Egypt: Egyptian Funerary Art, A Feature Tour Egypt Story

Egyptian Funerary Art

by Sylvia Smith

Photographs by the British Museum

This story was provided by EgyptAir from their Horus Magazine

The Roxie Walker Galleries of Egyptian Funerary Archaeology present the British Museums unparalleled collection of mummies, coffins, funerary statuettes, amulets and "Books of the Dead" in new installations. The displays combine in-depth exploration of beliefs and mortuary practices with an impressive series of integral burial groups spanning Egyptian history from the age of the pyramids to the Roman occupation.

Although most people are aware that belief in life after death was fundamental to ancient Egyptian religion, only a few specialists and scholars are lucky enough to have had the opportunity to understand all that the belief implies. The galleries at Londons British Museum shed fresh light on the subject, making it accessible to all and allowing new interpretations to follow from state-of-the-art analysis of mummies.

All Egyptians hoped to be identified with the god Osiris after death and believed they would dwell in his Underworld kingdom or travel with Ra the sun-god in his endless journeys across the skies. The Egyptians believed that the human being comprised both physical and spirit forms. Existence after death depended on the survival of the body as both the ka (a persons spiritual double) and the ba (which gave the deceased the power of movement) required a physical form. To ensure this survival, the corpse was artificially preserved by mummification.

Mummiform figurines called shabtis (answerers) were placed in tombs to carry out the hard agricultural labor required of their owner in the afterlife. A single burial might contain as many as 365 worker shabtis plus 36 whip-carrying overseers. The box (around 1250 BC) which was used to hold shabtis, shows the deceased, a priestess, wearing a perfume pomade and lotus flower on her heavy wig. Both she and her ba catch water poured by Nut who, with loaves of bread in her other arm, emerges from a sycamore-fig tree.

A display shows Katebet, clearly a woman of wealth and status, who died about 1300 BC. Her mask is made of gilded cartonnage. She wears ear-studs, fashionable in this period, visible through the strands of her elaborate wig. X-rays show that Katebats own hands are across her pelvic area. On the mummy are pectorals in the form of a winged goddess, a scarab, an image of Anubis and a lone shabti figurine. The wrapping of the mummy with linen bandages symbolically provided by the goddess Tayet, was a lengthy process accompanied by recitations from the "Ritual of Embalming".

The Museums Egyptian collections are unequalled in the world for their range and quality, comprising objects of all periods from virtually every site of importance in Egypt and the Sudan. The displays in the new galleries aim to trace the evolution of the Egyptians attitudes to life and death, and their expression in the preparations they made for burial. Themes include the preservation of the body, the provision of sustenance for the dead, protection and magical aid through the tomb, amulets, texts and the performance of the ritual.

Brightly painted wooden dummy Canopic Jars - 21st Dynasty

The wide range of material includes animal mummies, Canopic jars some of which have never been seen by the public. The Papyrus of royal scribe Hunefer for example, tells us that the elite provided themselves with as many defenses as possible against the perils in the afterlife. Spells for the journey to Osiris were written in the "Formulae for Going Forth by Day" (now called the "Book of the Dead"). Hunefers papyrus (about 1290 BC) shows him in the hall where he gives an account of his life and his heart is weighed against a feather representing the goddess Maat. Thoth, proclaims him innocent entitling him to enjoy eternity in the Underworld. Failure would mean the goddess Ammit devouring his heart. Such annihilation was the greatest peril faced by Egyptians after death.

Among the most visually impressive exhibits are the virtually complete burial groups of the physician Gua, of the twelfth dynasty (c.1850 BC) and the Lady Henutmehyt of the Ramesside period (c.1250 BC) both of which are shown in context for the first time. The recent rapid development of sophisticated imaging techniques and analytical studies has greatly increased the significance of Egyptian mummies as a potential source of data on the physique, life expectancy, diet, health and illnesses of the ancient population. At the root of the appeal of the mummies perhaps lies the fascination of an ancient people with whose hopes and fears we can still identify in spite of many cultural differences a people who have in a very tangible sense, triumphed over decay and oblivion.

With the collaboration of several London hospitals the Museum has been able to have mummies imaged using a CAT-scanner, a technique that has yielded hundreds of highly informative lateral images, or "slices" through the body, holding the potential for the creation of 3-D reconstructions of what lies within the wrappings. This new information is integrated throughout the new displays. The visitor can also contrast the highly sophisticated techniques and findings of modern science with the treatment of mummies in the 18th and 19th centuries, when they were often only viewed as curiosities.

The mummy case and portrait of Artemidorus is a fascinating reminder that the embalming and death ritual changed over the centuries, and also shows how new techniques can unravel some of the mysteries surrounding the deaths of wealthy Egyptians. By the time of Artemidorus (AD 100-120), Egypt was part of the Roman Empire. This portrait and mummy represent a hybrid of Egyptian and Hellenistic traditions. His coffin combines gilded Egyptian scenes of Anubis attending the mummy, the emblem of Osiris at Abydos, and Osiris waking to a new life with a conventional Greek funerary inscription "Farewell Artemidorus". The portrait of Artemidorus set into the mummy case, projects an idealized image. However a CAT-scan of his body shows he had in fact suffered a traumatic blow to his skull which may have caused his death aged 15-21.