Thursday, 25 February 2016

The Afterlife of Ancient Egypt

My review of the exhibition "Death on the Nile" at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, for History Today...

Wooden model of a brewing and baking works
About 3,000 years ago, a man named Nespawershefyt, working in the temple of Amun at Karnak (in modern Luxor), commissioned a set of coffins for himself, consisting of an outer coffin and an inner coffin – the smaller of the two to be placed in the larger, much like Russian dolls – and a mummy board that would be placed on top of his embalmed and wrapped body within. He seems to have commissioned this fabulous funerary assemblage after reaching a reasonably high rank in the temple hierarchy, a point in his career when he could afford something of quality to contain his mummified corpse for eternity.

The artisans duly set off to complete their task. They crafted the mummy board from two linked pieces of sycamore fig, and the outer coffin from tamarisk and sycamore fig, joined together. When it came to the inner coffin, however, disaster struck. The plank of sidr wood that they'd chosen for the job was damaged in places, requiring pieces to be cut out, and it split during the manufacturing process, leaving the artisans to carefully fill in the various gaps with other pieces of wood. They even threw parts of an older coffin into the mix. Such irregularities were expertly hidden when the coffins were painted, the artists first applying a bright yellow base on their wooden surfaces and then adding colourful images of deities and religious texts. The job was complete, or so it seemed. Years later, Nespawershefyt decided to update his funerary inscriptions: he had received a promotion at the temple and wanted to mention his new higher-level position on his coffins. You cannot leave your CV out-of-date for eternity, so the artisans set to work once again.

To read the full review, follow the link: The Afterlife of Ancient Egypt.