Cranleigh Arts Centre
West Surrey Area
Museums & Art Galleries
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
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
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.
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
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.