to the British Museum.
The book also explains why the Egyptians were so careful to preserve the bodies of the deceased. While the dead person travelled through the netherworld as a spirit, or ba, their preserved body, or mummy, remained in the tomb. The mummy had to be kept safe so that the ba could reunite with the body in the everlasting afterlife.
There were several possible afterlives. The dead person might travel with the sun god Ra in his boat sailing though the sky each day and the netherworld each night or they might go to the Field of Reeds, a landscape like Egypt, with rivers to sail on and fields of crops to ensure the dead never went hungry.
So, this is one exhibition you won’t want to miss, as many of the items will never again see the light of day – at least not in your lifetime. To make the most of this unique experience I heartily recommend our special British Museum Exhibition Package – after a full day exploring the afterlife you’ll be ready for a wonderful afternoon tea, and a good night’s rest in one of our splendidly luxurious rooms!