Margaret (pling) wrote,

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Museum Day :)

We had a concentrated dose of Egyptology yesterday :) The current exhibition at the British Museum is on the Egyptian Book of the Dead, so unsurprisingly we wanted to see it. It's well worth a visit. The Book of the Dead (called "The Book of Going Forth by Day" by the ancient Egyptians) is a collection of spells designed to enable the dead person to achieve a successful afterlife, and after setting this in context the exhibition examines each category of spells in more depth. These are illustrated both using pieces of actual Books of the Dead, and using the objects referred to in the texts - so the room which talks about the proper layout of a tomb as described in the Book of the Dead is actually laid out a bit like a tomb, with a coffin & a mummy in the centre along with canopic jars and round the edges are the four magic bricks which help protect the mummy & preserve it from damage. There are also video presentations that go through some of the spells or sections highlighting parts of them - for instance with the transformative spells the presentation shows the vignette (a picture illustrating what the spell enables the deceased to transform into, such as a snake, or a lotus flower etc) and then highlights the hieroglyph in the spell title. So when you look at the papyri round the room you can pick out those for yourself. The exhibition ends with two complete papyri of the Book of the Dead - one belonging to Hunefer which is from the middle of the New Kingdom period & quite short (only 7 spells, if I remember correctly). One of the papyri we brought back from Egypt as a souvenir is a copy of the Judgement scene from this papyrus, so it was particular cool to see the real thing :) The last room of the exhibition is given over entirely to the Book of the Dead of Nesitanebisheru, which dates to the Third Intermediate Period & is 37m long. I think it's the longest complete Book that has been found. By the time this was made colour illustrations weren't fashionable, instead it has lots of black & white line drawings of the important scenes from the spells some of which are very fine indeed. However one of my few quibbles with the exhibition is that this wasn't very well labelled - so while I could pick out some of the things I remembered from the previous rooms I'm sure I missed a lot. Given we're likely to go back at least once more (if not more times) I'll probably pick up a multimedia guide next time despite my dislike of such things & see if there's more info in that.

Then we had a break for coffee & a snack (having spent 2.5hrs in the exhibition! :o ) before spending rather a lot of money in the giftshop and then going to the lecture that was the other reason we'd come into London to the museum. The lecture was given by James Allen who is the guy who wrote the book about Middle Egyptian that J is learning to read hieroglyphs from. He's a big name in Egyptology & so the British Museum had got him to come and give a talk that linked in with the Book of the Dead exhibition. The title of the talk was "Reading a Pyramid", and he told us about the Pyramid Texts which are found carved in the internal walls of the Fifth Dynasty pyramids (for context the great pyramids at Giza are all older than this, dating from the Fourth Dynasty & have no internal inscriptions). First he set it in context for us by pointing out that the Pyramid Texts were as long before the authors of Book of the Dead, as the Viking invasions in 11th Century England are before us. But the Pyramid Texts are the spiritual ancestors of the Book of the Dead, and fulfil a similar function of providing spells that will guide the deceased through a successful afterlife. He told us about the theological underpinnings of these texts - that the Egyptians saw around them two great cycles of birth/death/rebirth in the growth of plants (from seed to plant to harvested seed) and in the journey of the sun (born in the east, dies in the west to be reborn tomorrow in the east). And they explained this by the concept of the god Osiris, who presides over the underworld through which the sun travels throughout the night. They believed that in death the soul of the deceased (their Ba) would return to the mummy & then journey through the underworld (the Duat) each night to join with Osiris as the sun god Ra does, then each day it would leave the tomb to "Go Forth by Day". The internal layout of a the pyramid was designed to be a cosmos in minature with the sarcophagus (the "womb of Nut" - Nut being the sky goddess that swallowed the sun each night & gave birth to it again in the morning) at the west end of a room referred to by the Egyptians as the Duat. The Pyramid Texts not only gave the rituals that should be performed at the burial of the king, but also provided the king with incantations that would protect him from danger & help him on his journey through the Duat each night. Allen was a good speaker & did a good job of relating the subject of his talk to the exhibition we'd just looked at, which I think increased my understanding of both. I also learnt a fair bit about the Egyptian religion - in a "I hadn't thought of it like that before" sort of way :)
Tags: british museum, egypt, history, museum, talks
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