Review: Ancient Egyptian Book Of The Dead @ British Museum

Rachel Holdsworth
By Rachel Holdsworth Last edited 94 months ago
Review: Ancient Egyptian Book Of The Dead @ British Museum

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King Herihor and Queen Nodjmet adore Osiris. Papyrus of Nodjmet, c.1050 BC. Copyright the Trustees of the British Museum
The BM lives up to its reputation as 'that place with the mummies' with its new exhibition looking at Ancient Egyptian death rituals and their beliefs about the afterlife, centred around Books of the Dead that were placed in tombs. They're not something that receives much attention in the bunfight to stare at embalmed bodies, but the Books were considered vital to the spirit in their journey through the Underworld: less a set text and more a personalised collection of spells to arm the spirit with knowledge and power against the evils they might encounter.

This is a rare chance to see so many of these fragile documents together, but once the awe of 'it's 3,000 years old but looks like it was done yesterday' passes, some of the exhibition wears a little thin. Unlike last year's Moctezuma exhibit, there is no narrative arc to carry you through and we can't help feeling there was an opportunity missed; the Underworld of the Egyptians was a perilous place where all kinds of dangers could befall the spirit, but the static displays make it feel like an amble round a library. An interesting and pleasant amble, but still.

That said, there are a few mummies and exquisitely decorated coffins to pore over, and make sure you spot the Ancient Egyptian equivalent of Punch - a 'satirical cartoon' of animals playing a boardgame and cats herding goats. We were also highly diverted by the room dedicated to repelling danger in the Underworld, especially the spell which would help the spirit to avoid having to eat its own poo. This made us wonder how many other fascinating insights are contained within the texts, but for all the writing on show there aren't many translations. It's also worth a reminder that the British Museum's major exhibitions are the only way to see the beautiful Reading Room these days.

Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead at the British Museum runs until 6th March 2011, tickets £12 / members children under 16 and accompanied by a paying adult are free. For more information visit the British Museum website.

Last Updated 04 November 2010